“It is your civic duty to be involved!” I suppose that is true, but how one defines getting “involved” is a matter of debate—one that is frequently intense and contentious in an election year.
Dorothy Day didn’t even vote. She considered it a pointless gesture at best. At worst, it amounted to complicity in a mendacious illusion. Nobody would ever accuse her of not being involved in the great political causes of her time or of not caring about her civic duties. Her example shows that sometimes the best politics is no politics at all. The most political thing a person can do is to relativize politics in order to rob the current order of its pretensions to eschatological ultimacy.
I have been thinking much of late about this latter point and the messianic significance we now seem to attach to every election. We used to have two candidates running against each other. Now we have two dueling messiahs and their fevered devotees, which goes a long way toward explaining the viciousness of our current political milieu. The other side isn’t just wrong, they are evil and deserving of nothing but censure and perhaps even violent hostility. Because there can be no compromise between gods, only struggle. In other words, our politics is no longer kind of “like” a religion, it is a religion.
I remember being in London visiting my daughter in 2008 when Obama was elected. There was euphoria over this even there, and when people recognized that I was an American, perfect strangers would slap me on the back and smile and tell me how happy I must be. I did not dislike Obama, nor was I particularly sad or happy one way or the other. I just really didn’t care since in my view he wasn’t any better or any worse than the other candidate who also had to lie and take bribes from lobbyists just to be in a position to run for office. And my lackadaisical attitude, as far as I can tell, was the proper one since the “progressive” Obama brought us Goldman Sachs economics, the continuation of a hawkish foreign policy under the guise of fighting terrorism, and a doubling-down on the Patriot Act.
Now don’t get me wrong: I am not saying electoral politics is unimportant or that everyone should be like Dorothy Day and not vote. I am merely explaining why I think electoral politics is not as important as we think it is and that it has been freighted with a religious enthusiasm and messianism that should be unacceptable to a Christian. In his marvelous Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger says: “In this sense the profession ‘there is only one God’ is, precisely because it has itself no political aims, a program of decisive political importance.” Ratzinger makes this claim precisely to relativize the quasi-theological overreach of modern political structures by investing individuals with an absolute dignity given by God which no collective can erase.
So please excuse me when I tell you that I also really have little patience any longer for the “lesser of two evils” mantra that keeps getting repeated. These kinds of calculations are somewhat useful and needed, but that is all they are: calculations. Like a giant tote board with two columns of “pros” and cons” that might lead one to the proper prudential choice, but more often than not comes to a mere projection of antecedent political prejudices dressed up in the language of civic responsibility. It also has the effect of the dumbing down of our politics, since a practical effect of the calculus in many voters is to exonerate them—us, me—from seeing any issue as potentially exclusionary thus allowing us to give “our candidate” a dodge.
This is not a case of the “perfect being the enemy of the good” either. More precisely, it is a deadening and coarsening of our sense of moral evil in the political sphere. Prudential decisions are moral decisions, not the bloodless calculations of a policy wonk.
For many citizens of conscience, some issues are morally and spiritually exclusionary. Count me among their number. I cannot, and will not, vote for either of the current candidates for President. Hence, I am told I am adopting a puritanical code to which no candidate or officeholder may reasonably be held. Or, I hear that I am adopting an aloof, holier-than-thou posture to which my puritanical mentality impels me.
I have found that the presumption lurking in the penumbra of many such accusations is that there isn’t anything deeply, morally wrong with our system of electoral politics. Other times, it is that we might actually hope for a candidate who isn’t the lesser of two evils but the better of two goods. More often than anyone should like, the surreptitious presupposition is that there isn’t anything spiritually and theologically grotesque about the pecuniary gods and the sacrifices they demand from our political culture.
Might it just be the case, though, that our participation in this system—certainly in what it has become—means we are merely perpetuating a dangerous illusion?
Please do not take this as a veiled swipe at Joe Biden. If I wanted it to be about Biden I would have said so. I find him to be a typical liar and one who loves power, and therefore, he is most fit for office. Same with Trump. “This is the most important election of our lifetime!” No, it isn’t.
Larry Chapp, PhD taught theology at DeSales University for 19 years. He now runs the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm with his wife, Carrie, near Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
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