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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

September 2, 2004
   Vol. 2, No. 20

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

An election guide for honest-to-God serious voters

By Joan Chittister,OSB

Have you ever in your life seen politics posing as religion as much as it is in this campaign?

There's something nice about a year like this though: Everybody who's anybody is telling you who you are. For instance, I got a letter on my computer this week from the Republican National Committee telling me that to vote Republican was to vote "in accordance with Catholic values."

Then I got an article about "10 teachers of Christian ethics" who wrote to Bush to criticize the Bush campaign's attempt to collect church membership directories from "friendly" congregations so they could make the religious pitch to them directly.

Then I heard that two more Catholic bishops have decided that any Catholic politician (read: Democratic politician) who votes pro-choice shall be denied communion in their churches.

Finally, I got a very refreshing invitation to join a group of clergy who are sponsoring an ad in the New York Times attesting to the fact that "God is not a Republican ... and God is not a Democrat either."

I can't tell you how relieved I was to hear that. Because if God is registered in either party right now, God can't be God.

I have a feeling that God is not keeping a denominational scorecard on either party's platforms and legislative proposals, as in "This one is Catholic, this one is not Catholic, not Catholic, Catholic, Catholic, not Catholic." And the winner is ... !!

But, if the psalmist is anywhere near correct, I think there is a criterion we can use to make our personal political decisions with moral confidence. I bet God's own criteria still holds. I bet God is still listening, as in Yahweh's message to Moses at the burning bush: "I have heard the cry of the poor ... and I mean to deliver them."

I have a notion that this election may be a reprise of that same message -- this time, for us.

The truth is that there are more than enough poor that we as a country no longer count: The unemployed who drop off the welfare rolls, the underemployed who get no benefits, the children without health insurance, the fetuses being disposed of for the sake of convenience, the Iraqi civilians being killed for the sake of macho, the elderly who are facing even more poverty in years to come as Social Security fizzles in the wealthiest country in the world while we go on investing more money in death these days than we do in life?

I think we better listen, as well, to the cries of the poor of other countries who, because of our economic or foreign policy plans, get poorer every day, fear us more every day and hate us more every day.

The list goes on and on. Tell me again, who is "pro-life"? Where is the morality of saving life at one end only to starve it in mid-flight or kill it off cavalierly at the other?

And why are we as a people so blasť about it, so apparently unconscious of it all, so committed to a single-issue focus in the midst of it? Is it perhaps that this time religion itself has gone astray, has narrowed the criteria so clearly given at the burning bush, has itself lost perspective in a world that has never needed perspective more?

It isn't that religion doesn't have a place in the public debate. On the contrary. It's that politics has no place in religion.

It is not the place of political parties to seek to enlist the religious community as part of its campaign staff. That smells far too much like collusion to me. It smacks far too much of the kind of theocratic thinking that preceded both the French and the Russian revolutions. It sounds too much like the rise of a new Christian Taliban to me. It sounds too much like this year's election, in fact.

It is not the function of religious figures to condemn specific politicians. That, as far as I know, is still God's role. It is the function of religion to teach religious values and criteria that can then be applied by you and me to the political positions of our politicians. Religion must form us "to hear the cries of the poor" and then to vote accordingly.

We must be called to conscience -- not to the political campaign strategies of either party.

The church officials who are violating this important kind of separation of church and state are not simply crossing the line politically, they are hurting religion, hurting the country, obscuring the overall moral issues of the campaign.

If you want to cast a moral vote, print out one of the many comparative lists of the issues espoused by each candidate. Ask yourself the question, "Will this proposal, this position, affect the poor of this country or the world positively, negatively or neither? Ascribe to each of the items in the platform or on the proposed legislative agenda a plus, a minus or a zero. Now count up the pluses. The program that will bring the most aid to the poor is the moral position. That is the way you and I are really expected to vote this year.

How do I know? Easy. You see, what God says to Moses at the burning bush after "And I mean to deliver them" is this: "So I am sending you to pharaoh to say, 'Let my people go.' "

That's the most direct election guidance I've seen so far -- including what we're getting from bishops and campaign committees.

From where I stand, sending that message to pharaoh is the only real reason to vote.

Note from Joan: In the next couple weeks, I'll tell you about two groups in particular who are waiting to see how we vote this time.

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