One of my favorite films about American politics is a documentary by R. J. Cutler and David Van Taylor called A Perfect Candidate
, which follows the 1994 U.S. Senate race in Virginia. Hard-fought and closely contested, this election pitted the charismatic and controversial Iran-Contra figure Ollie North against the earnest (and not uncontroversial) incumbent Chuck Robb. A Perfect Candidate
follows the North-Robb race largely through the eyes of a hired gun - North campaign manager Mark Goodin - and a veteran journalist, Washington Post
political reporter Don Baker. Despite his apparent cynicism and sarcastic wit, Baker tries to keep the pols honest and basically serves as the moral conscience of A Perfect Candidate
. Interviewed on election day, Baker refuses to say how he voted but speaks thoughtfully about the privilege of casting a ballot. "That's the thirty seconds during the campaign when I'm not the journalist," Baker says, "so I just go in and I vote - as an 'Amurr'can.'"
For me, the time I spend filling out my ballot is likewise a time when I'm simply an American. To the Registrar of Voters, it makes no difference that I'm a Catholic and a Jesuit - I'm simply a citizen whose vote counts as much as anyone else's. The political opinions that influence the way I vote have been shaped by a variety of factors - the cultural and social environment I grew up in, my education and life experience, and, to be sure, my religious faith. While I have great respect for those who seek to live out their faith in public service, I do not believe that the task of secular politics is to build the Kingdom of God. No politician can bring about perfect harmony or end all human suffering. Whatever good may be achieved by politics is inherently relative; the good of politics may not be the greatest good, but one may modestly hope that representative government helps people to solve at least some of their problems and to meet needs that they could not meet on their own.
Though I have definite political opinions, my public identity as a vowed religious obliges me to be very careful about how I express my views. This enforced caution can be quite a challenge at times, and for a number of reasons. Before I entered, politics was an important part of my life: I majored in government in college, served as a legislative intern at the Massachusetts State House, worked on a number of campaigns, and was elected as a delegate to four consecutive state party conventions. I don't miss the stress and unpredictability of life on the campaign trail, but I still follow election news closely and enjoy discussing politics with friends. Nonetheless, in recent elections I've been bothered by the arguments of some commentators who allege that being a "serious" Catholic obliges one to vote for or against a particular candidate. Keeping to a prudential silence on political matters can be very difficult when others are not so bound.
While I retain what I believe to be a realistic view of the limitations of politics, I also acknowledge the good that can be accomplished by political means. One of the most rewarding aspects of my time at the State House was speaking with constituents who would call for help in getting access to state services. Seeing the positive difference that government can make in the lives of individuals taught me that the public 'good' isn't abstract and general but inescapably particular. From my point of view, the political credo offered by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his second inaugural address remains operative: "The test of of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."
Whatever your views are on today's election, I hope that if you are eligible to vote you will do so. Democracy is not a spectator sport, and those who fail to exercise their rights have little standing to complain if they are unhappy with the results. So get out and make your voice heard. AMDG.