We Catholics have probably gotten bored with how many times we’ve all heard about an unhealthy separation of faith and politics. We see it every time a Christian says they are personally opposed to abortion, but think it should be legal. We also see it when Christians vote for whatever is in their economic interest, without remembering care for the poor.
We see it when Christians only demand that their leader follow the Constitution, rather than looking for the common good of all.
I think, however, there’s an equal-and-opposite danger of an unhealthy identification of faith with politics. We shouldn’t condemn others just because their political judgement, based on the virtue of prudence, results in a different result than ours.
On Twitter I’ve seen visceral attacks on people’s Catholicism over points which, in all honesty, can be reduced to purely political judgement.
For example, when I pointed out that neither candidate was an example of morality in their personal life, I was asked why a priest would dare to talk about the personal immorality of a pro-life politician. I’ve seen people on both sides claim the other isn’t following Catholic teaching regarding helping the poor, when how this is done is a matter of prudence.
I also see attacks on the Catholicism of friends who’ve realized neither major candidate represents Catholic morals, and have gone third-party or decided to vote only on down-ballot races this election. Even as I was writing this article, I momentarily switched back to Twitter, only to find someone attacking Kirsten Powers on moral grounds for saying she’s not voting for one candidate (and, by context, probably not for the other major candidate either).
We might think that individuals change which candidate they support based on the issues the candidates support, and are open to changing if they realize another candidate aligns more with their values.
That does happen, but there is also strong evidence for the opposite: People change their views to match the views of the candidate they support, and they align their values with the whole of their party’s platform. Once someone has already picked a candidate based on some criteria, they will often adapt their beliefs in other areas to support their choice.
For example, in surveys during the 2000 election campaign, people were asked their position on privatizing Social Security before they were aware of their candidate’s position. People who had already expressed support for a candidate tended to change their views to match that candidate, rather than change candidates to match their views.
This may happen if we pick a candidate because they want to restrict abortion, but then accept their view on other things even against Church teaching.
I’ve seen Americans on both sides downplay the personal morality of their own candidate, while playing up the immorality of the other. Even though individual Catholics might operate for a political party and have legitimate interests in doing so, it’s dangerous for the Church, through either priests or other representatives, to align so much with one party that we end up defending immoral practices of that party’s politicians.
There are many areas where the Church leaves wide latitude to the virtue of prudence to determine what the best course of action is. We should promote peace around the world, but Catholics can legitimately argue about how to do this: from being a hawkish world policeman, to being dovish and staying out of other people’s conflicts.
We should help the poor, but there is evidence that there are better ways than just handing out welfare checks, and the Church leaves how it is done to the discretion of each state or country.
In a society as rich as United States, there is a right to have access to healthcare, but this objective leaves open many possibilities such as private insurance plus Medicaid, Obamacare, or single-payer health care.
Individuals can even make judgments that a politician can’t be trusted on certain issues, and so vote against that person even though his official position lines up with Catholic teaching.
Even if people come to opposite conclusions based on Catholic teaching, we shouldn’t reject their Catholicism or claim they are committing mortal sins so long as they used Catholic reasoning to get there.
However, if a Catholic goes so far as to actively promote legal abortion, same sex marriage, torture or other intrinsic evils, then we can question how Catholic they are as they have gone directly against Church teaching rather than just reached different conclusions on contingent issues.
We need to separate our faith from our politics enough so that even if we are voting for a certain candidate, we’re able to critique what’s not in line with the Church about their views or their personal life.
That’s what a healthy separation of faith and politics looks like.