Three Political Dangers
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
As the campaign season approaches full swing, Catholics should guard against the destructive forces of partisanship, ideology, and cynicism.
Political parties are part of the American system. At their best, they perform important functions such as blending disparate philosophies and talents into a common effort. Historically, political parties also educated voters, although advertising, special interest groups, and the internet are rapidly replacing that function. Having more than one party also forces the other party to work better, more honestly, and be more responsive to the voters’ demands.
Partisanship becomes counterproductive, however, when the party takes priority over the true good. Examples of this frequently occur, such as a when a legislator will not work with another on a common effort just because he or she is from the other party. Of course every legislator says they are willing to work “across the aisle,” but the reality is much different. Sometimes bills are defeated or passed solely because of the party-affiliation of the bill’s sponsor.
More egregious is putting the party before fundamental issues like defending human life. Believe it or not, I was once harshly criticized for saying that while it might be acceptable to use party politics to further the pro-life cause, it is never acceptable to use the pro-life cause to further party politics.
For some people the party is their guiding philosophy. Others embrace ideology. By “ideology,” I mean adherence to a system of ideas or a philosophy. For some that is fine, but Christians, especially Catholics, should be wary about theories and systems that purport to explain everything and which should guide all policy decisions, whether it be socialism, capitalism, libertarianism, Marxism, etc. Catholics believe that the truth exists not in a system, but in the revealed person of Jesus Christ.
Certainly, the application of reason can lead to discoveries which, in turn, can contribute to good government. The danger exists when people “believe” in a system. If the evidence supports a particular approach, that is fine. Too often, however, politicians talk about “believing” in something that is not supported by the evidence, but really is just a philosophy. There is a difference in believing, for example, that less government is always better and reasonably concluding that less government is always better.
The problem with blindly believing in an ideology is that it clouds our thinking and can even jeopardize our souls. For a Catholic, the church’s revealed social doctrine should guide our political decisions, not conservative, liberal, libertarian, or any other philosophy.
Cynicism is never excusable in political discourse, yet it is seems to be everywhere. Perhaps we have the blogosphere to thank this development. Just because someone holds a different opinion is not an reason to assume that the person is acting with an ulterior motive or is being dishonest.
The recent events involving religious liberty provide numerous examples of cynicism sullying political discourse. Many people accuse the U.S. bishops of picking a fight with the Obama Administration over the HHS mandate despite the clear evidence that the administration, not the bishops, initiated the policy. Opponents of Measure 3 repeatedly stated that it was part of a Republican-led effort to create a political issue, despite the fact that it was modeled after federal legislation that passed Congress with bipartisan support and signed by President Clinton. Some insisted that Measure 3 was about the Catholic Church taking away contraception from the public despite the legal impossibility of that occurring and the support of non-Catholic groups. Perhaps the worst example occurred when another religious body accused Measure 3 supporters of having a hidden agenda.
Cynicism in politics is not, of course, limited to questions of religious freedom. It happens with all issues and it always diminishes discourse and the quest for the common good.
In the next few months we will be evaluating issues important for this election. Catholic voters will examine candidates for how they stand on those issues. When looking at the candidates, look beyond their positions or their parties. Look also at whether the candidate has succumbed to hyper-partisanship, ideology, or cynicism.
Let us also look at ourselves. These dangers to democracy are also personal temptations. If we are to be good citizens and even better Catholics we must, with God’s help, resist these temptations.