Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 17, 2004
RELIGION/POLITICS: The Candidates and the Church
With the election getting ever closer, I’m uncomfortable with a lot of criticism of President Bush’s or Senator Kerry’s respective religious convictions (or lack thereof). It seems to me to be entirely possible that either man could be far more or far less devout than they outwardly appear or present themselves. Inquiring about the issue seems unduly speculative, presumptuous and even invasive. However, the actions and stated beliefs of each candidate are fair game.
In that vein, you may want to read Rich Lowry’s column from Friday on Kerry’s approach to issues of concern to Catholic voters, such as myself. Here is a key section:
I think there can be little doubt that on issues of abortion, gay marriage, federal funding for stem-cell research and related “family values” issues, Bush’s positions are far closer to the Catholic Church than are those of Kerry. This might explain, why, despite unsavory attempts by surrogates of John McCain to tar Bush as an “anti-Catholic bigot” during the 2000 primary season, Bush appears to have significant support among the Catholic community, even though it his opponent who is Catholic.
Three primary issues strike me as areas of potential divergence between Bush and Catholic voters: the death penalty, policy towards low-income individuals and the Iraq War. It’s worth considering all three.
1) The Death Penalty
There is little argument here that President Bush is a strong supporter of the death penalty and that the Catholic Church is generally opposed to the practice. I have decidedly mixed feelings on the death penalty, believing that it is often justifiable and is a matter for each state to decide, but that, in practice, its costs outweigh its benefits. Thus, I have no problem with societies deciding to take the high road on this issue, though they should not demonize the differing views of others.
President Bush has previously been known to display an almost Old Testament-style enthusiasm for the death penalty, which seems alien to modern Catholic views. I would say that if you are a single-issue Catholic voter and opposition to the death penalty is that issue, you should not vote for Bush. Still, three caveats come to mind. First, the Church’s position on the death penalty is not as unequivocal as its view on the immorality of abortion. Second, John Kerry, while generally an opponent of the death penalty, has, characteristically, flip-flopped during this campaign on its application to terrorists. Third, presidents, unlike state governors, have limited control over death penalty issues; they appoint federal judges and can block federal executions, but are rarely as intimately involved in the process as governors. (Since the death penalty is, fairly obviously, not prohibited by the Constitution, the impact of federal judges should be minimal, although potential judicial activism can never be ruled out.)
Catholic teaching emphasizes the importance of caring for the poor, the Republican party is frequently caricatured as the uncaring party of the rich. Should that make this issue a slam-dunk for John Kerry? Not exactly.
Most Republicans, though perhaps not all, would agree that the government has an interest in helping the poor. The debate is over how. The conservative approach to poverty is not one of malicious neglect, but one of alternatives to unconditional government handouts. It holds that freely spending other people’s money is not an indicator of virtue. It holds that there are better ways to help low-income individuals than trying to redistribute income to them through the filter of inefficient, historically wasteful, centrally-planned bureaucracies. It favors grass-roots approaches, involving private entities, faith-based initiatives or even state of local governments. It is based on helping others to help themselves and promoting the greater good through encouraging personal industry and responsibility.
Likewise, Catholic teaching emphasizes each individual’s responsibility for helping others. It does not indicate that that responsibility is best accomplished by simply having the federal government take increasingly large chunks out of one’s paycheck without doing anything proactive oneself. In short, I can understand why this issue is often viewed as favoring Kerry, but Bush’s positions in this area are, by no means, inherently antithetical to Catholic values.
Most controversially, the Iraq War, which Kerry voted for, but which Bush has prosecuted, has been denounced by some as unjust. In fact, the Pope himself has expressed that view on occasions. However, like many other Catholics, I believe that the Iraq War met the criteria of Catholic “just war” theory. Review the elements of that theory here and compare it with this. You can draw your own conclusions.
I would add that complete, undiluted pacifism is probably the ideal for Catholics. The hard realities of international relations, national defense and domestic politics, however, make such an approach sadly infeasible. The consequences of complete non-violence in the face of aggression by the likes of Hitler, Tojo, Stalin, Saddam or bin Laden are too terrible to fully contemplate. The best America can hope for is that, in defending our interests, we act in a just manner, protecting the innocent wherever possible against brutal repression, genocide or terrorism and advancing democratic values and the cause of human freedom, while sparing as much as possible collateral damage to those caught in the cross-fire. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we have done just that (aside from isolated incidents of cruelty, such as the Abu Ghraib scandal) and, in the process, freed two nations from among the most repressive regimes in modern history.
The United States, under President Bush, could perhaps do better, but it could also do far worse. (In fact, the foreign affairs track record of the only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, may be more difficult to reconcile with the Church’s teaching. In particular, the Bay of Pigs invasion and America’s involvement in the coup which led to the assassination of South Vietnamese President, and fellow Catholic, Ngo Dinh Diem were quite dubious by these standards.) It is also worth noting that the Catholic Church favors aggressive efforts to reconstruct and provide humanitarian assistance to both Afghanistan and Iraq.