Deal W. Hudson
Over the last four national elections, I have led outreach efforts to Catholic voters, specifically those who attend Mass regularly.
During each campaign, I stressed the political importance of the settled, or non-negotiable issues as taught by the Catholic Church: opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, fetal stem cell experimentation, and religious liberty.
About prudential issues, I stressed that “good Catholics” can disagree, but all should begin their reasoning from the first principles of Catholic moral and social teaching: the common good, human dignity and rights, subsidiarity, solidarity, and the preferential option for the poor.
I have no regrets about how I led these outreach programs, the teaching of the Church was represented accurately, and the teaching authority of the bishops was always underscored with respect. I do regret those times my own voice became angry or bitter, and I apologize to any and all who witnessed those moments.
Yet, when the results of the November 6, 2012 election became clear early that evening, I realized it was time not for finger-pointing about voter fraud, the GOP establishment, Romney’s emphasis on the economy rather than social issues, the failure of get-out-the-vote, the continued alienation of Latino voters over immigration, or alphabetical voter guides issued by state Catholic conferences; it was time for self-examination.
The moment arrived just a few days ago as I sat listening to a group of national faith leaders discuss “what went wrong” when the country sent the Obama/Biden ticket back to the White House for another four years. I agreed with most of what was said, but much of the tone, the how it was said, turned me off. I thought to myself, “If I am turned off, then much of America must be turned off as well.”
The next day, my son Chip and I met a young man from Texas for breakfast, a new friend who I had grown to like very much over the past year. He asked me what I thought of the meeting the previous day, and I found myself saying something that surprised me:
“You know why people become Christians, it’s because of love, God’s love. People are burdened with guilt, with their sins and failures. They need and want forgiveness, redemption from the past, hope for the future, they want a happier life and to be with God in eternity.”
“Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavily laden and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28)
My young friend’s eyes grew big and his smile even larger; he not only agreed but also had been waiting to hear someone well-established in “Christian politics” say it. I had not planned to say it, I told him, it just popped out, a product of my own frustration with the way Christians had been presenting themselves and their moral issues to the nation during a political season of historical importance.
But I knew I couldn’t just leave it there. I hadn’t intended to dismiss, or leave behind, the political effort over the past 50 years to articulate and defend the Christian vision that permeates the American Founding and natural and revealed laws that show us the way to the common good.
Let me put it this way: There is an inherent tension, almost a conflict, between what Christians must do in a political campaign and what Christians do in evangelization. In politics we focus on moral standards, standards of conduct and action; as evangelists we reach out to those whose failure to keep those standards have left them cut off from God and feeling alienated from the Church and its teachings. In politics we insist that people respect and abide by certain moral standards, but as evangelists we call these same people to “come home” even if they have not been living by them, if they have broken God’s laws and commandments.
I know what I am saying is subject to caricature as a kind of “faith without works” attitude, but, of course, given more time I would tell, as they say, “the whole story.” We enter the Church broken, and over time through its teaching and the grace of the sacraments we learn and we grow; the “works” will follow.
This, too, is subject to caricature as if I am saying that “sin” is gradually erased from our lives, and, of course, that is not the case. But our sin is a constant reminder of why we gave ourselves to God in the first place, why we need His grace and the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
The humility that is pressed upon us by the constant repetition of sin and forgiveness has no place in our “religious outreach” to voters. This is not a criticism of our political efforts; it’s the simple consequence of Christians seeking a goal in the political order, the election of one candidate rather than another, the support of one policy rather than another.
I’m not suggesting religious leaders should stand at political rallies and qualify every declaration of support for life, marriage, and religious liberty with, “And, by the way, I am a sinner who needs to ask for God’s forgiveness every day of my life.” That turns a political event into a religious one, or at least creates a confusing amalgam of both.
The best any of us can do, as Christians in politics, is pay close attention to our tone and our visage: What are we communicating by how we talk and by how we present ourselves to the world? Would anyone of good will who disagrees with us see or hear that we are attempting to share a gift or would they say we are “puffed up” with pride?
It’s our way of speaking, and what used to be called “comportment,” that reminds those on the campaign trail that as Christians we are not reducing ourselves to advocates of a few moral maxims, no matter how important. Our kindness, patience, and good humor in the midst of political rancor can be witness to the heart of our faith, to the heart of the the Church.
Going forward, we should always remember:
“Though I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love…” (1 Cor 13:1)