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Faith and politics

Guest Columnists | Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Faith and politics should never be discussed in polite company, we are told. Yet in reality, the two are constantly in dialogue, for better or worse. Politics has become increasingly moralistic and the religious have become much more political. And with a rapidly approaching election, every responsible citizen has a duty to look at how they might combine the two.

Whether we care to admit it or not, most of us grapple with this issue on a daily basis. The College Democrat who struggles with a candidate’s pro-choice stance is in the same predicament as the Right to Life member whose concerns about the dignity of the immigrant clash with a pro-life candidate’s anti-immigration stance. It isn’t easy to balance the issues. Many times, our church says one thing, while our political party says another. Faith and politics are personal issues, neither of which can be divorced from our worldview. We cannot just eliminate either, or allow one to dictate our actions on issues. Who do we follow, and how do we decide which are the most important issues?

One place to look is the Catholic Church, which recognizes that voting is truly a personal decision. It is not merely following the directions of another. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops published the latest in a series of voter guides, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” aiming to educate our individual consciences on a wide variety of issues. The document does not tell Catholics what to do, but rather, serves as a guide for us to discern our own political path from a faith-based perspective.

This is not just a theoretical approach; we have seen it in action. The two of us led a fall break Center for Social Concerns seminar in Washington, DC, in which we focused on the intersection of human rights, faithful citizenship and policy. During our immersion, we constantly saw individuals attempting to reconcile their politics and faith. People in government, think tanks and the religious laity acknowledged that their faith does, indeed, play a role in their politics. However, it is a delicate balance, unique to each individual.

We encountered an immigration official who stated that faith shapes his worldview and he cannot separate it from politics. We discussed immigration with a libertarian who used economics to espouse a view that his faith supported. We spoke with a Franciscan sister working for an organization to promote the common good and a pro-life Catholic united behind Obama. All recognized a faith-politics connection, though it played out to different degrees in their professional lives.

These various individuals demonstrated that we cannot wholly disregard the fusion of faith and politics. Neither is pernicious to the other, but rather, enriches its counterpart. For example, the Catholic understanding of a consistent ethic of life brings morality and social justice to the immigration debate. Political and economic considerations provide a pragmatic framework for the issue as well.

So what can we learn from the USCCB and other individuals in Washington?

Faith and politics do not need to be distinct or separate, but in healthy dialogue. For us, as young voters, this means that our faith can, and should, inform our political decisions. As the “Forming Consciences” document suggests, this means not voting on just a single issue, but instead, considering all issues. This isn’t easy, nor is it meant to be. Not all issues hold the same weight and not every candidate will be sincere in their views. Neither our religious institutions nor our political parties can tell us what to do. In the end, it is up to us and our convictions. Many Catholics are “politically homeless” for this exact reason. And yet every year, we must return to the ballot box, having reweighed the candidates and the issues. It is a difficult call to answer. We are debating and weighing some of the most important issues of our day, and reaching an informed decision is a challenging process which takes time and effort.

Civic engagement begins with voting, but does not end there. Our internal debate between our faith and politics can guide our involvement in our community, where a variety of outlets are available. Contact your congressperson, write an editorial, enroll in a community based learning course. Study the issues about which you are passionate and listen to the continual discussion and dialogue between faith and politics in our culture.

Engage with yourself and others on these issues and, of course, don’t forget to VOTE.

Ally Brantley and Joe Stranix are senior history majors. Over fall break, they led the CSC “Human Rights, Policy, and Faithful Citizenship” seminar in Washington, DC. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.