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The Election: Final Advice on Discernment

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 05, 2012

In the midst of all the arguments and counter-arguments about how best to cast our votes in the American presidential race on Tuesday, let us not forget the need to pray to discern God’s will. His will must be discerned, obviously, within the range of options that are not intrinsically immoral. First we rule out what is intrinsically immoral; then we discern, with God’s help, which of the remaining choices will best serve the common good.

With respect to the issues of greatest (intrinsic) moral importance, I think it is fair to say that the legitimate options are framed by the following widely-shared assessments of the Democratic and Republican candidates:

  • Barack Obama is singularly intent on implementing policies which are contrary to the natural law, inimical to what we commonly call the first right (the right to life) and the first freedom (religious freedom), as well as undermining marriage and the family, the health of which is the single most important determinant of social prosperity and happiness.
  • Mitt Romney favors a culture of life only in the most marginal of senses, having demonstrated through past policies a very poor record on abortion, and having campaigned in this race as one in favor of abortion in cases of rape, incest and endangerment to the life of the mother, but he is publicly committed to religious liberty, conscience protection and restraint in matters of social engineering, such as gay marriage.
  • The election of Barack Obama will, logically, mean the immediate expansion of the abortion license and gay marriage, and the immediate punishment of citizens for obeying the natural law and/or acting according to the traditional teachings of their religion.
  • The election of Mitt Romney will, logically, further convince the Republican Party that it need not worry about its pro-life (or, more broadly, pro-natural law) constituency, trusting that as long as it is perceived as less evil than the Democratic Party, it can count on pro-life votes, which is likely to weaken the politics of the culture of life in the future (for a captive constituency is a weak constituency).

Faced with this situation, Phil Lawler put the matter succinctly when he said on behalf of those who share Catholic values: “We can lose but we cannot win” (October 31st in Pro-lifers should be strategic voters).

I have argued, on the basis of this common assessment, that there are two basic moral options for American voters, which we might call the short-term option and the long-term option. The short-term option is to vote for Romney. Many deeply committed Catholics who have chosen this option will vote, as one of our staff put it, while holding their noses. Phil Lawler, whose opinion I respect immensely, has written (in the same commentary) that he intends to vote for Romney. I myself have stated that Romney’s credible commitment to eliminate the HHS Mandate constitutes the strongest argument for voting in his favor, “an argument which at least must be considered” (October 25th in The Strongest Argument for Romney).

But I have also argued that an alternative long-term option is moral—the option of deliberately sending a message to the Republican Party that it must be more committed to the culture of life to earn our votes or of attempting to help a third party gain traction, on the calculation that either or both will bear greater fruit in the long run. I believe all concerned understand that it is not immoral to vote for the lesser of two evils, but those who tend toward the long-term option are certainly influenced in part by legtimate serious moral objections to both of the major party candidates.

My defense of this long-term option has been roundly denounced by some and greeted with immense personal relief by others. But if I am correct, disagreements over these two strategies should be unstained by moral condemnation, for the ultimate decision must be based squarely on a prudential judgment. This judgment must be made in response to the same question that always governs our choice among moral voting options: “All things considered, both immediately and in the future, which option do I believe will maximize the common good?”

Now it is obvious at once that the answer depends on future results which we cannot forecast perfectly. In one way, this uncertainty works in favor of the shorter-term outcome, because the accuracy of our forecast decreases in proportion to the length of the time period in question. In practical terms, the immediate effect of an Obama victory is easier to predict than the long-term effect of a Romney victory. But this does not render the long-term effects unpredictable.

In other words, even after having determined the clear moral parameters of tomorrow’s election, each and every voter is inescapably faced with a prudential analysis about which, as with all prudential judgments, he cannot be certain. This means that the final decision must be made with God’s help.

Very often, in the height of the political fervor which surrounds major campaigns, we tend to harden fairly early into one position or the other. I am not talking about those things which are intrinsically immoral. Rather, even in our prudential judgments we tend to be swept up in our own political “certainties” despite the fact that they are seldom really certainties at all. Instead, as Catholics, we should be opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit right up to the moment we cast our votes. We should be turning to prayer as to a fundamental gut-check. We must do our best to ensure that it is the Holy Spirit, and not our own spirit of political rivalry, which informs our decision.

This, then, is my final advice before the election: Pray. Note that I am not speaking here of the perennial obligation of praying for the future of our country, which is something we all tend to do, especially with our desired outcomes in mind. Instead, I am talking about prayer for the soundness of our own judgments, for our own openness to do God’s will when it comes to how to do the most good, on this occasion, with our right to vote:

A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me. Cast me not out from thy presence, and thy holy spirit take not from me. (Psalm 50/51, the Miserere, vv. 10-11)
But who can discern his errors? Cleanse me from hidden faults. Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:12-14)

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Nov. 07, 2012 12:04 PM ET USA

    I slept little last night. I had been plagued with worry that President Obama would be re-elected, as indeed he was. I asked God to show me that He is with us. He reminded me of the Babylonian exile. Jews lost their entire political structure, but had it restored within a generation to those who rededicated themselves to faithfulness. Great lesson to keep before us.

  • Posted by: VTCCzuba9768 - Nov. 06, 2012 5:36 PM ET USA

    One answer to this dilemma occurred in northern VA during the 1999 State Senate election (VA-35). After walking away from a set up to lose the Republican primary, a strong pro-lifer ran as an Independent. Most party leaders, even "pro-lifers," denounced her. But she won 9% of the vote (not the predicted 3%), and the liberal Republican lost to the Democrat by 37 votes out of 18,000. That conservative revolution resonates still, as it opened the door for VA's strong conservative Atty General.

  • Posted by: the.dymeks9646 - Nov. 06, 2012 12:57 PM ET USA

    Voted this morning, and attended a prayer vigil that started last night at 7 that will end tonight at 7. Discernment-yes, prayer-yes, however, I believe that long term strategies are best left to God, prayer, and the new evangelization.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 06, 2012 7:02 AM ET USA

    Very well put. Excellent advice. One further prudential consideration might be added but does not in any way dispute the fundamental argument above. Is this the best time to send a political message to the GOP when A) the race is extremely close and one might argue very winnable and B) the potential risk to natural law principles and religious conviction is so great? These are important prudential considerations, yet in the final analysis I hope in the Lord who is "my rock and my redeemer."

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