Friday, August 19, 2016
Yesterday I read a Christian leader's commentary on the presidential election, but I had to stop when I came to his assertion that candidate X is "wrong on 100% of the issues" that matter to Christians. This all-or-nothing take on candidates is hardly new ground for campaign strategists, but I'm struck by how deeply it has infiltrated the society at large, including Christians attempting to analyze the election through the lens of their faith.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church addresses "civil friendship" as part of its teaching on the political community. (Para. 390) The Church emphasizes the importance of civil friendship as "the most genuine actualization of the principle of fraternity, which is inseparable from that of freedom and equality," and entails "inner acceptance of the needs of others." It is not part of the sphere of rights, which "is that of safeguarded interests, external respect, the protection of material goods and their distribution according to established rules."
In the current presidential campaign, we are focused, as we should be, primarily on how each candidate will impact the sphere of rights. Nevertheless, the divisive and apocalyptic rhetoric of this political season cannot be easily separated from the viability of civil friendship in our country. When each candidate is EVIL! EVIL! EVIL!, each candidate's supporters can only be understood as unable or unwilling to recognize or reject said evil.
Does the rhetoric we deploy in an effort to ensure that Trump (or Clinton) is not President make it more difficult to cultivate the civil friendship that is more central to society's flourishing than a particular President's impact on the sphere of rights? Relatedly, does this rhetoric make it more difficult to foster a culture of political cooperation that will be necessary come January when President Trump (or Clinton) will be tasked with leading the country? Put differently, should the way we speak of the candidates aim toward our responsibilities as citizens come November 9, not simply our priorities as voters on November 8?
I'm not sure what this would look like, but I know we're not seeing much of it. A few tentative thoughts on how we can better convey the respect and empathy on which civil friendship and responsible citizenship depend:
1) We should strive to praise the laudable traits and policy positions of the candidate we oppose, even as we criticize the traits and policy positions we abhor.
2) We should strive to be specific and substantive in our critiques of the candidate we oppose.
3) We should talk less about the candidates themselves, and more about the underlying issues that motivate our fellow citizens to support one candidate or the other. (And yes, this year especially, for many Americans, Trump himself is a major motivation to support Clinton, and vice versa; but there are deeper concerns at play here too.)
Christians have strong opinions about the outcome of this election, as we should. But we also have to ask ourselves, do we want to contribute to the likelihood that our country will flourish through the bonds of civil friendship and collaborative governance even if the candidate we have designated as EVIL! EVIL! EVIL! prevails? If so, how should that change the nature and tone of our current political engagement?