The 2016 election will be decisive for the future of our nation. Eight more years of leadership such as we have witnessed under Obama will stamp our culture so deeply it would take a century to undo the damage.
What damage, you ask? Eight more years will bring an end to religious liberty. Expressing the Christian view of human existence will become the occasion of bureaucratic and legal censure and punishment.
The fuse will be ignited by those who defend the Christian understanding of homosexuality, but the ensuring explosion will extend along an entire range of issues from the meaning of marriage, public school curricula, freedom of speech, control of the internet, radio and TV programming content, euthanasia and, of course, abortion.
To put it bluntly, if the Democrats win the 2016 election the United States of 2050 will be completely unrecognizable from the nation into which I was born in 1949.
The generations who fought and even died against the tyrants of ideology — the reduction of the human person to vacuous materiality — will have sacrificed for nought. The tyrants won without firing a shot. They took control of the culture by taking over the leadership of our basic institutions — education, entertainment, journalism, medicine, banking, social services, and religion.
To have any chance of impacting the next election, which as I have written will be difficult, Catholics should consider the following lessons that have been learned by those of us who have been actively involved in successful and unsuccessful political campaigns on behalf of life, marriage, religious liberty, and the protection of those near to death.
These are not merely my personal recommendations but represent a consensus of Catholics who have been active in leading political, grassroots efforts on behalf of worthy candidates.
1. Promote Mass attendance: All the exit polling since the late ’50s shows that Mass-attending Catholics, not self-identified Catholics, are most likely to vote for socially conservative candidates who oppose gay “marriage,”oppose abortion, oppose euthanasia, support the military, espouse traditional values, support fiscal responsibility, oppose the growth of federal power, and look upon the United States as an “exceptional” nation. If Mass attendance continues to drop, Catholic voters will have less and less impact at the ballot box. Their voting pattern will lose its distinctiveness.
2. Maximize the likely voters: Outreach to Catholic voters should focus on maximizing the identification, education, recruiting, and actual voting of Mass-attending Catholics. Effort spent going after historically hostile or indifferent groups is a waste of time and resources. Self-identified Catholics vote with the general population, as do Catholic groups bound by ethnicity. Yes, Catholics need evangelization, but that’s a long-term project which cannot be completed by 2016.
3. Watch your language: Most Catholic politicians and activists sound like Evangelicals. That’s not meant as a criticism of Evangelicals but a criticism of Catholics who do not bring the concepts and diction of their own faith into the public square. It’s also a criticism of Catholics who think they have to sound like an Evangelical preacher to gain a following or create applause. Catholics speaking about politics need to develop their own effective political language and their own powerful, persuasive rhetorical models.
4. Don’t ask for permission from clergy: The Church teaches that the Catholic layperson has a specific obligation to participate in politics, to be political all the way to the grassroots. Our clergy and religious have an obligation to vote but do not have the same obligation to engage politics in a partisan manner. Catholics make the mistake of asking for permission to create groups or support candidates when asking permission is not required. Our clergy teach us the moral-social principles upon which our participation is based, but they cannot — and should not — become obstacles to lay participation in politics. (The only exception is in the case of ex-communication when a politician is “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin,” such as abortion; see Canon 915.)
5. Collect lists, stop waving fists: Too many Catholics confuse public complaining with political participation. They spend their time making impassioned comments at political rallies, or in religious meetings, about the state of the culture and the need to change our political leadership. None of these impromptu speeches gain any votes because they are “preaching to the choir.” The fury, however, can be an effective starting point of genuine political outreach, which includes list-building, volunteer recruitment, volunteer and voter education, door-knocks, messaging through media, and get-out-the-vote programs.
6. Realize Catholics play dirty: One of the hardest lessons to learn and accept is that Catholics in politics will play dirty. By that I mean they will lie about the faith, misrepresent its teaching, ignore its non-negotiable moral principles, distort the views of pro-lifers and other socially conservative Catholics, and will proclaim “Church teaching” for policies that have no authoritative standing in the “sacred deposit of faith.” We have responsibility to expose those lies in a timely manner to keep them from becoming embedded in the public consciousness.
7. Politics is about passion, not reason: Catholics will have noticed that the candidate who “tells it like it is” is not necessarily the candidate who wins. That’s because political outcomes are not determined by who tells the truth but who stirs the passions — wins the admiration — of the most voters. Voters vote, first and foremost, for the candidate they “like,” who they are “favorable” toward. Politicians and their supporters who do not get this are beaten from the start. Of course, Catholics should support a politician who tells the truth about human existence, but they should also either recruit likable candidates or convince the grouchy ones they need to smile more and frown less.
8. Take sentimentality seriously: Catholics, for good reasons, are a sentimental tribe. Any acquaintance with the last 200 years of Catholicism in America will appreciate the hardships of generation after generation of Catholic immigrants. And before that, the America of the Founders was not at all hospitable to Catholics, an anti-Catholic attitude that was still evident in the 1960 presidential election. This fact makes the passionate nature of politics even greater among Catholic voters. Candidates and activists need to tread carefully and, most of all, know who they are talking to when they talk to Catholics.
9. Master Catholic symbols: Catholics, as liturgical worshippers, are naturally alert and vulnerable to the power of imagery and symbols. For example, I was told some years ago, “never wear French cuffs when you speak to Catholic voters.” Good advice, such symbols only remind voters – even if they wear French cuffs themselves – of the Protestant elites who looked down upon their Irish, Italian, or Slavic grandparents. You will not believe the pains taken by candidates to have “collars” or “habits” behind them during their stump speeches. This is why it’s rare for an Evangelical political consultant to successfully manage Catholic outreach.
10. Happy warriors win, grumps lose: Politicians are in sales. Voters are the buyers. When you are selling, you don’t browbeat the buyer, you don’t sadden the buyer, you don’t demean the buyer. No, you befriend the buyer, meet his or her eye with a smile, learn his or her name, shake hands warmly, and talk about how buying your product will make life better. In short, be the kind of person they like and trust, who they can believe in. Anger, condemnation, self-righteousness and such attitudes and tones of voice may delight a small percentage of angry, condemning, and self-righteous voters, but it won’t win an election.
*This column is the personal opinion of its author and does not represent an endorsement of any political party or candidate by the Morley Publishing Group, Inc.