Mercy at the Ballot Box
How To Conduct Ourselves as We Engage in Our Civic Duty
As the national mid-term elections approach this Tuesday, those of us who are devoted to living Divine Mercy as a way of life face a significant challenge in the public arena.
We're called to exercise our civic duty by voting, based on Christian values and the goal of promoting the common good. (To read what the U.S. Catholic Bishops have to say about this civic duty, please see the end of this column.)
But will we conduct ourselves mercifully as we consider candidates for political office and their stances on the issues of the day? Our nation is more polarized than ever — especially over the war in Iraq — between Republicans and Democrats, the Right and the Left. Based on our own party affiliation and political views, it's all too easy to join in the mud-slinging and smear tactics. Those in the opposing party and candidates whose views we disagree with can quickly "morph" into the enemy.
A good example of this comes to mind in a heated local contest for district attorney. The current district attorney, whom I'll call Joe Smith, runs for re-election and is attacked by his opponent for being too harsh with drug dealers who are first-time offenders. The offenders are young people who are caught in a school zone selling illegal drugs. The D.A. is bringing them to trial and prosecuting them under a mandatory sentencing law that stipulates they serve a minimum of two years in jail if convicted.
Smith's opponent, whom I'll call Susan Brown, rakes him over the coals for prosecuting the young people, pointing out that probation and drug treatment programs should be considered, instead of jail time.
As a father with three teenagers, I begin to see "red" and side in my heart with Brown and against the D.A. as the primary campaign heats up in the local press. In my mind, he becomes the enemy who won't give young people a second chance.
Then I read in a newspaper interview with the D.A. that he did offer a plea bargain to the young people on the condition that they share the identities of those who supplied them with the drugs. They refused, so he prosecuted them under the mandatory sentencing law.
I begin to view the D.A. in a different light now that I know this crucial fact. He had given the young people a chance to come clean. As a citizen and a voter, I had jumped to a conclusion about him without getting all the facts. Emotion also colored the picture for me because I'm a dad with children of my own.
The operative question for me then becomes: How can I avoid this rush to judgment during the fall election campaign with other candidates and issues? Most importantly, how can I conduct myself mercifully as I learn of candidates and their stances on the issues?
I'd like to share some principles along these lines that I will try to follow. I invite you to consider them as well, and think of some yourself. We might call them rules of the road in living mercifully during political campaigns.
Principle #1: Doing our civic duty as citizens, including exercising the right to vote, is all about the call to love and show mercy.
This is the bedrock principle, which is the basis for all the others. And it's right out of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one's country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good requires citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community. Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one's country (2239-40).
Notice the emphasis on "love and service of one's country" as the motive for doing our civic duty, including exercising our right to vote. The Catechism goes so far as to describe it as flowing from "the duty of gratitude" and belonging to "the order of charity." Our fundamental disposition of mind and heart, then, is love of neighbor — and by extension love of our own country and our fellow countrymen. So, we are called to earnestly desire and seek the good of America and our fellow Americans — all out of love and the bond of charity.
Saint Faustina, the great Apostle of Divine Mercy, understood this well and prayed with fervor for God's mercy and grace upon her own native country of Poland. She entreated the Lord's grace in particular for the sake of the innocent ones in her country:
"Most merciful Jesus, I beseech You through the intercession of Your Saints, and especially the intercession of Your dearest Mother who nurtured You from childhood, bless my native land. I beg You, Jesus, look not on our sins, but on the tears of little children, on the hunger and cold they suffer, Jesus, for the sake of these innocent ones, grant me the grace that I am asking of You for my country" (Diary of St. Faustina, 286).
We can make this prayer of St. Faustina's our own as we pray for our country during the fall campaign for the mid-term elections. As we do, let's especially call to mind the innocent ones in our own land, such as victims of abortion, the poor and vulnerable in our midst — the orphan, the widow, the refugee, the immigrant.
Principle #2: Even in the heat of political campaigns, hating your opponent is always immoral and counter to the supreme law of love of God and neighbor.
The corollary to the call to show love and mercy is that hating someone is never an option for a Christian in the public square. Yet we can tend to compartmentalize our views and attitudes, even our hate of others, when it comes to politics. We all too easily rationalize it by saying offhandedly, "It's just politics. He's a Democrat and I'm a Republican."
As the mud-slinging begins during a political campaign, it is so easy to begin to hate a candidate we disagree with. We start to see the person as the enemy, rather than as a human being created in the image and likeness of God — a fellow American who may be seeking the public good. Consider my own example of how I discovered to my chagrin that the local D.A. wasn't the enemy I thought he was.
The hate may begin with a suspicion because the candidate is different than us. The person is a Republican or a Democrat and we are on the opposite side of the fence, so we begin to suspect the candidate merely on the basis of his or her party affiliation. Then the smears in the media begin, we believe the claims against the candidate without really investigating them, and our hearts become poisoned by hate.
Decide that during this political campaign, you will not hate anyone. Whenever you sense yourself veering off in that direction, pray for God's mercy on yourself and on the person you are tempted to hate.
Principle #3: We should give candidates the benefit of the doubt and research their views carefully, rather than letting second-hand opinions or party labels determine our estimate of them.
Always seek to be compassionate and fair to candidates. In researching a particular candidate's background and views, look over his or her own materials, visit the candidate's website, and listen to the candidate yourself at a forum or debate. Do this regardless of the candidate's party affiliation. Try to get a real sense of the candidate as a person and of his or her values and goals.
Second, guard your heart when you hear negative sound bites on TV and radio news about the candidate, or in political ads, usually paid for by the opponent. The information is many times misleading or incomplete. Remember how it was one piece of crucial information that set me straight on the local D.A. race.
Principle #4: Even if you research the candidate's background and views and find valid reasons not to vote for him or her, don't give in to hate. Rather, pray for the candidate.
You may have good reasons for not voting for a particular candidate once you've done your homework on his background, his record, and his views. But remember that this doesn't give you the license to hate him. In fact, we are called to love even our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (see Mt 5:44).
A corollary to this in St. Faustina's Diary are the words: "The greater the sinner, the greater his right to God's mercy" (423). So if we have credible evidence that a particular candidate is a real rascal, that should encourage us all the more to plead God's mercy upon him or her — that the person be granted the grace of repentance. After all, more than a political campaign is at stake. The person's immortal soul may well be in peril.
Further, we can pray that if the person is elected, God would mitigate or lessen the evil he or she might try to do while in office.
A Final Invitation: As devotees of The Divine Mercy, we can pray the Chaplet, especially during the fall campaign season, calling for God's mercy upon our country and all of our fellow countrymen.
The Divine Mercy Chaplet is a powerful intercessory prayer, invoking God's "mercy on us and on the whole world." I invite all of us to pray it every day, especially at 3 p.m., the Hour of Great Mercy, when Jesus died on the cross. As we pray the Chaplet this fall, let's consciously call for God to have mercy on America and all of its people as we look ahead to the elections in November.
Let's pray for all candidates for political office from all parties, for all our fellow Americans, and for the common good of our country, calling down God's mercy upon us all. (Here, I invite you to make a special point of remembering those you tend to forget or overlook.)
Then, let's entrust the outcome of the election to Jesus, The Divine Mercy: "Jesus, I trust in You!" May His will — not ours — be done this November. We can trust in Him completely because, as He Himself tells us, "I am Love and Mercy itself" (Diary, 1074).
David Came is the Executive Editor of Marian Helper magazine, the flagship publication of the Association of Marian Helpers, which is headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass.
Note to the Reader: For an in-depth perspective on your civic duty as a Catholic, visit the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at www.usccb.org. On the home page, click on "Church Documents." Go to "Bishops' Statements." With these statements, which are listed in alphabetical order, scroll down to Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility. This statement was issued for the 2004 presidential election.