When Voting, Issues Matter But Protecting American Democracy is Essential

When surveying the various Catholic arguments over which presidential candidate deserves the support of American Catholics, a revealing pattern quickly emerges. Catholics write compellingly about the immorality of abortion, racism, family separation at the border, the use of force on peaceful protestors, and the death penalty. Many Catholics clearly understand ourselves within a moral universe, one in which God calls us to live in accordance with His Love and Truth; and consequently, our arguments for Trump or Biden invariably draw on moral frameworks and terminology.

We ask questions like, “Does a vote for Biden constitute immediate, mediate, or proximate support of the material evil of abortion?” and “Does a vote for Trump make me complicit in the federal executions carried out on his watch or in systemic racism?”

A prudent Catholic voter not only can but should ask these questions, and American Catholic scholars and intellectuals have provided helpful resources to navigate the nuanced complexities that such questions warrant. Still, intent–the central axis around which Catholic moral reasoning spins–leaves too much room for motivated reasoning to twist and turn us back to our partisan loyalties when it comes to prudential moral judgments.

For instance, we all know the devout Catholic baby boomer who started off energetically supporting Trump, halfheartedly weighed serious critiques of Trump, and ended up…energetically supporting Trump(!) while minimizing all his morally objectionable policies and rhetoric on racism, children at the border, Covid-19 disinformation, geopolitical adversaries, the environment, the death penalty, refugees, and more.

On the other hand, we all know the Jesuit-educated millennial progressive who enthusiastically embraced Biden after Buttigieg, Harris, and Bernie lost out in the primaries, halfheartedly weighed serious critiques of Biden, and ended up…energetically supporting Biden(!) while minimizing all his morally objectionable policy positions and rhetoric around abortion, religious liberty and rights of conscience, and other social issues.

Overcoming our motivated reasoning by persistently seeking out high-quality opposing viewpoints—a practice I’ve termed “Agere Contra Political Formation”—would help us better weigh competing policies, but it would still be insufficient for our moral responsibility as citizens. That’s because policy debates exist atop another, more foundational concern, one that Catholic moral theology seems ill-equipped to address: the constitutional order and the institutions that sustain it.

With a moral vocabulary so narrowly focused on individual actions and so contingent upon an individual’s intent, Catholics in the public sphere seem unable to grapple with our moral duty to uphold the constitutional order as a good on which all other policies exist. By arguing over whether to prioritize anti-abortion or anti-racism activism, religious liberty or healthcare, we miss the tectonic fractures that threaten the constitutional order undergirding those debates. We need to return to the basics of democratic civics.

Our constitutional system is not a historical inevitability. It is sustained by people with the will to sustain it. This is accomplished by the legitimacy of our elections, the transparency of our leaders, the reliability of our governmental institutions, and the health of our media ecosystem. These foundational goods of our constitutional order are not issues that inflame hearts or provoke probing Catholic moral reasoning, but they should be. They are necessary for human flourishing in America, and today we find them under assault.

With a sitting president falsely and without evidence claiming this election will be the “most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” incentivizing voter intimidation by calling on supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” and telling violent extremists  to “stand back and stand by,” American Catholic thought leaders should be focusing on foundational civic practices as the moral means by which politicians pursue moral ends. Instead they bicker endlessly over how elastic the term “pro-life” is.

With a sitting president who deployed troops to disperse peaceful protestors so that he could use the Bible as a political prop, American Catholic thought leaders should be illuminating the nature of authoritarianism and its incompatibility with a Catholic approach to politics.

With a sitting president elevating fringe Catholic YouTube pharisees to his Catholic Advisory Panel in order to sustain the GOP’s hold on conservative Catholics, American Catholic thought leaders should be educating us on the scandalous history of Catholics, including those in the hierarchy, who have been complicit in authoritarian power grabs.

All three of these are examples of what scholars call “democratic backsliding,” a corrosive phenomenon that is typically seen in unstable democracies led by authoritarian strongmen.

No presidential election in recent history demanded a similar level of attention to such elemental aspects of America’s constitutional order. Bush, Gore, Kerry, Obama, McCain, Romney, and Clinton did not threaten the constitutional order in the way Trump does. For all their faults, they all pledged to accept election results, and the incumbents among them committed to the peaceful transition of power.

In the years to come, American Catholic thought leaders would be wise to reassess the frameworks on which they rely to form Faithful Citizens. If Catholics fail to see healthy democratic civics as the moral means by which we pursue moral ends in politics, it just may be that the American Catholic Church’s attempts to “form consciences for faithful citizenship” are little more than exculpatory exercises for unwitting agents of democratic backsliding.

Michael Jezewak runs “The Catholic Lens,” a nonpartisan weekly newsletter on American politics. You are invited to sign up here