Don’t Choose Evil

by Mark Gordon

Last January, I predicted that Mitt Romney would win the Republican nomination for president and go on to beat Barack Obama for the White House. I’m sticking to that prediction, although I also thought that Romney would be running with Governor Susanna Martinez, and that Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden would flip roles. The lesson there is that I’m a lousy oracle, so readers would be advised to take any prediction of mine with a large grain of salt.

For my part, I won’t be voting for either Obama or Romney because both promise to pursue policies that violate my understanding of fundamental Catholic teaching. To invest my democratic franchise in either would, in my opinion, be an abrogation of my first responsibility, which is to to witness to the Gospel in all its dimensions. For me, there can be no disjunction between the two. To permit any other allegiance, identity, issue or ideology to trump the Gospel – even temporarily or provisionally – is, again in my opinion – a form of idolatry. Christian discipleship must be marked first of all by an unyielding evangelical integrity: “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness …” (Matthew 6:6). And just as I would hope not to choose a “lesser” evil in my personal or business life, neither can I do so as a citizen. As I’ve often written here, when you choose the lesser of two evils, you still get evil. Christians shouldn’t be in the business of choosing evil.

I want to briefly review for readers the specific issues and policy positions that have compelled me to repudiate both candidates, and I will do so below. I will not, however, indulge in the Scholastic trigonometry of “material cooperation,” “prudential judgment” and the like because those concepts, while valuable, are too often deployed as smokescreens for advocacy, not genuine moral analysis. I have one friend, for instance, who insists that abortion, same-sex marriage and “religious liberty” are the only non-negotiables in this election, and that everything else a candidate might advocate – from pre-emptive war and torture to the abuse of workers, the environment and the poor – falls under the category of “prudential judgment.” I find that sort of Weigelian “analysis” to be suspiciously convenient and transparently self-serving. It is Republican partisan advocacy dressed up as moral argument.

By the same token, I have friends who react to the Democratic Party’s vigorous promotion of abortion on demand, assisted suicide, or embryonic stem cell research by erecting an elaborate exculpatory apparatus anchored by supposed degrees of moral distance from the underlying acts. This, too, is self-serving and oh-so-convenient; and it only demonstrates to me that some people are Democrats first and Americans second, with Christian coming in a distant third.

Bob Dylan once wrote that “people don’t do what they believe in, they just do what’s most convenient, then they repent.” I would much rather a person admit to choosing evil for the sake of convenience or partisan loyalty than engage in the sort of intellectual sleight-of-hand intended to infer that either party’s platform is aligned with the Gospel and the teaching of the Church. Yet this is the voting booth reality for too many of us. It was my own reality for much of my adult life. No more. The Church is both my party and my country, and I have to be faithful to her whole teaching, regardless of partisan or nationalist entreaties to the contrary.

I take as my political litmus test what Blessed John Paul II wrote in Veritatis Splendor: “Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat laborers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons . . . .all these and the like are a disgrace … and they are a negation of the honor due to the Creator.” By this test, both Obama and Romney fail, and fail miserably.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama seems to be a nice man: personable, intelligent, a good husband and a great father. He is also, I believe, an honest and earnest public servant who has done the best job he could under very difficult circumstances. But as president he has not only continued to deepen the Democratic Party’s antipathy toward the unborn, but he has extended that antipathy to the born, including American citizens who he deems to be “terrorists” and therefore eligible for assassination, as well as the millions who huddle nightly in fear of America’s fleet of aerial robots. I believe that if Obama is re-elected, Israel will receive the green light for a pre-emptive attack on Iran, probably within six months, and will receive full American military and logistical support. Whether undertaken directly or indirectly, an American pre-emptive war on Iran, which is no threat to the United States, will be a grave evil, in my view. Meanwhile, Obama has doubled or tripled down on the national security state here at home, pouring billions upon billions into electronic, physical and satellite surveillance or American citizens. As the link above notes:

Most striking is the normalisation of domestic surveillance under Obama. The federal government now employs 30,000 people to monitor phone conversations in the US; the Department of Homeland Security, formed only in 2002, is now the third-largest federal bureaucracy, surpassed only by the Pentagon and the Department of Veteran Affairs. The construction of a 1m sq ft (93,000 sq m) domestic surveillance data centre costing $2bn has just been started in Bluffdale, Utah.

Obama also singed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which permits the arrest and indefinite detention without charge of American citizens suspected of having ties to terrorism. Habeas corpus, anyone? While I opposed the Obama Administration’s arrogant and intolerant HHS contraception mandate, I find it laughable that so many have construed that to be the great threat to “liberty” under Obama. A far greater threat to all Americans is his accelerating commitment to the permanent police-state.

I will credit Obama with attempting to solve the terrible problem of healthcare coverage in the United States. This is an issue that hits very close to home for me, and at least one member of my family will be voting for him precisely because of the Affordable Care Act. So I respect that point of view. But even the ACA was a complete sop to the insurance industry and as such represented the worst kind of crony capitalism: gigantic profits secured by private interests with the connivance and at the direction of the national government. He would have done far better to have pushed for a single-payer national health system and paid for it out of savings from dismantling the American’s global military empire.

In the end, though, I can’t in conscience pull the lever for Obama because of his stands on abortion, war, and assassination, combined with his contempt for the rights of ordinary citizens, including their religious rights. I find all of this opposed to fundamental Catholic teaching.

Mitt Romney

Which brings me to Mitt Romney. As a man, I find him to be the purest embodiment of ambition imaginable, mendacious to the core, without a shred of conviction beyond his own wealth and power. I live in Rhode Island, hard against the Connecticut border, but even at that I’m only thirty miles from Massachusetts, my native state, where most of my family still lives. I remember well Romney’s campaign for Senate in the 1990′s, and his term as governor. He was Scott Brown before there was a Scott Brown, and every New Englander knows that his claim of a conversion on the issue of abortion since 2007 is, to put it mildly, complete bullshit. If support for partial-birth abortion were required to secure the GOP nomination for president, he’d be foursquare in favor of it.

Still, his nominal position on abortion, insincere and incomplete though it is, doesn’t disqualify him from my consideration. What does disqualify him are his positions on war, torture, workers’ rights, and the treatment of the poor and immigrants. Mitt Romney was an enthusiastic supporter of the war in Vietnam, going so far as to lead anti-anti-war rallies, even while securing for himself a number of draft deferments that enabled him to avoid service. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Gulf War, and the invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan, even though not one of his five strapping sons ever bothered to wear the uniform and risk his own neck. Now, Romney has all but promised to launch a pre-emptive war on Iran, not explicitly – he hasn’t said “I will take us to war” – but in his unhinged rhetoric about the Iranian “threat” and in his choice of key foreign policy and military advisors, almost all of whom are neocons of the Michael Ledeen type (of the “Ledeen Doctrine,” a term approvingly coined by neocon writer Jonah Goldberg. The Ledeen Doctrine states that “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business”).

Romney explicitly promises to reinstate the Bush torture regime, and approves of the NDAA, the Patriot Act, Obama’s illegal and immoral drone warfare campaign, and the growth of the national security police state here at home. He has promised to further militarize American foreign policy and even the American industrial base (40% of which is already tied to “defense”) through huge increases in our military budget, which now exceeds the combined military budgets of the rest of the developed world, including China and Russia. War is a growth business for Romney, and like a good investor he’s prepared to put your money where his mouth is, knowing that he and his won’t have any skin in the game if things go bad.

On the other hand, Romney the businessman sees the poor, the elderly, the handicapped and the unemployed as bad investments, and he has promised to undermine decades of bipartisan commitments to help those who struggle with poverty and infirmity. Romney’s endorsement of the Paul Ryan’s Randian budget – which would cut the legs out from under Medicaid and other social safety net programs – along with his repeated indictment of food and housing aid, his disparagement of the 47% of Americans who receive some form of transfer payment from the federal government, and his tax proposals that favor the wealthy all demonstrate that his Mitt Romney’s America would exercise a preferential option for the rich, in direct contradiction of Catholic Social Teaching and the spirit of the Gospel.

Both Romney’s preferential option for the rich as well as his overwhelming mendacity are on display when the issue turns to healthcare. He has promised to reverse Obamacare “on Day One.” That promise is his go-to applause line on the stump, and he no doubt intends to fulfill it (or else his credibility with the right would be shot by Day Two). He offers NO alternative for 40 million or so uninsured Americans, or for those driven into poverty by insurance industry practices that exclude pre-existing conditions or cap lifetime benefits or permit post-treatment policy cancellation. The wealthy never have to worry about healthcare coverage or provision. The sick rich get attention, maybe even a private room on a special floor. The sick poor get the shaft, the elevator shaft leading to the door. That plays in Alabama (for some reason), but not in Massachusetts, where one Governor Mitt Romney, under pressure from a Democratic legislature, happily embraced universal healthcare. Now, of course, when Alabama is more important than Massachusetts, Romney’s had another of his conversions. Here’s a fact: Opposition to universal healthcare is un-Catholic. Period. Full-stop. Want proof? “Justice requires guaranteed universal access to health care.” It is one of the “inalienable rights of man.” So said Benedict XVI two years ago, a fact conveniently forgotten by Catholics who promote precisely the “pharmacological, medical and surgical consumerism” (read: free market) lamented by the Pope.

Romney’s contempt for workers and workers’ rights is on display every time he degrades the contributions made by unions to building up and sustaining the middle class. This rhetoric is of a piece with his own record as a businessman. Not only was Romney’s Bain Capital one of the pioneers in outsourcing American jobs overseas, but even here at home Bain was a leader in pushing big box retail on thousands of American communities, at the expense of local office-supply, hardware, and other small businesses and their workers. Subsidiarity and respect for work and workers, anyone?

Finally, Mitt Romney promises to make life so unbearable for undocumented immigrants that they will beg to pass back through the borders. This, of course, flies in the face Church teaching, and has even threatened the religious liberty of Catholics who offer service to undocumented families, as Archbishop Dolan acknowledged in this interview with MSNBC. Throughout the primary season, Romney gleefully joined in the GOP chorus that heaped insults on the heads of our (mostly Catholic) brothers and sisters, who come here to work and raise their families.

In the end, I can’t in conscience vote for Mitt Romney because his positions on war, torture, and the dignity of workers, the poor, and immigrants. These are not “negotiable” issues for serious Catholics, in my view, because they directly oppose fundamental Catholic teaching and even the Gospel itself.

Conclusion

As blogger Mark Shea has noted, it is not a prissy perfectionism that leads some of us to withhold our votes from these two candidates. Rather, it is conscience, formed by attention to the fullness of Catholic teaching. I can respect someone who, acknowledging the deficiencies of both Obama and Romney, decides in conscience that a given issue is of sufficient weight to cause them to reluctantly cast a vote for one or the other. Oddly, I can even respect someone who honestly says that party loyalty outweighs even conscience. What I cannot respect is the person who attempts to sanctify a candidate’s policy prescriptions or record out of a desire to justify their partisan vote. As for me, I firmly believe that choosing the lesser of two evils still implicates me in evil, and that I am not willing to do.

So, I will write in the name of Wendell Berry, the sage of Kentucky, who I heard deliver this year’s National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson Lecture at the Kennedy Center, and who once wrote: “The great enemy of freedom is the alignment of political power with wealth. This alignment destroys the commonwealth – that is, the natural wealth of localities and the local economies of household, neighborhood, and community – and so destroys democracy, of which the commonwealth is the foundation and practical means.”