Maintaining integrity during the election

Every election cycle, the media breathlessly await that blessed moment when candidates “go negative” with attack ads and mutual smears. The media do this because corporate news organizations exist, not to inform and enlighten, but to sell beer and shampoo.  

diverse population
The common good Thinkstock

The way you sell beer and shampoo is to find what journalists call “the story.” And what good stories consist of is not dispassionate discussion of government, but conflict. No conflict, no story: because a story is a war. And in every war you have the protagonist and the thing he wants vs. the antagonist and the thing he wants, and then they go at it hammer and tongs, struggling in an ever-escalating conflict until, at the climax, the tension is resolved as the conflict comes to a head and the whale kills Ahab or Frodo destroys the Ring or Peter Rabbit escapes from Farmer McGregor in the nick of time or Candidate A is elected and Candidate B is defeated. 

Because stories — and elections — are wars. The first thing to realize about them is that the first casualty of both is the truth. Shots are fired not where they should be fired (at threats to the common good), but at fellow Americans who also seek to serve the common good — and that has nasty consequences over time. Because instead of deliberating together in love of country for the service of the common good, we devolve (as this nation has clearly devolved) into something St. Paul refers to as one of the “works of the flesh”: namely, “party spirit.” Party spirit cares not about the common good, but about the destruction of one’s political opponents at all costs — even at the cost of the truth and the common good. And so, we constantly find politicians “going negative” in order to come up with whatever dirt is available in order to achieve that goal.  

Hence the bleak, idea-free politics we have to endure as politicians run races that consist of, “Hey! At least I’m not that jerk!” This is reflected and replicated in a voting public that today typically does not vote for candidates, but against the guy they fear more. And because we are driven by the fear that not enough people will vote against That Guy, we hector third party voters to get in line and vote for the candidate who is 10 percent less evil than That Guy on the theory that any vote not given to the Lesser of Two Evils is really a vote for the Greater of Two Evils. Result: an entire political culture that goes negative and winds up voting for evil out of Party Spirit instead of seeking to advance the common good — which is the whole point of government. 

Navigating evils

Now the happy thing for Catholics is that we belong to a tradition that is 10 times older than the entire history of the United States, and this gives us access to a tradition of social teaching and political thought that we can draw on in order to break out of our cramped politics and try something new. 

It will be replied, of course, that the Church does allow “lesser of two evils” voting when we are trying to mitigate greater evils. True. But note that the Church allows it. It does not require it. And what the Church wants more than merely pulling the lever for the lesser of two evils is that citizens participate fully and creatively in public life. That means thinking more deeply than simply asking “Who is less crummy?” every four years and checking a box. So let me say again: The actual purpose of an election, according to the teaching of the Church, is to choose those people best equipped to help serve the common good. What is the common good? The Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1906) tells us: 

“By common good is to be understood ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.’ The common good concerns the life of all. It calls for prudence from each, and even more from those who exercise the office of authority.” 

In a representative democracy like ours, that means you and me, since we are the boss and our civil leaders work for us. An election campaign is a job interview. The candidates are applying to us, not we to them. That means all that business we hear about the need to get in line and support a terrible candidate and not make waves lest he or she lose to the even worse candidate? That’s all rubbish. You don’t work for the candidate. He is hoping to work for you. So if he is giving off obvious signals that he is making empty promises to you and plans to betray you on issues that matter to you most, you have both the right and the obligation to put heat on him to do your will or you will fire him. You, not he, are the boss here. That’s good news.

Key elements

As we pursue the common good, the Catechism (No. 1907) tells us this consists of three essential elements: 

“First, the common good presupposes respect for the person as such. In the name of the common good, public authorities are bound to respect the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person. Society should permit each of its members to fulfill his vocation. In particular, the common good resides in the conditions for the exercise of the natural freedoms indispensable for the development of the human vocation, such as ‘the right to act according to a sound norm of conscience and to safeguard ... privacy, and rightful freedom also in matters of religion.’” 

Concern for the common good, in other words, means that we involve ourselves politically, not merely on Election Day every four years, but in the way in which we think about the human person and his relationship to the state and society all the time. The purpose of the state is to help the human person flourish in freedom so he can do the good he was made to do and grow in love of God and neighbor. A state that threatens the existence of innocent human life or tries to smash human liberty in order to impose an unjust law is to be opposed, not cooperated with for the sake of some lesser good like money, comfort or power. 

“Second, the common good requires the social well-being and development of the group itself. Development is the epitome of all social duties. Certainly, it is the proper function of authority to arbitrate, in the name of the common good, between various particular interests; but it should make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on” (No. 1908). 

The common good involves a hierarchy of goods. Life is more important than property, for instance. At the same time, it is a real hierarchy such that we cannot afford to say, “As long as I care about the most important issue, I can be as sinful as I like about all the rest.” Wearing a Precious Feet pin does not give us the right to cheat workers out of their rightful wages (one of the four sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance, according to Catholic tradition). 

“Finally, the common good requires peace, that is, the stability and security of a just order. It presupposes that authority should ensure by morally acceptable means the security of society and its members. It is the basis of the right to legitimate personal and collective defense” (No. 1909). 

One of the dangers of party spirit is that it enshrines not peace, but war, at the heart of a society. War in the heart soon becomes war in the world. As James says: “What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war” (Jas 4:1-2). A Catholic who seeks the common good over party spirit is beginning the long process of fighting with the weapons of the Holy Spirit instead of the weapons of this world. That’s going positive. 

Mark Shea writes the Catholic and Enjoying It! blog at www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea.