Ethical Questions for the Religious Voter

April 7, 2020

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Demonstrator holds a poster reading "My Faith, My Vote" with the U.S. Capitol Building in the background

As the 2020 U.S. presidential election approaches, American voters face mounting ethical challenges in weighing candidates within a highly polarized political climate. The decline of bipartisan collaboration complicates decisions at the polls, especially as voters consider issues of religious and ethical significance, such as abortion. In January 2020, President Donald J. Trump became the first sitting president to speak at the March for Life, demonstrating his firm support of pro-life policies. Democratic candidates for president have taken varying approaches to abortion, but their party on the whole is leaving little room for those with pro-life views. But many faith-based voters who oppose abortion and support other Trump policies still hesitate to vote for the president, especially as impeachment and other controversies have raised concerns about his morality. For many religious voters, there are no easy answers in sight.

The role of religious leaders and clergy members in election year politics is similarly complex. According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of American churchgoers say their clergy have spoken about at least one social or political issue and expressed political leanings they support. At the same time, 76% of Americans say that clergy should not endorse political candidates. Counterintuitively, that reluctance to see religious leaders support particular politicians has not slowed the rise of faith-based political movements in the United States, both left and right of the aisle. As certain religious groups become more and more tied to a particular political party, space for serious consideration of the ethical and moral challenges posed by choosing a specific candidate is shrinking. 

Religion does not necessarily have to follow the broader polarization of American political discourse. Take, for instance, the thoughtful mode of reflection outlined by Catholic Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego. The Catholic moral obligation to vote is clear, says McElroy, but prioritizing single issues carries with it the danger of “hijacking by partisan forces.” McElroy issues a radical call for voters to cast their ballots based not on a specific policy issue but on deep consideration of the common good in the Catholic spirit of solidarity, highlighting the moral complexities of religious voting. That sort of serious ethical reflection is much needed as Americans prepare to head to the polls in November 2020. 

The Berkley Forum asks: On what criteria should religious voters evaluate candidates for office? What specific counsel can be found in the normative teachings of various faith traditions—including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—on the challenges of voting? What kind of moral obligations do religious leaders carry in the election process? How can faith leaders and clergy members help practitioners grapple with moral questions raised by election year politics, without endorsing particular candidates?

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