As we write, the United States has just entered into the final 100 days before the 2020 presidential election. That voters will also have the opportunity on Nov. 3 to vote for 35 U.S. senators, all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, 13 state and territorial governors, state and local offices too numerous to count, and many initiatives, referenda and tax levies should go without saying, but sadly no longer does.
In every general election year for the past six decades, the focus has been on what we commonly call the “top of the ticket.” That’s certainly true this year. Every four years since at least the “hanging chad” debacle of 2000, when the result of the presidential election was decided not by the Electoral College nor, as the Constitution provides, by the House of Representatives (in case no candidate wins a clear majority in the Electoral College) but by the U.S. Supreme Court, presidential races have become more and more divisive. The presidential election in 2016 was not so much an aberration from the previous four (or even six) presidential elections as it was the culmination of a poisonous partisanship that has been festering for many years.
To say that the situation is unlikely to change in 2020 may be the understatement of the year. On top of the partisan divisions that have dominated many people’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests (peaceful and otherwise) in the wake of the death of George Floyd, both of these events have created circumstances in which voting safely in-person on Election Day will be challenging. Absentee and other forms of mail-in voting, encouraged by both major parties in 2016 and a reasonable response to conditions in which in-person voting may be limited or restricted for public safety, are being politically weaponized as well.
As Catholics, we are called to be both responsible citizens and faithful ones, bringing the truth of Christ into the public square. In a democracy, one of the ways that we do that is by voting — but the actual act of voting is a very small part of what being a faithful citizen entails. And voting for one particular office — even if it is the one we view as the “top of the ticket” — is a very small part of voting.
Being a faithful citizen means, first and foremost, being involved in the political life of our communities. Just as our responsibility to our family is greater than our responsibility to anyone else’s, our duty as citizens begins with the community in which we live and expands outward from there. And yet local and state elections have consistently lower turnout than congressional ones, which have lower turnout than presidential races — even when all those votes are cast on the very same ballot. That’s not surprising, in large part because it’s far easier to learn about the presidential race than it is to learn about a congressional race or a governor’s race, let alone a mayor’s race or a city council election.
But that’s the point: Faithful citizenship isn’t easy. Not only must we actively seek out the information we need to learn about races other than the one for the presidency, we must, as Catholics, place the Church’s moral and social teachings above our commitment to any particular political party. We must judge candidates, from a local sheriff, judge or council member to a governor, congressman or president, not by the shorthand of party identification but by how closely the positions he or she champions reflect the truths that the Church teaches about our duties to our fellow man and society at large.
The more polarized the election, the more likely it is that we will revert to partisanship, which means, in our current political climate where neither major party reflects the Church’s teaching in its fullness, to fail (in the words of Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble) “to fight for the fullness of the Gospel and the truth of human dignity from the womb to the tomb and everywhere in between.”
There’s a better alternative: Turn off the national talk shows, which aren’t concerned with truth but with partisanship and hence sow division. Study the Church’s moral and social teaching. Read your local paper and watch your local news, and learn about your local elections. Use those to come to a better understanding of what it means to be a faithful citizen. And then apply that knowledge to races at every level, even the “top of the ticket.”
Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board: Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott P. Richert, Scott Warden, York Young