Pope Benedict XVI and Catholic Cardinal-designate Raymond Burke both recently characterized voting as a moral act with spiritual consequences.
The pope said that “decriminalizing abortion is a betrayal to democracy,” since he believes the procedure denies rights to the unborn. Burke called voting a “serious moral obligation” and added that Catholics “can never vote for someone who favors absolutely what’s called the ‘right to choice.’”
If Catholics largely disregard the church’s teaching (the 2008 Catholic vote for president went to pro-choice Obama), does what the pope says matter? Is voting a religious act or purely political?
Voting is both a religious and a political act. Voting is a moral obligation. It is religious when we bring our religious commitments with us into the voting booth. A spiritual morality informed by the disciplines and doctrines of our faith is not a costume that we take on and off, depending upon the situation and our role in it. We ought to live and breathe our spiritual morality with a spirituality that breathes in us and through us and that we recognize as more than the doctrines of our faith tradition. It is the breath of God breathing a Divine inspiration into us to live for and to vote for justice and radical love.
The question of abortion and politics is a larger subject for another essay. I will say here that the Catholic Church’s focus on the unborn child obscures the God-given right of a woman to exercise her free will to say “No.” On the question of the Catholic Church’s teaching against same-sex marriage, I say: to insist that heterosexuality alone constitutes the sexual nature of humankind denies humanity to homosexuals. The nature of a thing is the essence of a thing without which a thing is not the thing. This is why whether or not there is such a reality as human nature is problematic. Homosexuals, whether by orientation or by preference, are no less human than heterosexuals. This too is a question for another day.
For now, let us consider voting as a religious act. Religion is the radical love that binds us to the Divine, to humanity, to nature and all of creation. The various teachings are intended to make us aware of our connection and of our responsibility to Others. However, religious teachings are means to an end and not ends in themselves. The doctrines become idolatrous if we simply stop with them. And, all idols are lifeless. They do not breathe. They are without compassion or pathos. The doctrines are not God. They are certainly not a God of pathos.
In his book The Prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes about the theology and philosophy of pathos. The thinking heart of the prophet imagines a God of pathos, a God who feels and who responds. Heschel writes: “Events and human actions arouse in Him joy or sorrow, pleasure or wrath. He is not conceived as judging the world in detachment. He reacts in an intimate and subjective manner, and thus determines the value of events.”
The intimacy of God with God’s creation, this love, is passionate to the point that it breathes a powerful radicalism into the prophets. This ardor causes the prophets to insist upon justice for the poor, for widows, orphans and strangers in the land. This love of God for God’s people, for creation and for justice itself causes Jesus to identify with the hungry, with strangers, the naked, sick and with prisoners. Jesus is the least of these, and the least of these is Jesus.
When we vote, we ought to take this same radical love for the least of these with us. The prophetic urgency is larger than a classical liberal idea of the commonwealth and a moral responsibility toward social and economic justice necessary to keep a political entity in balance, but the prophetic imperative, even within a nonsectarian republic, is to love with a love that overcomes all of our fears and all of our anger.
The Apostle Paul taught that no matter our eloquence or ability to engage and persuade, no matter our powers of insight and analysis, no matter the profundity of our faith, no matter the extent of our generosity, without love it is nothing. (I Corinthians 13:1-3)
When love loves deeply, madly, truly, it is a fearless love. When we vote with this depth of care for our sister and brother citizens, when we vote out of a deep regard for the well-being of our nation and of our world, when we vote out of respect for the political process, when we vote with radical love, then our vote is more than political. It is a true religious act.