Discerning Presidential Candidates

When I taught government to high school seniors, there would always be a number of students who when asked what form of government we had would reply: “Capitalism!” Of course, I spent time explaining the difference between an economic system and a form of government — which for us is representative democracy.

Pieces are not enough. Separate pieces, issues, positions, fail to create the composite that offers us the fullness of perspective from which to choose. Staying too focused on one thing can even blind us from seeing whether what we are holding on to so tightly is accurate or factual.

Presidents have been on my mind recently as we witnessed the impeachment of only the third president in our history and the increasing frenzy of choosing a presidential nominee for the Democratic Party. And when I was growing up, February was the presidents’ month, incorporating two holidays — translate, free days — for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. My thoughts began to focus on how we choose our president and other elected officials.

When I worked with Network for 15 years, I spent many weekends on the road giving workshops about Catholic social justice teaching. For the most part, this whole body of encyclicals was fairly unknown. Those of us working on these issues commonly referred to it as “the best kept secret of the Catholic Church.”

What our tradition offers is not a myopic view of what governance is all about but rather a perspective that understands our role as citizens as part of our personal call to holiness. Pope Francis has written in Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel,” that “an authentic faith … always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it … . The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters. If indeed ‘the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics,’ the Church ‘cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.’ “

However, this conflation of our governing system with capitalism may not be a mistake of only the young. I have spoken with too many people over these past months who seem to use the state of the economy and their own personal financial wellbeing as the sole criteria for supporting political positions, parties and candidates. They will ignore all other values and criteria in evaluating how our democracy is working. They don’t seem to consider how what is happening affects the common good.

Like any one-issue perspective, it fails to recognize the complexity of our world and the various values and standards that operate among us. We allow one consideration, one key value or position to blindside us from seeing the entire picture.

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