Election Year Observations
by Christopher Dodson
North Dakota Catholic Conference
Some election year observations . . .
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently issued a new document on voting and political behavior. Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, devotes particular attention to the obligation of Catholics to adequately form their consciences and apply that formation to voting and other political activities.
In one passage, the bishops warn of two temptations in public life that can distort the defense of human life and dignity. The first is to make no moral distinctions between different kinds of issues. Actions that involve the direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death are always wrong and are not just some issues among many. They must always be opposed. The second temptation is to misuse these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity.
You will hear and read more about Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship between now and the election. In the meantime, take a look at the document at the North Dakota Catholic Conference website (ndcatholic.org.)
* * *
North Dakota's political parties will hold presidential preference caucuses on February 5.
This year's caucuses essentially complete the state's move away from using presidential primaries --which is ironic considering North Dakota was one of the first states to use a presidential primary. In some respects, North Dakota's caucuses are still like primaries. Unlike a true caucus, there are no meetings, discussions, or presentations. You simply go in, cast a secret ballot, and leave.
What is different? Well, for one thing, the parties, not the state government, assume the costs. More importantly, the caucuses are less democratic. Before you can vote at a caucus, you must pledge that you either voted for that party in the last election or that you intend to vote for that party in the next election.
That requirement may be fine for the party faithful, but what about the growing number of independents that do not affiliate with either party? What about those who are split-ticket voters? Considering that the state elects both Republicans (John Hoeven, George W. Bush) and Democrats (Kent Conrad, Byron Dorgan) by large margins, North Dakota must have a large number of ticket splitters. What about those who, as a matter or principle, will not affiliate with a political party? Some people feel they can and should engage in politics without being partisan.
In their new Faithful Citizenship document, the bishops recognize how party involvement can be difficult for Catholics, “sensing that no party and too few candidates fully share the Church’s comprehensive commitment to the life and dignity of every human being from conception to natural death.”
Those willing to make the pledge should, however, try to vote at the party caucus. Both parties will post the caucus locations on their web sites. You will need to bring some form of identification. Pay attention to the hours. Republicans will have to vote between 6:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Democrats can vote between 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. (1:00 to 7:00 MT). Be sure to work at forming your conscience before you go!
* * *
At one time, Catholics were overwhelming Democrat. Beginning in the 1970s, Catholics began voting in larger numbers for Republicans so that today no party can claim the “Catholic vote.” Did Catholics change or did the parties?
A new book argues that the shift can be traced to 1972, when, according to the author, “secular, educated elites” wrested control of the party away from working class, religious – mostly Catholic – Democrats. The book is Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party by Mark Stricherz. In the interest of full disclosure, I have not yet read the book, but it is getting some good reviews and, in addition to being of interest to political history buffs, could generate some good discussion about the place of Catholics in today's political environment.
* * *
You probably know that John Kennedy was the first Catholic president. You may know that Al Smith was the first Catholic from a major party to run for president. But did you know that John Fremont was the first candidate from a major party to be accused of being Catholic?
In 1856, Fremont was the first nominee from the newly formed Republican Party. Opponents engaged in a negative campaign that falsely accused Fremont of being a Catholic. The extent to which his supporters had defend Fremont against charges of “Romanism” reveal how deep anti-Catholic feelings ran at the time.
In some ways, the environment for Catholics has improved. However, there still exists hostility toward the Church and Catholics, particularly in the public square.