Conservative patriarch Edmund Burke died in 1797 in Beaconsfield, England.
This didn’t prevent Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, a Catholic conservative, from making Burke her write-in choice in the 2020 White House race. She wasn’t the only voter who felt politically homeless, due to religious and moral convictions that clashed with the political and personal choices of President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Once again, there was no way to ignore issues linked to faith, morality and, yes, character. This was especially true with Catholic voters who frequent church pews.
Considering Trump, Noonan stressed the coronavirus crisis, where the president finally “met a problem he couldn’t talk his way out of. I believe that’s what happened: He played down the pandemic, lied, made uninformed claims at briefings that serious people were struggling to keep useful. He produced chaos. The country can’t afford any of that in a crisis that is sudden and severe.”
What about the Democrat, a lifelong Catholic? Noonan predicted Biden would be a “hapless and reluctant conductor” on a “runaway train,” especially on moral and cultural issues.
“The progressive left,” she argued, “endorses and pushes for the identity politics that is killing us, an abortion regime way beyond anything that could be called reasonable or civilized and on which it will make no compromise; it opposes charter schools and other forms of public school liberation; it sees the police as the enemy; it demonstrates no distinct fidelity to freedom of speech and, most recently, its declared hopes range from court-packing to doing away with the Electoral College and adding states to the union.”
The bottom line: The political realities of 2020 left many Catholics and other active religious believers torn between political options that no longer seemed acceptable.
It was easy to read between the lines in key passages of a new cover letter the U.S. Catholic bishops added to their “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” document.
“The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed," the letter stated. "At the same time, we cannot dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty. ...
"Abortion contaminates many other important issues by being inserted into legislation regarding immigration, care for the poor and health care reform."
After a Biden win, Catholic liberals would be in the spotlight. A key leader in that flock, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, noted some of these tensions during a recent Zoom webinar hosted by St. Mary's College and the University of Notre Dame.
The realities of America's current two-party system, he said, "bifurcate Catholic social teaching, with each party embracing some essential elements of Catholic teaching while rejecting many others. Thus, the faithful Catholic voter is automatically homeless in our political world ... never feeling at peace with the partisan tribalism in both Democratic and Republican cultures.
"Political choice is a mixture of satisfaction and regret," he continued. "For the faith-filled Catholic voter, the regret is greatly magnified."
However, McElroy's remarks included veiled shots at Trump's character, and criticisms of those who attack Biden's abortion-rights activism and his 2016 decision to perform a same-sex union rite for two White House colleagues. The bishop rejected the "public denial of candidates' identity as Catholics because of a specific policy position they have taken."
Sounding popular progressive Catholic themes, McElroy stressed: "Catholic social teaching calls us to protect both the life of unborn children and the sustainability of our planet that is the prerequisite for all human life. It calls us to embrace immigrants and refugees as our sisters and brothers and to protect the elderly from the false lure of assisted suicide. The Gospel of Jesus Christ calls for an utter rejection of racism and the death penalty. It calls for shelter, jobs and health care for the poor and the strengthening of marriage and family life."
The bishop's thesis will be quoted by pro-Biden Catholics, while it infuriates others: "There is no single issue which in Catholic teaching constitutes a magic bullet that determines a unitary option for faith-filled voting."
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.