A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
After reading my recent post on Vox Populi (The End Times? October 5, 2014), an activist-friend asked me to write an essay about single-issue voting. Although I laughingly responded, “I don’t take requests,” upon further reflection, I feel compelled to share this vivid memory of why I believe single-issue voting is a danger to the socio-political fabric of our democracy. So in anticipation of the upcoming below-the-radar mid-term elections, here goes:
I vividly remember the day – no, the minute – I left the Catholic Church forever. I hadn’t planned on it being my last Mass; but, once this happened, I knew it was.
The final straw wasn’t the opulence or the rumored pedophilia. It wasn’t even the misogyny. It was the blatant disregard for the Sermon on the Mount.
My grandmother had been raised in a convent in Poland; my mother said the Rosary daily. I attended Catholic schools and, holding out longer than most college students, attended Mass at the Newman Center, inspired by my boyfriend. My attendance became more sporadic once I graduated, the boyfriend and I broke up, and my new career demanded much of my free time. But out of respect for my mother, I’d attend Mass with her whenever I returned to my hometown. Until the day I resoundingly declared, “Never again.”
Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign was in full swing. Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro were the Democratic challengers, she the first woman on a major party’s presidential ticket. When my mother and I entered the church, campaign literature for Reagan was on display in the vestibule. I started grumbling and my mother told me to “hush,” reminding me that we were in God’s house. I convinced myself that some zealot Reagon-ite had just dropped it there; it surely was not an endorsement by the church. After all, our Constitution mandates the separation of church and state.
Then came the sermon: The priest told his flock that it would be a sin to vote for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket because “Geraldine Ferraro supports abortion.”
I could no longer be hushed. I scribbled a note, signed it, dropped it in the collection basket, and stormed out. In my opinion, this was decidedly NOT God’s house.
I wasn’t just angry; I was sick to my stomach. Not because I was a rabid pro-choicer or a feminist. I left my church because as a teacher in the Head Start program in 1984, I bore witness to abject poverty every day. Debilitating poverty that I had never seen the likes of in my suburban hometown. Hungry preschool children, lacking adequate medical care and housing. Beaten-down parents who had no job skills, and no pathway to get them. Good people who by accident of birth or misfortune were unable to get their basic needs met. Desperate, scared people.
And for good reason. During Reagan’s first term, ketchup suddenly counted as a vegetable in school lunches. Although the Head Start program was spared budget cuts in 1982, ancillary services for low income families were decimated, making Head Start’s mission to break the cycle of poverty even harder. The “trickle-down” never trickled down. There were huge holes in Reagan’s “safety net,” even as the demeaning moniker “truly needy” was coined. By the end of Reagan’s eight years in office, it was generally agreed that his economic policies led to an overall increase in the national poverty level.
Now that’s what I’d call a sin.
My hastily scribbled note cited the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor…the meek….Hadn’t Jesus instructed us to sell what we have to give to the poor in order to get into heaven? It would be easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle….Yet these Catholics – followers of Jesus, an outspoken advocate for the poor who never once mentioned abortion – had been directed from the pulpit to vote for a candidate whose economic policies were harmful to the little lambs that Jesus so loves and protects in Scripture. In my opinion, that’s a sin too. (It was later revealed that this was a nation-wide campaign conducted by the Catholic Church to defeat Mondale/Ferraro. Similar campaigns have been waged by the church in subsequent elections.)
The issue of abortion had trumped poverty. That’s single-issue voting: Fixating on one cause, one issue to the exclusion of all others, even to the exclusion of the greater good. Like exclusively zeroing in on gun control as the deciding factor. Or taxes. Or health care. Or abortion. They all matter to everyone to varying degrees and are not mutually exclusive.
The Nuns on the Bus understand this. They are a Catholic social justice lobby advocating for the poor and condemning “big money.” Yet these compassionate nuns reap criticism from the Vatican for not spending their time defending church doctrine on abortion and sexual ethics; they’re apparently too focused on social justice. Hel-lo? Does anyone see the connection between having enough food and being willing/able to bring a baby to term? Or birth control and economic independence through stable employment?
Later in my career as a school district administrator, I witnessed the damage done to our school system when single-issue campaigns were mounted and single-issue candidates were elected. It’s never about academic offerings OR tax rates. It’s about both. They must be considered in tandem; one dramatically impacts the other in this necessarily symbiotic relationship. When viewed as an either/or proposition, an organization or government body is torn asunder. Like our current Congress.
While I’m riding the sin wagon, it’s sinful for us as constituents to cast our precious vote based on any one singular issue. We need to vote as critical thinkers; we can’t afford to be so obsessed with one issue that we neglect all others. Not as Catholics, Jews, Republicans, or Progressives. We must take into consideration all of our core beliefs before deciding who will be our voice in potentially life-altering decision-making. Like Social Security. And war.
When our elected officials legislate with tunnel vision, advancing a narrow special-interest agenda, we all suffer. We need to elect critical thinkers – candidates who realize that communities are living, breathing organisms comprised of diverse stakeholders. A surgical strike can’t be launched on one segment without affecting the whole.
Maybe we all just need to go to confession. As then, as Jesus instructed, “Go and sin no more.”
— Patricia A. Nugent writing for Vox Populi