What This Catholic Wants in a President (And How the Candidates Measure Up) – Part Three

Welcome to Part Three of my first-ever series:

These Walls - What This Catholic Wants in a President Part Three

Today’s post covers some of the “hot” political issues that I care most about. I had been hoping to cover all such issues in this post, but long enough is long enough. So today you get: the Social Safety Net, Abortion, Religious Freedom, and Capital Punishment/Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide. On Monday (updated to correct to next week, at some point), I’ll cover the remaining issues on my list: Immigration, Foreign and Military Policy, The Economy, The Environment, and Education.

For an introduction of the series and an explanation of how my Catholic faith has influenced my political outlook, please see Part One.

For a discussion on some of the qualities I want in a president and a few of the broad issues that impact the more specific, controversial issues (like those in this post), please see Part Two.

For my thoughts on how the presidential candidates (of both parties) measure up to my (unreasonably high) standards, please come back next week and beyond for parts Five through however-many-I-get-to.

(Mostly) Hot on the Hot Stuff

Alright, now that I’ve gotten past those general, boring, impacts-everything-else issues, how about we get into the juicier stuff?

I tend to run pretty hot on the social issues. They’re where my Catholicism really comes to bear: I’m for a social safety net for vulnerable populations, against abortion, for religious freedom in the workplace, against capital punishment, for immigration, against euthanasia, and for an active foreign and military policy that aims to resolve conflicts and protect persecuted communities.

On a few other issues – the economy, the environment, and education – I guess I have a vague, limited opinion, but I’m just not too wrapped up in them. You can’t be hot on everything.

— Social Safety Net —

First, a decidedly un-Republican thing to be for: a social safety net that helps vulnerable populations actually move forward with their lives. And by “vulnerable populations” I mean the chronically poor, the mentally ill, the addicted, the disabled, and the (practically, if not officially) orphaned.

This is an issue (or rather, a collection of issues) I never knew much about until I worked with it/them. (I used to lobby on poverty-related issues on behalf of the Catholic Church.) There’s so much to the topic that I could write an entire series on it alone, so I won’t try to be exhaustive here. (Lengthy, perhaps – but not exhaustive.) I’ll just make three general points:

One, there are fewer resources for help than you think. I can’t begin to tell you the number of phone calls I’ve fielded from those in need, or whose loved ones were – and I didn’t even do the actual work of trying to connect people to resources. I just lobbied on such issues.

Just lost your job and need a few hundred dollars to tide you over with the rent so you’re not evicted? Sorry – our state’s rental assistance program is teeny tiny and not accepting any more applicants. And eviction prevention programs are so specific that few people qualify for them.

Need longer-term help with the rent because you can’t find a job that pays enough for you to stay afloat in this expensive housing market? Sorry, there’s a seven-year waiting list for Section 8 in your county.

Need a place for you and your kids to stay tonight because you’re (rightly!) trying to get away from an abusive home? Sorry, neither your county nor any of the neighboring ones have a public homeless shelter. And though the Church does operate two women & family shelters in this metropolitan area, both are full, with waiting lists.

Have an adult child showing signs of serious mental illness for whom you want to get help? Sorry, we can get him admitted to the hospital for a day or so, but we can’t do anything else.

Have a child suffering from addiction? Sorry, private rehab programs are expensive and public ones are mostly full.

On public assistance already, but want to take a better-paying position so you can move up the ladder at work and build a small savings to eventually by a car (so your job options won’t be limited by those accessible via public transportation) or put down a rental deposit on your own apartment or just have a little cash in the bank for emergencies?  (You know – the things that would enable you, ultimately, to not need assistance?)  Sorry, if you make any more income you’ll lose your assistance entirely. Same if you start saving. You’d better just stick with that lower-paying job so you don’t end up worse off than you are now.

(Sorry for the length on that last one – it just had to be said.)

The truth is, most of those living in poverty or experiencing other serious hardships have very few options for help. Government programs are often insufficient, understaffed, and restrictive. And though private, charitable programs do wonderful work, their resources (and therefore efforts) are more limited than anyone would like.

For all the complaining we hear about entitlements, most government assistance programs for the poor are not entitlements, meaning that when they’re full, they’re full. They’ve no obligation to take you. Entitlement programs (like Food Stamps), in which any eligible person must be served, are the exception and they’re limited to very specific purposes. Political talk about how large entitlements are and how very much of the budget they consume primarily reflects the size of the Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid programs. (Of which only the third is exclusive to the poor.)

For many who live in poverty, the odds are simply stacked against them: difficulties related to housing, transportation, education, health, family life, and criminal backgrounds often conspire to make self-improvement literally impossible. And poverty aside, even most middle-class families are ill-equipped to handle the costs associated with addressing severe mental illness, addiction, or disability.

Two, the government is the most effective way for us to collectively support people in need.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could depend on our churches and charities and families and neighborhoods to support those who find themselves in a bind? Absolutely. All of the above do good, important work. But they don’t do nearly enough of it for us as a society to be able to depend upon them alone. Many churches and charities struggle from declining participation and donations. (Note: If you don’t already, please give to your local Catholic Charities!) And many families and neighborhoods, sadly, are not equipped to help their most vulnerable members. Some – the really dysfunctional ones – already do them more harm than good.

Three, simply, I believe that it’s important to help those in need. Just as simple as that: we should help those in need. That’s common human decency. But it’s also one of my calls as a Catholic. I should help the neighbor I know and the one I don’t. I should give of my time, talent, and treasure. And I should care whether the help that’s given is sufficient and effective.

In sum, I want something from a president that most Republicans are unlikely to deliver: a commitment to policies and programs that provide for real, useful assistance for vulnerable populations. If I can find a candidate who seems to fit this bill and is also pro-life, well then, he (or she) may well be my guy.

— Abortion —

Next up, the biggest of the don’t-bring-it-up-at-a-dinner-party topics, the one that’s lighting up our newsfeeds nonetheless: abortion.

If you couldn’t tell by now, I’m really, very much against it. (I’ve written about it in greater detail here.) And I want a candidate who is too.*

Honestly, there is no one issue that is more important to me than abortion. I consider myself pro-life in the fullest sense of the word – I’m against the death penalty and euthanasia, and for programs and policies that help individuals attain the necessities of life. But when it comes down to it, I think there can hardly be anything more wrong in this world than ripping apart an innocent child in her mother’s womb.

Social moderates in the Republican Party advocate, quietly and not, for the Party to shift its focus away from divisive issues like abortion. But this social conservative is here to say that if you give up the stance against abortion, Republican Party, you will lose me. I already disagree with large factions of the Party on immigration and bi-partisanship and social welfare. If the Republican Party ditches its traditional commitment to pro-life policies, then I will have no compelling reason to stay.

In short: I refuse to vote for a Republican candidate for president who isn’t convincingly pro-life. And absent a dire turn of events (i.e. Trump winning the nomination), I can’t see myself voting for a pro-choice Democratic candidate either.

*I think any (eventual) law prohibiting abortion will have to include an exception for when the mother’s life is in danger. Such cases may be exceedingly rare, but politically and legally, I think we’ll have to allow for that possibility.

— Religious Freedom —

Maintaining full, real religious freedom is exceedingly important to me. As I wrote here, I firmly believe that there are no more fundamental rights than those to (life,) speech, and religion. “When I am able to speak freely, my mind is free. When I am able to worship freely, my heart and soul are free too.”

Honestly, I don’t worry that the government is about to start dictating which religious doctrines are or aren’t acceptable for churches to be teaching on Sunday. But I do worry that the government is beginning to sacrifice religious freedom to secular, liberal ideals in seemingly mundane ways: compelling religious organizations to enable their employees to be provided with contraception, requiring private individuals to provide goods and services that violate their consciences, and soon, I expect, requiring even churches to employ and accommodate (via, for instance, the rental of a church hall) individuals who flout their teachings.

I worry when so many of my friends and fellow Americans hear that the government aims to force people to do things that violate their deeply held religious beliefs and they… don’t care. Or worse, they fly to the defense of the government and demonize those targeted by it because the things that are to be done involve those most sacred of secular cows, contraception and abortion.

The fact is, there are slippery slopes all over the place. It’s quite fashionable to be concerned about government overreach insofar as it applies to email and phone records. But what about government overreach concerning what we believe and how our everyday lives reflect those beliefs?

I worry that we might not realize we’re on a slope until we’ve already slipped.

I want a president who will recognize the vital importance of real, full religious freedom and who will oppose policies that have the effect of limiting it.

— Capital Punishment and Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide—

Consistent with my desire to protect newly-conceived life, I also want to preserve the lives of the condemned, the sick, and the elderly. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: All human life is sacred – no matter its age or condition or station.

As capital punishment is primarily the purview of the states and execution for federal crimes is very rare, I don’t at all expect this issue to be a focus of the presidential campaign. Nor do I expect Euthanasia or Assisted Suicide (which I wrote about here) to make waves. But on all these counts, I’ll be looking to see what hints the candidates give.

I want a president who values human life in all of its stages – who, like me, opposes capital punishment, euthanasia, and assisted suicide. Most candidates, I imagine, will not join me in that across-the-board opposition. But at the very least, I plan to avoid candidates who speak of capital punishment with relish, or who dismiss the concerns that accompany euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Alright! That’s enough for tonight. (Do you see now why I couldn’t fit all my “hot stuff” into one post?) I hope you come back Monday next week for the remaining topics in this section: Immigration, Foreign and Military Policy, the Economy, the Environment, and Education. Have a great weekend!

~~~

Just as I have for Parts One and Two, allow me to close by clarifying two points. (I may do so at the end of each of these posts.)

  • First, though I prioritize the Church’s teachings in my own political decision-making, and though I used to lobby for the Church, I do not claim to speak for it. For the Church’s official positions on national-level policy questions, please see the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Some of the issues I discuss in this series will have a clear connection to those the USCCB advocates on. Others will not.
  • Second, though I may hold a degree in political science, I am no political scientist. I’m a stay-at-home mom who pays a greater-than-average attention to the news. Feel free to call me out on anything you think I’ve gotten wrong.

Thanks again for joining me. I hope to have you back next week for Part Four!

Full Disclosure

As I plan to write about some political and religious issues on this blog, I thought it would be useful to provide a little background on the evolution of my outlook in these areas. (I have all these country songs running through my head as I write this: “Where I Come From,” “God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you,” etc.)

I thought this little ‘disclosure of my biases,’ as I think of it, would be useful for a few reasons: (1) Political and religious subjects can be pretty touchy. (No surprise there.) (2) Our opinions on them usually have a strong basis in our own life experiences. (3) I aim to be as fair, open, and even-handed on this blog as I can be. And (4) I personally prefer news and commentary sources that either (a) represent both sides of an issue equally well or (b) openly disclose their opinions and make no pretense of impartiality. So I kind of thought I’d cover all my bases.

But before I go any further, let me say that this post makes me nervous and I had a hard time writing it. (Which is part of the reason I wrote so few posts this past week. I was trying to take this one in a different direction and it stumped me.) The words below represent my past and my thought processes and my faith, family, and friends, and it’s all very personal. It’s also probably a big ol’ case of TMI. But I felt like I needed to get all this out there before I proceed with a bunch of other posts I have lined up in my head.

So…

I was raised Catholic in that I regularly attended mass with my mother and I was provided with a religious education through our parish. But my father is not Catholic and there was little mention of faith in our (very happy) home. These days when I read blogs that mention a devotion to this saint, or a fondness for that novena, or a special attachment to such-and-such prayer, or a thousand little ways to live out the liturgical seasons, I feel kind of lost. Like I don’t fully fit into a community that should be my own. Yes, I’m Catholic. Yes, I love Christ, I am devoted to His Church, and faithful to its teachings. But no, I’m not familiar with all the trappings of my Faith.

While there wasn’t much discussion of religion in my family, there was a lot about politics. My grandfather was a local elected official, so I was exposed to campaigns and political chatter from a young age. Various family members worked on Granddad’s campaigns and we all helped on Election Day (which was just about my favorite day of the year when I was a child). My family was (and remains) very Republican in a very Democratic state, so I was instilled with a strong attachment to conservative ideals, but no illusion that these ideals were universal. (Rather, I understood that they were uncommon and needed to be defended.)

In my (public) high school I had a great group of smart, articulate, and religiously/politically diverse friends. And we liked a good debate. As the sole practicing Catholic and one of the only conservatives, I became the defender of all things Catholic and some things conservative. Just as my family’s experience as members of a minority party had prodded my attachment to conservatism, so my lunch-table debate experience bonded me to my Faith. Not that I understood it very well: eight years of Sunday school and one year of confirmation class do not a well-informed Catholic make. But my own little role as Defender of the Faith prompted me to research, ask questions, contemplate, and pray.

This all set the stage nicely for my next step: a political science major at a Catholic college. More lunch table discussions, this time with classmates and seminarians who had been raised in devoutly Catholic families, gave me glimpses of the depth and beauty awaiting me in the Church. Philosophy and theology classes helped me to better understand it. And my political science courses, not to mention informal discussions with friends and professors, gave me an appreciation for the broader context in which we live out our religious ideals. I had always been interested in the convergence of differing ideas; in college I became particularly interested in the convergence of politics and religion.

I wrote my senior thesis on “The American Catholic and the Two Political Parties,” which explored the poor fit between the Church’s teachings on matters of public policy and the ideological break-out of today’s American political parties. I also completed an internship with a Catholic organization that advocated on behalf of the Church’s public policy interests. Several years later, after a stint with the federal government, I returned to the organization to work as a lobbyist for the Church.

There, I was tasked with representing the Church’s positions on social justice matters, which included a wide range of issues related to poverty, housing, health care, and immigration. (Along with a few others.) Most of the positions were what Americans would call “liberal.” Which was a real challenge for me. Coming from a conservative background, I was comfortable with the Church’s teachings on abortion and marriage. I was comfortable promoting school choice. But the Church’s social justice teachings made me uncomfortable. I didn’t necessarily think they were wrong; it’s just that they challenged the political ideals under which I was raised and so they caused discomfort.

Oh, what a learning and growing experience it was for me. I read and I talked to people and I prayed.  I began to gain something of an understanding of people who faced challenges that I never had – people who struggled to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads, people who came to this country seeking a better life, people whose poor health or poor treatment by others or whose own poor decisions had stymied their chances of making it on their own – and even people who struggled to be able to function in society at all. I was changed and I was humbled.

I was grateful for the opportunity to give voice to these people’s concerns – and also for what I felt was an opportunity to bring people closer to Christ through this work of His Church. I feel like a cheesy ball of mush writing this, but I had so many moving experiences doing this work: I huddled in a group of elderly immigrant women and tried to convey to them (through our language barrier) that their Church was there for them. I spoke to crowds at parishes and pleaded with them to connect their own preferred cause for the “least of these” with another that was more challenging for them. I testified before lawmakers and told them, time and again, that all human life has value, regardless of its age or station.

Perhaps I have digressed. What I’m trying to explain is that, yes, I come from a particular place on the political spectrum. I get the conservative thing. But I have also been emerged in an unfamiliar (liberal) political territory, and I got to know it too. I feel richer for the experience.

When I was a lobbyist, I found that I could lobby more effectively when I put myself in the shoes of my opponents – imagining and even empathizing with their motivations. I think the same holds true when you’re discussing a difficult subject. All too often these days, people seem to regard consideration of and empathy with “the other side” as a sign of weakness, even foolishness. But it is such an asset. Sure, it helps you to build a solid case for your own cause. But more importantly, it helps you to explore your own opinions and motivations and be sure that you’re on the right course.

When you get together a group of people who all bring this kind of consideration to their conversation – well, that kind of discussion moves everyone forward in understanding. That is what I feel my background has prepared me for and that is what I hope to encourage with this blog.

The Best Gift A Parent Can Give

I heard a really moving story this morning on the radio. “Beating The Odds: Making The Grades Without A Mother’s Help” told about a Washington, D.C. teenager named Jennifer Hightower. Jennifer has excelled in school (earning a 3.9 GPA!) without the help of her mother, who has struggled with drug addiction and illness.

I’ll write more on it later, but I have something of a left/right ideological tug-of-war going on in my mind on some subjects. (On others there are no struggles at all – my mind is firmly on one side of the ideological divide.) Poverty-related issues most definitely fall into the “tug-of-war” category. Jennifer’s story was interesting to me in part because it satisfied both sides of my ideological leanings in this area: The left-leaning side was gratified that the story shone some light on the daunting (and often ugly) challenges that so many Americans face in their efforts to succeed – or even just to function – in our society. The right-leaning side was proud of Jennifer and her commendable efforts to excel despite those challenges. (Not to mention her happy, positive outlook on life and her forgiving attitude toward her mother.)

The story also broke my mommy heart a little. The idea of a small child taking on the responsibilities of keeping her home clean, cooking, and excelling in school without a mother’s guidance – it’s hard to take in. But a simple image is what touched me most: “I had to teach myself how to tie my own shoes,” Jennifer said. “I didn’t have somebody to sit down and tell me this bunny tie that you do. All that stuff you see on TV, I didn’t have that.”

For the umpteenth time since I became a parent, a small image of trial and deprivation took the wind out of my sails. On a daily basis, I worry about keeping my home orderly, washing the dishes, cooking decent meals for my family, getting my boys enough run-around-outside time. And yes, all of those things matter. But at the base of it, what really matters is that my husband and I love our boys powerfully, unreservedly, consistently… in all the best ways one can love. And that we take care of them in the big and the little ways. Our boys don’t have to wonder whether they are loved or whether they will have their needs met. Those thoughts don’t have to cross their innocent little minds. At times like these (thinking of Jennifer’s story), that seems like such a luxury. Countless children don’t get to have that sense of security. I feel so humbled and so very grateful that I received that gift from my parents – and that my husband and I are able to give it to our boys.