R’Perspective: The struggle of voting with a religious conscience

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From a time before I can remember, I’ve been a Catholic. I was baptized very young, and consequently have been going to church and learning about that faith for more or less my entire life. It is fair to say, then, that being Catholic has always been part of my identity, and influenced many aspects of my life, from determining what time I show up to work on the newspaper on Sundays, to guiding my interactions with my siblings so that I treat them better than I otherwise might.

By now, my religious background is thoroughly entrenched, so it rarely poses any “new” challenges, anything I have to seriously reflect on. However, with the approaching ASUCR elections in spring quarter, not to mention the far more significant midterm elections coming later in the year, I’ve started thinking again about what my faith means in a political context.

In order to get an idea of what difficulties can arise in reconciling religious and political beliefs, I’ll give an example of what one little religious tenet can do to a ballot. One of the major ideas in Catholicism is the concept of “dignity of life,” which holds that all human life has value, regardless of age, health and other factors. In practice, this means that a Catholic cannot support abortion (what we believe to be murder of an unborn child), assisted suicide, the death penalty or other legally sanctioned ways of killing people. It also means that Catholics must support efforts that improve the quality of life, such as immigration and health care reform.

What you may notice among these policies is that they are split very inconsistently along the political spectrum. Republicans generally oppose abortion, but support the death penalty, and Democrats, the reverse. The reasoning on each side is a mess and obviously hypocritical because it refuses to stick to one side of this belief (especially when Republicans claim to be “pro-life” to fight abortion but then demand deporting millions of a people in what would be a humanitarian disaster — this from people who largely proclaim to be Christians).

This mismatch is what ultimately made voting a pain for me in 2016. When it comes to propositions, it’s an easier problem; checking “yes” or “no” for a given prop just requires me to agree or disagree with the prop on a quick mental check of the idea described in it. It didn’t take a complicated debate in my head to decide I’d vote to repeal the death penalty — there was a simple “rule” of sorts in place since my Catholic education taught me not to support killing people, even awful people. On a practical, secular level, I also disagreed with the death penalty out of the paranoid thought that anyone (including me) could be framed for a crime and executed despite doing nothing wrong. That vote completed, I moved on to the next issue on the ballot. Many of the props required less moralistic thinking, because plastic grocery bags and municipal bonds aren’t exactly issues for which you can ask “What would Jesus do?”

I’ll take a moment to note two things: First, that the Catholic Church doesn’t make endorsements during elections, so there’s no checklist where they answer all the moral questions one has to face at the ballot; second, that “separation of church and state” has nothing to do with individuals voting based on a religious agenda, making such votes perfectly valid legally and ethically.

Now, I’d considered myself to be basically a Republican through all of college up to the 2016 election, though there were and still are many things I would vote Democrat on; it’s simply impossible in a two-party system to pick one side and satisfy my religious conscience. With Donald Trump as the Republicans’ candidate, I knew I had to distance myself from that party (to the point that when he won, I stopped calling myself a Republican, substituting the term “conservative,” despite believing essentially the same things as before the election).

Practically speaking, I wouldn’t vote for an incompetent man who flip-flops on half his policies and has no political experience; religiously speaking, I couldn’t vote for a man who was and is so obviously hateful and crude. Since I had long ruled out voting for Hillary Clinton as an option for so many reasons that I can’t list them here, and since California is so heavily liberal, I resigned myself to the fact that my presidential vote would be insignificant and mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. Nevertheless, I couldn’t vote for either candidate, even if it would mean nothing, so I voted for Gary Johnson.

Did I make the right choice? I’ve wondered that since Trump was inaugurated. Mathematically, I know my vote would make no difference anyway, as California automatically counted toward Clinton’s electoral vote count and that swing states’ votes were what put Trump in office. In my book, my vote was a sort of protest vote that showed I supported neither Trump’s hate nor Clinton’s everything.

In the end, I suppose the mark of a correct choice is that you never feel guilt over it. When one develops a strong religious conscience, and therefore a strong sense of guilt, one knows very quickly when they’ve done something wrong. And since I’ve never felt guilt for my voting in 2016, I’d say that I made the right decision at the polls. At least, I can live with my decision. I just have to hope that, come next election, I put together my politics and my religion the same way I did in 2016 to arrive at another vote I can live with.

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