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Religion that can make a political difference

Much has been said and written about religion in this year’s presidential race. In the end, however, religion as it is calculated into the election equation seems to be having little visible effect in swinging votes.

Perhaps the hiding of the most conservative religious wing of the Republican Party coupled with the increased piety quotient that Sen. Joseph Lieberman provides the Democratic Party has resulted in a useful tactical balance. In terms of significant religious content, however, this campaign is empty.

A potentially significant contribution to the religious content of the political conversation is presented in a seldom-referenced document produced by the U.S. Catholic Bishops, “Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility for a New Millennium.”

As in previous election-year statements from the bishops, this year’s is a challenging piece, born of the church’s long social justice tradition and the articulation of that tradition through the consistent ethic approach of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

“Faithful Citizenship” places the bishops squarely amid the most contentious issues of the day and stakes out claims for life and for justice along a continuum from womb to grave.

The recent debates would have been helped by the questions posed by the bishops.

How will we protect the weakest in our midst, innocent, unborn children, they ask, and how will society “overcome the scandal of a quarter of our preschoolers living in poverty in the richest nation on earth?” What about the 35,000 children dying every day of hunger, the result of debt and lack of development around the world?

The bishops express both spiritual and material concerns about helping parents raise children and helping families obtain quality education and decent housing.

Their questions range over problems of health care, racism and hostility toward immigration. Voters are urged to look beyond our shores to issues of justice and peace “in a world where injustice is common, destitution is widespread and peace is too often overwhelmed by warfare.”

Undoubtedly the list would generate debate and discussion among any group of voters, Catholics included. Differences in emphasis and favorite issues can cloud the big picture. We have disagreed numerous times on this page, for example, with the bishops’ strategy on opposing abortion. We have argued that they have squandered an enormous amount of political capital on abortion while compromising other issues on their agenda and achieving little in the way of change.

That disagreement aside, however, the abortion issue must be part of the wider public debate. At the same time, concern about abortion only makes sense in light of the entire range of social issues, as one concern linking us to the whole of human experience.

Such regard for the wider world, for the whole of humanity -- for everyone and all the issues along the spectrum -- is unmistakably Catholic. It is the hallmark of a sacramental people and the antithesis of the kind of politics that places little value on the welfare of the community and the common good.

The religious community is the natural counterweight to the hyper-individualism that has become a pervasive and even defining element of North American culture. In its worst manifestation, as sociologist Robert N. Bellah has written, it “tends to emphasize looking out for number one, getting one’s own satisfactions without worrying too much about others -- in general shutting ourselves up in our own lives where our own ambitions, fears and desires determine how we act.”

The Catholic community, gathered as it is around the Eucharist, our limitless connection to the entirety of creation, rightly offers a consistent ethic for redeeming the world through ordinary circumstances and human institutions.

The Catholic position cannot be found fully formed in any single candidate or party. The real responsibility for Catholics is to take every opportunity, between elections, to press the whole range of “seamless garment” concerns with legislators, regardless of party affiliation.

National Catholic Reporter, October 27, 2000