I don't think I know of a single person who would deny that voting matters. In our Democratic Republic, we have a chance to participate in the governance of society. We have a chance to make our political opinions known. We cast a vote and hope that our view, our vote, will be in the majority.
It's quite hard to be true to the Consistent Life Ethic in voting when neither party is entirely consistent. We are shouted at from all sides: abortion is the most important issue, or economics and the underlying causes of abortion are the most important issue, or that war policy is the most important, or sometimes even that healthcare is the most important. And it's vital that we have these conversations – because, in the end, what we are fighting for is the soul of America.
But perhaps you misunderstand my meaning: though our vote matters for the outcome of our elections, it matters infinitely more to the moral and ethical well-being and formation of our own souls. When we vote, we are perhaps one of 20,000 votes in our local elections, or one of 2 million votes in our state elections, or one of 120 million in the national election. While our votes cast might mean a drop in the bucket in making the difference between one politician taking office or another, voting itself as a moral action has the power to change the landscape of our own souls for better or for worse.
As someone who adheres to the Consistent Ethic of Life, I look for politicians who both comprehend and work to protect the life and dignity of every human being. Knowing that the respect for the human person isn't negotiable or based on circumstances or abilities, I vote for measures and representatives that will oppose legal abortion, slavery, capital punishment, euthanasia, torture, embryonic stem cell research, unjust war, abuse, and all forms of violence that threaten members of our human family.
But, of course, that's not how our political field looks these days. I find people on both sides of the political spectrum compromising for the sake of a candidate “who has a shot at winning” or even just for the pleasure of voting for someone instead of doing a write-in. I know of pro-life leaders who have led bully-like campaigns to insist that we, as pro-lifers, must fall in behind the major Republican candidate. I also know of people who claim to be Consistent Life Ethic supporters who have cast unabashed votes for politicians who support abortion.
Neither of these strategies is truly consistent in its respect for the voters, nor the interconnectedness of life issues. The longer we compromise just to get a candidate who might represent our perspective on one issue of human rights, the longer it will be until we can actually get a candidate who stands for our holistic voice. The pro-life movement has been trailing along after whatever Republican candidate is the “most popular choice” instead of standing on principle and refusing to be bought with a token nod to pro-life values. I'm not saying that the candidates have to be perfect, but let's understand that our vote has a far greater capacity to affect us as moral individuals than it does to affect the political state of our nation.
I have only voted in a national election twice in my life; considering I'm only 26 years old, I've only had two chances. The first election was in 2008. I was 19, and I had supported a candidate who seemed to be quite consistent in regard to life issues; he (Ron Paul) opposed unjust war, torture, abortion, and embryonic stem cell research. But he was not the Republican Party's candidate on Election Day. I certainly would not be voting for a candidate who supported the right of a mother to have her child killed. I was very uncomfortable with John McCain's policies on supporting pre-emptive war and his mixed record on abortion – but I sucked it up and toed the line that I’d been told I must.
I cannot properly describe the sinking feeling I had after I submitted my vote. I felt dirty and disingenuous. I had done what I'd been told to do because I wanted to be a True Pro-Lifer(TM), but I hadn't followed my conscience. I hadn't adhered to the whole of my principles. I promised myself that I would never do it again. So in 2012, when faced with Mitt Romney and Barack Obama as the two major choices, I thought and prayed and researched. I knew I wouldn't be voting for Obama, but could I, in good conscience, vote for Romney? Mitt Romney not only stood for hawkish policies on war and torture, but he didn't even have a solidly pro-life foundation. He stood for life, except in the cases of rape, incest, and the life and health of the mother. As many pro-lifers know, the “health of the mother” exception is one that can be twisted and used for nearly any reason. I opted, after much consideration, to do a write-in vote. I didn't vote for anyone who supported abortion, nor unjust war, nor torture, nor embryonic stem cell research. I voted my conscience and it has affirmed in me the principles for which I stand instead of watering down my message.
After an experience recently where certain folks have attempted to co-opt my voice, I found it especially salient that I didn't toe the line in 2012. My voice is my own: my principles are those of a consistent respect for each and every human being, and in the end, my vote cannot be bought.
We should not leave our principles at the door when we decide for whom we are voting. You shouldn't leave some of your conscience outside when you cast your ballot. But I'm also not saying you should never ever vote – ever. Just understand that compromising on your principles eventually can and will catch up to you. Voting, as a moral action, can chill your soul to the truth of human dignity in all circumstances if you get too caught up in the popularity contest or the partisan mudslinging.
So, can you do anything other than vote for politically-negligible write-ins when election time comes around? You can, but you can't just say that one of these issues doesn't matter. What does that mean in terms of the moral compromise that we take on when voting?
The issues that should be most important to us as voters are the issues of legal aggressive violence: those instances where our government has sought fit to legalize, sanction, and even subsidize practices of aggression. I would posit that the gravest moral issue that we take on when voting is elective abortion. It takes over 2,900 human lives each day – the most of any issue of violence or health in our nation – and it is seen as morally acceptable and is enshrined in national law. The use of unjust war practices (like pre-emptive war, nuclear armament, and torture) are an important, but perhaps secondary consideration, especially when we consider the causes and side effects like the proliferation of the military industrial complex, PTSD, military suicides, and homelessness of veterans. Next we might consider embryonic stem-cell research (legal federally), capital punishment (legal in most states, but in decline), and euthanasia (legal in some states, but potentially growing).
Financial issues tend to be more widely disputed even in the field of economics, so I will just say that no matter which way we vote, we must do so with the intent to help our fellow man, even if we disagree on how that goal is best attained.
Something major to consider that is central to this whole discussion is subsidiarity and the scale and effect of your vote. The region over which a politician has representation and to which level of governance they report will be instructive regarding which issues they can influence.
If it's a small city election (for mayor, city councilman, judges, the school board, etc.), your vote is likely to have a much greater effect on the entire outcome. The opinions of local politicians are most vital when it comes to abortion and human trafficking. Don't shrug off such voting opportunities; in Pittsburgh (where I live), the school board recently voted to bring Planned Parenthood into the schools to teach sex ed. These local politicians need to be held accountable and know we are paying attention.
If it's a statewide election (for state senators or representatives and for governor), the candidates' opinions on abortion, capital punishment, human trafficking, and euthanasia are most salient to their voting capabilities.
If it's a national election (for U.S. senators or representatives), the candidates' opinions on all matters are salient. Abortion and war are the most deadly acts that Congress can allow or enact, respectively. Congress also drafts bills and approves Supreme Court nominations.
If it's a national election (for President), the candidates' opinions on all life matters are salient. As the Commander-in-Chief, the President also takes action in asking Congress to declare war, and has sway with the people as a whole in times of crisis. The President also has veto power on Congressional bills and nominates justices for the Supreme Court (which must be approved by Congress).
As you can see, abortion does have salience to the politicians on every level of governance. It is pervasive, and even the school board members and city councilmen have a say over things like Planned Parenthood (the #1 abortion provider in the nation) working with schoolchildren. I don't fault the Pro-Life movement for the way it has weighted abortion over all else. But it is not the only issue. We cannot and should not be single-issue voters who are content to vote for candidates who don't truly present a holistic pro-life worldview without so much as a blink.
I propose that we think of it this way: we are primary-issue voters. Not single-issue voters, but primary-issue voters. We vote pro-life first, because abortion is the #1 cause of death in our country with over 1 million induced abortions annually. But voting pro-life first doesn't mean that you can't write in a name if you're dissatisfied with the record and the principles of the candidates before you. I think if we compromise on abortion, if we vote for a candidate who supports the “right” of women to choose to have their children dismembered or poisoned or burned or starved, then we are participating in the moral dereliction of our own souls. There is no good justification for elective abortion – for example, “self-defense” – but is there for other cases of aggressive violence? Is there some sort of way we can vote for someone who is staunchly against abortion, but favors the use of capital punishment?
This past year, in the Pennsylvania statewide election for governor, I had three major choices: I could write-in vote my vote, I could vote for Tom Wolf (who has worked for Planned Parenthood as a clinic escort before, but opposes the death penalty), or I could vote for Tom Corbett (who has helped to enact pro-life legislation in PA, but is for the death penalty). I did research for hours and hours to try to weigh my options. I couldn't vote for Tom Wolf: he not only had a grave misunderstanding of human development and human rights, but he supported an abortion business and they in turn have supported him right back. I would feel just as slimy voting for him as I did after voting for John McCain. So now I faced the next question: do I vote for Corbett or write-in a candidate?
After much thought, I determined that the principle of subsidiarity proposed that I take active part in this local election – with one big condition. Corbett's opinion on the death penalty was one that would have perhaps fatal consequences for some 186 death row inmates. While that number is obviously less than the 32,000 preborn humans killed every year by elective abortion in PA, I knew that I couldn't sit idly by if I cast my vote for him. So I made another deal with myself: I would vote for Corbett, with the condition that I would write to him weekly, attempt to set up meetings with him on a local level, and do my utmost to change his position on capital punishment. This is obviously the sort of action that would seem quite absurd to propose on a national level: the idea of meeting with the President or getting my letters to the desk of Barack Obama sound difficult, if not impossible to achieve.
A question to which I'm not even sure I have a hard and fast answer to is this: Is there some sort of moral calculus in which we have to engage if we want to vote, or must we never compromise? I'm not sure if my vote for Corbett was the most principled action I could have taken, and I'm still working to form my conscience. But there is one thing of which I'm abundantly sure: our nation's soul will be formed through our participation in the ballot box. Voting is a moral action, and it has the power to shape us and our conscience if we allow our voices, our votes, to be bought and manipulated by our political system.
[This piece was originally published in Volume 4 - Issue 2, Fall 2015]
1 For the sake of clarity, when I refer to “souls” I refer to moral character, not necessarily some religiously-grounded metaphysical substance. I think it's easy enough to understand you don't need to have a handle on any particular religion to grasp that our actions have great consequence to our moral character, and likewise, our moral character will continue to affect our actions.