Faithful citizenship requires transcending the ideologies and partisan divides of our time and working primarily for the salvation of souls, not for short-term political gain on high-profile issues.
Though Christians can make prudential alignments with various candidates or parties to achieve specific goals, we should not conform to them or become beholden to them. Rather, we should form our consciences, inform our political activity and votes, and transform the parties and our state.
A political arena not characterized by virtue or respect for the common good has left people angry and looking for leaders who speak to their core concerns. One temptation for Christians in this context is to give their full allegiance to one of the fragmented programs offered by parties and politicians — neo-liberal, neo-Marxist or populist.
Each program speaks to authentic social concerns in some way. But each also offers a strange mix of secular morality clothed in bastardized Christian vocabulary. The result is grotesque: revivals of racism and nativism, increasing attacks on First Amendment freedoms, and the cancerous spread of a throwaway culture that can rationalize disposing of the most vulnerable in our midst — among other things.
These developments, while disturbing, should not surprise us. Politics reflects culture, and as our nation becomes more secular, peoples’ horizons will inevitably shift from the eternal to the temporal. Political ideologies are so appealing because they promise a perfect world, here and now; they identify an enemy, offer simplistic solutions to destroy it, name the saviors, and promise renewal and lasting prosperity.
But because they place all their hope in this world, they cannot tolerate dissent of any kind; everyone who does not subscribe fully to their agenda is an obstacle to progress. Here is where we find ourselves today: locked in an uncompromising power struggle between “left” and “right,” with little room for compromise or dialogue, because to do so would mean compromise with the “devil.”
Catholics can look to some of the saints as leaders who modeled faithful citizenship. Their lives demonstrate that the Gospel never loses its potency to transform human life and society, in whatever age or circumstance. Times may change, but the principles do not.
One such witness is Archbishop Oscar Romero (canonized Oct. 14). He was murdered for his condemnation of injustices in his native El Salvador and his constant exhortations to the perpetrators to repent or face the judgment of God.
Though criticized as being a “political” (that is, partisan) bishop, his witness was rooted in a truly Gospel-centric vision of our Lord’s care for the poor and the responsibility of the church to proclaim the kingdom of God. He condemned ideology, corruption and violence on all sides and instead stood for the dignity of the human person, especially the poor.
Likewise, Servant of God Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement in the 1930s, was criticized for her refusal to take sides in the Spanish Civil War. Communists were killing clergy, religious and lay Catholics by the thousands in Spain, and many allied (not imprudently) with the Franco regime. But Dorothy refused to be complicit in violence as a means of resolving social and political conflict.
Instead, she built farming communes and houses of hospitality for the poor, advocated non-violent social change and promoted economic democracy rooted in a system of widely distributed property. Not content with either party, she rarely bothered to vote.
These two figures courageously fought against injustice and worked for a better world, but the church ultimately honors them because they witnessed to a vision of Christian social concern that extends far beyond party lines. Their goal was to bring about the kingdom of God by making the world, as Day famously said, a place where “it is easier to be good.”
In today’s context, there is so much focus on specific outcomes — ending abortion, ending poverty, protecting migrants, saving the environment — that we sometimes lose a vision of the whole and fall into the trap of an uncivil politics that dehumanizes others and ends in more anger.
But Christians should refuse to be co-opted by the parties in this dis-integrated political dynamic. It undermines our Gospel witness. We ought to vote and work for social change but do so motivated above all by the love of God and neighbor, with Catholic social teaching as our foundation, while also maintaining a healthy detachment from specific political outcomes.
God is ultimately sovereign over human affairs. This reality should free us from the need to win every battle in the short-term. The temporal order is passing away, and our priority is the Gospel command: “seek first the Kingdom and His righteousness …” (Matthew 6:33).
Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.