WASHINGTON, D.C. — Steven Millies, a scholar who explores the Catholic Church’s relationship to politics, feels more optimistic today than he has in a long time about young people in this country voting in a national election.
The reason for his optimism? The young people who continue to protest the May 25 death of George Floyd, an African American, at the hands of white police officers, and demand racial justice. Millies predicts this activism will motivate young people to go to the polls Nov. 3.
“I’m frankly more encouraged than I have been in a long time by what we’ve seen on the streets in the last six weeks or so, because it’s a lot of different kinds of people who have taken to the streets since George Floyd,” said Millies, an associate professor of public theology and director of The Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union.
The United States has the lowest voter turnout of youth in the world.
For most national elections in the United States, youth have been underrepresented at the polls ever since 18-year-olds were given the right to vote in 1972, according to an academic paper, “Technology and Politics: Incentives for Youth Participation,” by Shanto Iyengar and Simon Jackman of Stanford University.
In 1976, one of the first elections in which 18-year-olds were able to vote, 18- to 24-year-olds made up 18% of all eligible voters in America, but only 13 percent actually voted — an under-representation of one-third, according to Iyengar and Jackman. In the next election in 1978, youth were underrepresented by 50 percent. In the 1996 presidential election, the number of young voters was 20 percent. In 1998, out of the 13 percent eligible youth voters in America, only 5 percent voted.
According to Tobi Walker in National Civic Review, the 2004 election was considered a “banner year in the history of youth voting” up to that point, with 47 percent of American young people casting their ballots. Then came the 2008 U.S. presidential election: Compared to four years earlier, the number of youth voters tripled and even quadrupled in some states.
In the 2016 elections, according to U.S. census data, nearly 36 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds reported voting, a 16 percent leap from the turnout in the 2014 midyear elections.
So why should anybody vote anyway? The Catholic Church sees voting as a moral obligation. The U.S. Catholic bishops’ quadrennial document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” provides guidance to Catholic voters during a presidential election year and advises people they should be guided by their conscience rather than party affiliation.
“You have to deal with this (voting) in the crucible of your conscience and figure out what’s the right thing. And the Catholic standing next to you might see it very differently. And that is actually a good picture of what the length and breadth of the tradition tells us,” said Millies in an interview with Catholic News Service.
“I think ‘Faithful Citizenship’ is a good first step because it really sets forth the idea that we all have to weigh these things in good conscience sincerely according to what the faith tells us.”
Millies added, “It’s not a formation for voting, it’s a formation for Christian life, for the world.”
Asked whether there is such a thing as a Catholic vote, he debunked the notion, referencing a study done by Pew a year ago. The study broke down data on Catholics from different parties on various issues.
“Statistically, they’re identical and so our real preferences are cooked by our lived experience in the world and the same kinds of divisions that plague us in political life plague us in church life because we live in the world,” said Millies, who also is the author of the book Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters’ Road from Roe to Trump, which looks at voting patterns of Catholics over the past 50 years.
Jo Renee Formicola, professor of political science at Seton Hall University, said: “We’re all human beings and we all weigh things in different ways. We all have a conscience that’s informed in a different way.”
“Faithful Citizenship” says it’s important for Catholics “to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest.”
Formicola urged avoiding politician’s rhetoric, which she said is a tool they all use to develop their brand but is a simplistic way to decide how to vote.
“They (politicians) try to show why it is they’re totally unique; why they’re the only ones who can solve a particular problem or a particular issue. And so, a lot of them do it rhetorically. They try to do it with simple words in a simple way,” Formicola told CNS.
“But politics is very nuanced. You know, no issue is simply binary,” she said, using as an example the current debate over policing in the country.
“That’s not a binary decision where we completely defund all police and get rid of police departments. Or that we completely and totally support everything that the police do and their unions. This is a very nuanced question, which we may have to come to the center and say well, it’s not one or the other. It might be something in between, like reform,” she said.
To consider the complexity of political issues and confidently vote, Formicola suggested further educating oneself. “The choice is always yours. But the choice really has to be an informed choice, one in which you understand the legal implications of what you’re doing and then the other one in which you have to understand the moral implications of what you’re doing,” she said.
Formicola criticized the media, stating that headlines are “not as critical as knowing where these people stand on issues that are really going to impact you and your family and the society in which you live.”
“I think I would always argue for ‘Go out. Learn what’s going on, talk to different people.’ Don’t live in an echo chamber. Don’t get on social media and just talk to the same kind of people over and over and over and over. You have to expand your mind and know what’s going on,” said Formicola.
She said she urges her students to consider their Catholicism, the same thing she said the bishops have asked. “I think every individual has an obligation to express their values. And if your values are Catholic values, you should not discount them or treat them as anything less important.”
“And that’s one of the things that I teach when I teach Catholics in the political process. I try to just make students aware of the fact that Catholics do have a role to play,” she said. “They have a specific value system. And if they want to advance that value system, then they have to do it through the political process.”
Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service who is executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby Network, echoed that view, saying, “Voting is the way we express our values. It’s how we hire the people who lead our country, and it’s an integral part of Catholic social teaching.”
“The most important concrete step I think we can take would be to destroy the notion that being Catholic out in a world where people disagree with us … (is being) naive,” said Millies, reiterating that Catholic youth should not only vote, but do it holding onto their faith.