Thursday, September 17, 2020
A quick response to John Carr on "Faithful Citizenship" and the election options
John Carr has an essay in America called "I helped write the bishops' first document on Catholics and voting. Here's why I'm voting Biden, not Trump."
I have great respect for Carr, his work, and his consistent practice of thoughtful, charitable engagement. And, I have no interest in litigating his bottom-line conclusion, which I am entirely confident was reached after careful reflection, regarding his voting choice. (I'll be voting, again, for Mitch Daniels, who would -- were it not for that narcissistic dunderhead Jon Huntsman -- be wrapping up an outstanding 8-year run as President. Sigh.)
I will note (I cannot help it) that, having followed Mr. Biden's career for many years, and recalling well -- among other things -- his craven position-changes, his plagiarism habits, and the serious damage he has done to the judicial-confirmation process, I see no evidence to support Carr's view that Biden "has the character, integrity and competence to serve" (unless, perhaps, he is judged against the pretty low standard of his opponent's "character, integrity, and competence").
Four quick things, though, regarding Carr's essay: First, Carr appears to endorse the suggestion in Faithful Citizenship that there is at least a prima facie moral obligation to vote, in a presidential election, for one of the candidates on the ballot. (Faithful Citizenship calls not voting an "extraordinary step.") But, this suggestion is misplaced; indeed, with all due respect to the bishops, it seems clearly incorrect. There is no obligation to vote, or even a presumption that one ought to, in any particular election. Engagement in the life of the political community, and prudent efforts to cooperate with others for the common good, may and does take many forms. See, e.g., my "Neither of the Above", from four years ago.
Second, Carr appears to endorse the (common) frame, or narrative, that, when it comes to issues that faithful and engaged Catholics should care about, it's only with respect to abortion that the Democrats currently fall short. We should all be clear-eyed: A Biden-Harris administration (that is, an administration staffed by the people whom that administration will appoint) will produce very bad policy on religious freedom, educational choice, higher-education regulation, a range of "cultural"/"moral" questions, etc. Again, the point here is not to challenge Carr's bottom line. But the "Catholics are not single-issue voters" observation is too often invoked in a way that neglects the fact (and it is a fact) that more than one Republican position (or, at least, the positions of "normal" Republicans) is better, from a Catholic point of view, than the Democratic one.
Third, Carr states that "we vote for candidates, not issues." I agree, to be sure, that the character of our political leaders matters. (This is one of the many reasons why Sen. Dole seemed so obviously preferable, to me, to Pres. Clinton in 1996.) But, in terms of the bottom line, Carr is wrong. We do not have a king. In fact, we vote -- or, at least we should -- for administrations, appointees, congressional majorities, committee chairs, agendas, and policy outputs, not (simply) "candidates."
Finally, with respect to judges. For me, and I suspect for others, among the most welcome outputs of the Trump administration has been the nomination and confirmation to the federal bench of judicial conservatives. In my view, Catholics have good "Catholic" reasons for wanting judges who at least aspire to avoid legislating or policy-making and who, instead, confine themselves to (as best they can) interpreting and applying the laws and regulations that are enacted and promulgated by others. Carr complains that these judges -- even if they vote to uphold abortion regulations -- "vote against voting rights, immigrant rights, workers’ rights, affirmative action and environmental justice" but, as I see it, this complaint is misplaced. Even if Carr were right (and, about some, he might be) about the best policy answers in these areas, it is not the place of judges to vote "for" these various matters as such, but instead to interpret and apply the relevant positive law, which may, or may not, have the content Carr likes.
All that said, and again: Our public life would be better if we had more John Carrs.