Mixed reactions to Kate Mroz’s post “The Problem with #NeverTrump” reveal the deep restlessness that exists at the intersection of faith and politics. The old taboo of religion and politics is silly because those are two things that touch us deeply. To say that we cannot find spirituality (or God) in the messiness of politics is a mistaken belief. As Catholics, we’re called to live out our faith in all aspects of our lives, including the secular and public realm.
While the US election may seem the most divisive or vile it’s ever been, the truth is, Christians of good will have always struggled with their political decisions. And when specific candidates come up as part of the discussion it stirs up that deep feeling of unease and anxiety. Whom do I vote for? Which issues matter more? As Catholics we shouldn’t feel satisfied with any candidate. There will never be a “perfect” leader who aligns perfectly with Catholic teaching and Gospel values. And when we become single issue voters we make the process too black and white. If we vote only based on a candidates stance on abortion or LGBT rights or environmental policy we over-simplify. After all, Catholics are holistic on life and dignity issues. What does one do when one candidate opposes abortion but not the death penalty? Or when another candidate supports better environmental policy but supports mass deportation? There is never a perfect candidate.
Ignatian discernment acknowledges the messiness. Few decisions are so simple and easy. This is why Ignatius encourages lots of prayer and the use of multiple discernment methods. And sometimes discernment means making a list of pros and cons, with full knowledge that every choice has cons, including those running for public office.
The end of any discernment requires a decision. In the case of an election it could mean a vote for a candidate or an abstention from voting. What Ignatian spirituality gives us are tools that aid in making the best decision we can, knowing that we will unlikely have 100% clarity. Some unsettledness is okay.
Church and State
We know politics must be informed by our spiritual life. The Church prays for civic leaders and encourages civic engagement. Ignatius didn’t avoid politics – he was a military governor. Jesus and the other Jews in Palestine had to deal with the Roman government. But we must keep in mind that for the Jews, their hope was a Jewish state. Jesus would not have had the mindset we have with a clear separation between church and state. So it would be unfair to ask what Jesus would do if he were president. That isn’t his mission. He didn’t use power to make social change. He took the place of humility. He (and his apostles) stepped into the messiness of imperfect societies and fallible leadership structures. Jesus changed hearts from within, slowly. He did get questions about whether to pay taxes to the governing powers. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he said. He saw the bigger picture. Our faith informs the political realm but our faith also transcends politics and parties.
Those who are in power have great responsibility, but, as Kate mentioned in her post, we also carry great responsibility. We cannot ever assume a single leader will make positive change without the help of the rest of us. The Christian life is about doing our part to bring the Gospel message into the world and to support the love and dignity of all people. No political candidate will do that perfectly, and neither will we – that’s why the larger human community must work together to achieve the Gospel ideal, discerning as best we can to make decisions that work toward that ideal.
So for those feeling caught up between their faith and political decisions, take a moment and acknowledge that that restless feeling is the life of the Christian. And it’s okay. Human structures are never perfect, which is why we require the Holy Spirit to intercede and continue Christ’s slow work of transforming hearts and transforming the world.
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