11/01/2012 04:45 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Religious Principles and the Election

In a little over a week, we will be voting in a national election. Our first amendment guarantees to religious communities the right to practice their religion freely, just as it restricts the power of the government to establish or privilege one religion over others.

Nothing in this amendment restricts religious communities from articulating the fundamental moral values that they believe God is calling them to implement in the world or from suggesting how those values ought to influence the public sphere and public policy.

One role a church might play in the electoral process for its own members is by reminding them of some facts about our political order and the role they, as conscientious citizens informed by moral values, can play in it.

First, they need to neither demonize nor idolize the political order: politics is, at its best, the serious work of the people by which they collectively determine what laws and policies they will live by. For the Abrahamic traditions the first value of politics must be doing what is best for all, for the common good, the general welfare, and not solely for the narrow self-interest of a particular faction. If they take the common good seriously it will require their participation in the electoral and political process, even in its state of imperfection and corruption.

Second, they need to acknowledge the ambiguities that inevitably occur in applying moral values to our social lives. No political party, politician or policy is without its flaws just as no human being is without flaws and imperfect insight. We cannot be blind to those flaws even while we cannot ignore the necessity of working, within the ambiguities, to implement those policies that promise the most effective means of making human life better and fairer. We should not expect of our politicians or of ourselves the impossible as measured by an unrealistic standard of purity. We need a political order that is realistic about human nature and does not expect us to act like angels or complete altruists.

Third, religious communities need to understand the priority of treating the least well-off with justice and fairness. Strangely missing from this year's political debates is any reference to the truly poor and disadvantaged. Only the middle-class seems to count. But if there is a biblical absolute, it is the moral imperative to do justice for the oppressed and needy, what the Roman Catholics bishops have called the "preferential option for the poor." Today we have a greater skewed gap between the truly wealthy and the rest of society than almost any other nation in the western world. In and of itself a gap in wealth may not be morally problematic if everyone, rich and poor, feels equally empowered with equal opportunities to flourish despite these differences in wealth. But when the effects of the growing gap between the truly rich (the so-called 1 percent) and the impoverished poor undermines our belief that we live in a truly just society, and when these effects create conditions that diminish human life, then that gap not only increases injustice but it sows the seeds of discontent about an unfair society and weakens the will to change it. It can push the poor into despair and hopelessness, driving them out of the political order, and it can lull the privileged into arrogance and a self-righteousness that regards any change in their position in society as class warfare. Without both the perception and reality of an essentially fair and just social contract between all members of a society, we will be driven into ghettos of fear, walled around with laws that permit further increases in inequality while cutting off the poor from services and opportunities that are essential to their well-being.

In an imperfect world, in complex societies, the most we can hope for is an approximation of justice: the counter-balancing of power relations so that one group or class does not have the power to dominate or dictate the rules for all the others.

This means asking which social policies would make a real difference in the lives of the disadvantaged, the poor and the hopeless? This means asking questions about effectiveness. What programs, policies and promises will be, as best we can determine given our limited predictive knowledge, the most effective in doing justice? This requires the hard work of examining the realistic basis of policy proposals put forth by candidates and parties and determining, with the help of experts, what they would actually do to and for the poor. We should not create policies that assume we are all angels willing to part with our earnings out of sheer altruism until all poverty has been eliminated. We should not go into the voting booth informed only by warm sentiments but instead by an informed understanding of the real social consequences of what the candidates' policies would be.

Committing ourselves to the biblical mandate for social justice is hard and complicated work. The bottom line is not our own moral purity but is instead the concrete effect the application of those principles will have in the lives of real people in the real conditions of a presently unequal contemporary society.