Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre is opposed to abortion and the rise of what Pope John Paul II has called the “culture of death.” But this does not mean that he backed President George W. Bush.
The University of Notre Dame scholar is concerned about health care and fair wages. But this doesn't mean that he marched into a voting booth and picked Sen. John Kerry. During a year in which religion and politics constantly made headlines, MacIntyre published an essay that frayed nerves on the religious Left and Right.
“When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither,” he said, writing for the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture. “When that choice is presented in rival arguments and debates that exclude from public consideration any other set of possibilities, it becomes a duty to withdraw…so as to resist the imposition of this false choice by those who have arrogated to themselves the power of framing the alternatives.”
While some argue that good citizens must vote, MacIntyre said that the only vote worth casting in 2004 was “a vote that no one will be able to cast, a vote against a system that presents one with a choice between Bush's conservatism and Kerry's liberalism, those two partners in ideological debate, both of whom need the other as a target.”
These are fighting words for many politicos.
Late in the 2004 race, some religious activists spoke out against “single-issue voting,” a phrase often used to condemn those who cast votes based on a politician's stance on abortion. Other activists said MacIntyre and others writers who advocated political abstinence were naïve and irresponsible for focusing on so many issues.
In one of his BreakPoint radio commentaries, evangelical apologist Charles Colson said Christians must vote in order to take part in God's work in this culture. In this case, Colson was specifically rejecting the views of historian Mark Noll of Wheaton College.
Colson said that some Christians seem to yearn for a return to the past, when fundamentalists retreated from politics rather than face the temptation to sin through compromise. Is this retreat what Noll and others seek?
“That position is dead wrong and damaging to democracy,” said Colson. “It's the utopian notion which assumes divine perfection in fallen humans. His assumption that we can support only candidates who have perfect scores according to our reading of the Bible makes me wonder how he votes at all. And if that's the standard, all of us should stop voting.”
Obviously, Noll disagrees, arguing that it is not wrong to seek consistency on faith-based issues. Here is his short list: race, taxes, trade, health care, religious freedom, the international rule of law and “life issues,” such as the defense of the unborn.
“Each of these issues has a strong moral dimension. My position on each is related to how I understand the traditional Christian faith that grounds my existence,” wrote Noll, author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Yet neither the Democrats nor the Republics have made “a serious effort to consider this particular combination of concerns or even anything remotely resembling it.”
MacIntyre agrees and cannot imagine embracing either major party, right now.
“Try to promote the pro-life case…within the Democratic Party and you will at best go unheard and at worst be shouted down,” he said. “Try to advance the case for economic justice…within the Republican Party and you will be laughed out of court.”
The philosopher has, in recent weeks, declined to defend his essay or to state how a Bush win or a Kerry win might affect his political views.
One thing is certain: religious believers will face similar choices again, or worse. It's hard to imagine how the religious Left can compromise on abortion or same-sex unions. It's hard to imagine how the religious Right will cope with the rise of cultural progressives such as Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“I don't feel that I need to elaborate on what I have written at this time,” said MacIntyre. “Besides, I plan to write about this subject again at greater length. These issues are not going away because I do not believe that major parties have the right answers. I also don't believe they are asking the right questions.”
Terry Mattingly teaches at Palm Atlantic University and is a senior fellow for journalism at the Council For Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.