I’m With Neither

I will not be voting for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. I’m unsure exactly what I will do on election day, but I’ve talked about writing in Michael Maturen and Juan Muñoz of the American Solidarity Party.

I may be wrong or unsound at various turns in this post, and am entirely willing to receive correction if so. It’s also not a holistic assessment of all the various intellectual routes you could go down in pursuing these questions.

That being said, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton are, considered in themselves, individuals who should be president. I don’t mean relative to each other; I’m mean relative to what we should expect of an executive leader of a country.

The reasons for saying this should be obvious, even though there are enthusiasts for both candidates. If one wants to see reasons laid out against them, Ross Douthat has a pair of pieces that are worth reading.

By linking to Douthat’s cases, I do not mean necessarily to imply total agreement with them. He omits Clinton’s stance on abortion from his column on her; I would give that pride of place. Of course, he’s not writing that piece for committed pro-lifers, but to leave abortion out of the picture with Clinton is to leave out the gravest and most weighty reason Clinton should not be president—not relative to Trump, but considered in herself.

There are people who will vote Trump for pro-life reasons. I will return to an angle of this below. But I don’t think this changes the basic assessment above. You may think abortion gives you a reason to vote Trump, but that does not change his basic unsuitability for the office (relative again, not to Clinton, but to what we should expect of its occupant).

Suppose someone concedes all, or some, of this. Could one nevertheless licitly vote for either of these candidates, from the standpoint of Catholic moral teaching? I don’t feel qualified to get into the details of this one way or the other. As a friend pointed out to me in the past, the U.S. Bishops tell us:

There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil

I am not prepared to offer an analysis of how that might apply in this particular case, when it comes to the licitness of a vote for either candidate. However, I would make two points.

First, you cannot vote for a candidate because of his or her political support for a grave evil. See here again the U.S. Bishops—and note that abortion is not considered the only such grave evil:

A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an
intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.

See also Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, before he was Pope:

A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.

Second, even if a vote for either or both of these candidates is licit, there is no absolute moral duty to vote. In the right context, abstaining from voting is within the range of permitted options. Again the Bishops:

When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.

I am prepared to enter into a detailed analysis of how that might apply in this case. I just note that Catholic moral teaching on voting allows abstention in the right context.* (My assumption here is that the conditional “When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act” does not ultimately mean it has be on the same issue, though that is the case that this quote, as I read it, is addressing. I assume two candidates could hold a position that promoted an intrinsically evil act in two different domains of law or policy—e.g. one was pro-choice but anti-euthanasia and the other was pro-life and pro-euthanasia—and that would fall under the spirit of this conditional)

All that being said, here are two points that I think should enter into consideration.

First, about abortion. In this election in particular, since we have been given Trump and Clinton, even a single-issue voter on abortion (as I have considered myself to be, given the realities of U.S. politics) has to make a holistic assessment of the candidates on offer, not only about how they will govern on the abortion issue, but also with reference to their character and their trustworthiness, their other positions, and the cost of voting for a candidate to the long-term health of the pro-life movement.

The point I am about to make is not original; Matthew Lee Anderson and Pascal Emmanuel Gobry have both versions of it and the credit goes to them for it. I am not sure how it relates to Catholic moral teaching on voting, given that the U.S. Bishops call abstention from voting  an “extraordinary” step. So I am of course open to correction if this is in any way at odds with such teaching.

However, it seems to me that to be a real political force, one actually capable of exerting pressure on politicians and of having its priorities honored, the pro-life movement has to vote as a relatively coherent bloc, and it has to draw lines somewhere. At some point, even if only in theory, it has to be able to judge that a candidate, even one that professes to be in some way more pro-life than his or her own opponent, is not pro-life enough, and withhold its support. If the movement is not willing to do this, if it will always support the “more pro-life candidate” no matter how reduced a candidate’s pro-life credentials are, then it is only asking for candidates to give it more and more lip-service and deliver less and less real commitment to its priorities.

As a general matter, it can be painful or seem wrong to withhold support, giving up up on a hoped-for short-term gain in favor of the long-term political strength of the movement. But it seems to me that this is how successful movements must, at least under certain conditions, be willing to behave. And so a relevant question for abortion-focused voters is whether a pro-life vote for Trump participates in a logic that degrades the bargaining power of the pro-life movement.

Second, America would be a better place if a genuine Christian Democratic Party was within the Overton window. If I am permitted morally to vote for a third party this election season, then writing in a party seeking to expand the Overton window in this way seems well worth considering.

*In response to a comment: I’m not considering abstaining, but I made the assumption that if it is permissible (under the right circumstances), so is voting for a better but electorally insignificant third party.

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Frater Urban Hannon on Abbot Chapman

A while back, I wrote something for First Things about a book called Spiritual Letters by Abbot John Chapman. Reading Spiritual Letters was very helpful to me, and I was happy to have the chance to write on it.

I learned of Spiritual Letters through the recommendation of Frater Urban Hannon, formerly Michael Hannon. Frater Urban is now in formation with the Norbertines at St. Michael’s Abbey in California, and he discovered Chapman after his entrance there.

As it happens, Frater Urban was recently in New York, and did a First Things podcast, in which you get a chance to hear him discourse on Chapman. My review traces to, and was informed by, him, and he’s much more worth attending to than I am. The relevant part starts twenty minutes in. Here’s an extract I transcribed from the audio:

“So Chapman’s account would be that we need to live by something much higher than our experience…The Christian life is very much a life of I don’t get it, I don’t feel it. I feel awful, or I feel great, whatever. I feel whatever I feel. That doesn’t seem to answer to what I know to be true most days. Ok. You’re not going to feel it. This is exactly what Christ told us at the Resurrection—after the Resurrection. ‘Blessed are those who do not see and believe.’ And we will see, but not yet.”

Read Chapman—though I’ve since learned not everyone feels enthusiasm for Spiritual Letters, a reality to which a saying of Chapman’s own seems relevant: “pray as you can, not as you can’t.”