I was quite struck by John Allen's column this past Friday on the election about the political disenfranchising of so many Catholics in this country because the platforms of both parties make us feel that we must always choose between the lesser of two evils. I, for one, certainly fall into that camp. Here's Allen:
"Here's a thought exercise: In the abstract, what would the political fortunes be in America of a candidate who actually embodied the full range of Catholic social concerns? What would happen if a serious candidate came along who's pro-life, pro-family, anti-war, pro-immigrant, anti-death penalty, pro-sustainable development, and a multi-lateralist in foreign policy concerned with religious freedom and a robust role for believers in public life? My hunch is that such a candidate could be attractive to a broad cross-section of moderates and independents. The machinery of both major parties, however, appears almost designed to prevent such a person from ever being nominated.
After Nov. 4, Catholics on the winning side will start scrambling for various forms of access and patronage from the new administration, while those who backed the loser will start organizing the opposition. In other words, both the victors and the vanquished in American politics know exactly what to do once the smoke from battle clears.
For disenfranchised Catholics, the road ahead is far less clear. For what it's worth, my own reading is that it's no use trying an end-run around the two-party system. If a holistic Catholic sensibility is ever going to cut ice in American politics, it will have to come from one of the two parties being hijacked from within -- the way Reagan moved the goalposts for the Republicans, or Clinton for the Democrats. (Or, if you prefer an overseas example, the way that Blair built "New Labour.")
In that light, it would be an interesting experiment if a network of Catholic policy groups, activists, and intellectuals were to take shape once election season is over, devoted to laying the groundwork for influencing both parties from within. I'm talking not just about making compelling arguments, but doing the hard nuts-and-bolts work of political organizing, including identifying potential candidates and making them battle-ready.
All that would, of course, require time, money, and expertise, and I'm not sure where any of it might come from. In the absence of such an effort, however, many of the best and brightest in American Catholicism are doomed to feel perpetually alienated, forever choosing between the lesser of two evils. While no political system is ever perfect, the question these Catholics are asking is: Can't we do better than this?"
What Allen describes above could only be done by a generation of exceedingly sharp, tough, well-formed, well-networked, and politically creative lay Catholics who can see and move beyond the old shibboleths of liberal and conservative politics in this country. Lay Catholics who are willing to forgo the immediate rewards of the existing system in order to force the parties to change in a direction that supports life across the board. Who recognize that a true culture of life cannot be built in this country without the significant participation of both parties.
Now that would be a work worthy of our most gifted and gutsy people, who simply refuse to sell out.
In the mid 90's, when the Seattle Mariners won, miraculously, their first chance to be in the play-offs - the fan mantra was "Refuse to Lose".*
What if American Catholics simply "refused to choose" between life issues? We are the biggest single religious bloc by far - the 70 million strong political gorilla - and there are many other Christians and people of faith and good will who would be intrigued by and follow our lead. Neither party can win or govern without substantial Catholic support and participation. Why are we behaving as though we simply have to accept the stark, mutually exclusive, alternatives that the current party system spits out at us?
What if we simply Refused to Choose?
*For the baseball-inclined, here"s the rest of the story:
1995: "Refuse to Lose"
1995 was the season that saved baseball in Seattle. Capping a miraculous September surge that saw them end the season tied with Anaheim, the Mariners earned the first post-season berth in franchise history by thumping the Angels in a one-game playoff at the Kingdome. After dropping the opening two stanzas of their five-game ALDS matchup with the Yankees, the Mariners pulled off three straight dramatic wins. In the classic Game Five the M's rallied from an early deficit against Yanks starter David Cone to force extra innings before Martinez brought them back one last time on a two-run 11th inning double, inspiring pandemonium at the Kingdome. Seattle eventually succumbed to a heavily favored Cleveland juggernaut in the League Championship series, but not before throwing a scare into the Indians by extending them to six hard-fought games.