It is now officially 2020. Political junkies rejoice!
For the rest of us, the heightened level of negativity and emotion that elections bring typically means many of us won’t be too eager to engage with others on anything that can become an opportunity for debate. For Catholics, the notion that this election year could be an opportunity for evangelization is likely far from our minds.
It is both possible and absolutely necessary to share our faith during the election season! In order to do so, we have to keep two things in mind: We should set wholesome goals, and our Christian faith must inform our political conversations and discussions. This year could be a prime spot for evangelization, provided we put faith first.
At the outset, there is an important distinction to make between “faith in politics” and “politics as religion.” Faith is primarily about the love of Christ who became man, suffered and died on the cross, and rose from the dead–all to redeem mankind. Faith reveals the deep suffering of others. Through faith, God calls us to holiness. Applying our faith in politics serves to purify politics and to help orient it to eternal truths, the natural law, and the common good.
But there is a corruption of faith that occurs when faith and politics are mixed in an unhealthy way. It is here that we begin to see “politics as religion.” When politics shape our religious views (essentially becoming our religion), this often becomes antithetical to Christianity in almost every way. Politicians use fear to manipulate voters and cultivate power; Jesus teaches us to “be not afraid” and to be servants of all. Politicians want us to focus on next year or the next four years; Jesus teaches us to stay focused on the kingdom that is eternal. Politicians stoke our wants and use them against us; Jesus teaches us to give, to turn the other cheek, and to lay down one’s life for others.
When the faith is even slightly corrupted by its connection to politics, ideas like “common good” and “love” often become foreign to our political discussion, replaced with tribalism and selfishness. Even worse, these terms can be used in ways that are the opposite of what they mean. This is an impoverishment of both faith and politics. Whatever else you take away from this post, we must reject “politics as religion.” Politics as religion is abrasive and unhelpful for purposes of evangelization.
Some will argue that faith and politics do not mix, or that faith is a private matter that should not be expressed in any tangible way, especially not in matters that could impact other people’s lives. A common misunderstanding of the principle of “separation of church and state” is that faith and politics are mutually exclusive. Some might argue that faith and politics are separate spheres of thinking and being in the world; they at most coincide, but must never relate to one another in a meaningful way. This would impoverish both faith and politics. As Pope Francis writes, “No one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society.”
Pope Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium that faith creates a “deep desire” to create a more just world, where more people can be happy in the fullest meaning of the term. He writes, “Accepting the first proclamation, which invites us to receive God’s love and to love him in return with the very love which is his gift, brings forth in our lives and actions a primary and fundamental response: to desire, seek and protect the good of others.” To be active in politics is a response to this calling of our faith.
Pope Benedict was very careful to distinguish between the sort of “Church as state” model that was prevalent through many centuries of the Church’s history and the “Church with state” model that he advocated. It is not the Church’s place to “take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State,” he wrote in Deus Caritas Est. But at the same time, “she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper.”
Christians are not likely to find it easy to be an active participant in the political process. Priorities can shift easily and almost imperceptibly. On one hand, Christians have an innate desire, born from faith, to create outcomes that reflect their beliefs. They might, for example, work diligently to elect candidates that would do a better job creating the conditions for justice than other candidates, and certainly fellow Christians can disagree on the political choices that are best in a given situation.
On the other hand, a singular focus on electing a particular candidate for office can easily lead to the defense of policy positions that are not conducive or are contrary to justice. It is highly unlikely that a candidate for office will perfectly support laws and policies that reflect Catholic Social Teaching. Some of their positions may be in direct contradiction with it. When your preferred candidate’s immoral policy positions are under attack by political opponents, what should you do? Should you defend your candidate in order to help them get elected, or agree with the detractors and risk harming your candidate’s chances of winning the election? Is it possible to present a more nuanced argument?
It is important again to recall the teachings of Francis and Benedict above. As Christians, our desire must be to help create the conditions for a more just state, to help others find peace and be happy. Very rarely, if ever, do voters have a “perfect candidate” to vote for, and decisions have to be made with imperfect knowledge about the future. A vote made with reasoned judgment for a candidate one believes will better serve the common good can hardly be condemned.
Remember, when we vote or advocate for a candidate, we are not making a decision in a vacuum. Our decisions reflect who we are and what we stand for, which in itself speaks to others. Do we exude love by our advocacy? Or have we turned politics into a religion and perverted the faith? Given how meaningless a single vote is in the grand scheme, building up our families and local communities through our words and actions ultimately has more impact on the common good. When the choice is between presenting a positive case for a candidate or showing that the faith is coherent and inherently rooted in the love of Christ, we must choose the latter.
In some cases, especially when all the candidates for an office support grave evil, the Christian may be obligated to support none of them and to vote for none of them. This, of course, does not mean apathy or impassiveness. One might also argue that if one quietly goes about one’s business, says nothing, and makes a vote for the “better but imperfect candidate” in the privacy of the voting booth, then one has effectively accomplished what the faith demands. But this too would be insufficient.
As Pope Francis wrote, “the task of evangelization implies and demands the integral promotion of each human being.” Regardless of what we do or refuse to do, we cannot give the impression to others that our Christian faith has nothing to say about the poor, the unborn, the sick, migrants and many others who are suffering. Christians cannot stand by in the face of profound injustice. Pope Francis writes, “All Christians, their pastors included, are called to show concern for the building of a better world. This is essential, for the Church’s social thought is primarily positive: it offers proposals, it works for change and in this sense it constantly points to the hope born of the loving heart of Jesus Christ.”
Evangelization in the modern era requires that we advance the full dignity of each human being to the extent that we are able, making no exceptions based upon our political preferences. A single vote might be meaningless but our untiring defense of the defenseless can speak volumes about what the faith stands for and the love that faith makes possible in each of us. “Politics” is much, much larger than a single vote or candidate, and a little Christian creativity can go a long way in finding other paths to a more just state, besides the ones that lead through the polls.
What is a good goal for this election year? If it is only to elect a certain candidate, not only might we be disappointed, but we might end up presenting an image of Christianity that is far from the love of Christ. If we commit ourselves to the goal of evangelization, however, our political advocacy will take on a different flavor. Perhaps it won’t be as direct or as confrontational, perhaps we will be “bad” at politics, but it is much more likely in the end to produce better results, as we help to bring others to Christ through our example. That is why, far from avoiding the admixture of faith and politics, we would do well to let our faith inform all our political views, and influence our discussions and debates. Believe it or not, politics–even 2020 in the United States–is a unique opportunity to demonstrate selfless Christian love.