The Common Good

Religious-Right Voter Guides Facing Challenge From Left

Date: September 29, 2006

A new group called Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good said yesterday that it will distribute at least 1 million voter guides before the Nov. 7 elections, emphasizing church teachings on war, poverty and social justice as well as on abortion, contraception and homosexuality.

The 12-page booklet, called "Voting for the Common Good: A Practical Guide for Conscientious Catholics," is part of a broader effort by liberal and moderate religious groups to challenge the Christian right on moral values, said Alexia Kelley, the group's executive director and a former employee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Secular groups such as the NAACP, the League of Women Voters and the Sierra Club have long published election-year guides to issues and candidates' positions. Since the conservative Christian Coalition began distributing voter guides in 1992, however, it has faced little or no competition from liberal or moderate religious organizations.

In Roman Catholic parishes, the group Catholic Answers, based in California, had the field largely to itself in 2004, when it distributed 10 million copies of its "Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics." This year, as in the past, the Catholic Answers guide urges Catholics to base their votes on five "non-negotiable" issues: abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning and same-sex marriage.

"No one endorsing the wrong side of these issues can be said to act in accord with the Church's moral norms," it says.

The Common Good guide takes a different approach, saying: "In recent years some have suggested that we can answer this question [of how to vote] by applying a simple 'litmus test' of a few selected issues. But common sense tells us that deciding who to vote for is much more complicated."

Both guides are available on the Web sites of their respective producers, http://www.catholic.com and http://thecatholicalliance.org .

Quoting documents issued by the U.S. bishops conference, the Common Good guide outlines seven "key themes of Catholic social teaching" -- including "prioritizing the needs of the poor and vulnerable" -- and lists 18 "issues important to Catholics," including immigration, the environment, nuclear disarmament and workers' rights.

"Seldom does a single candidate or party offer a consistently Catholic set of positions," it says, adding that "we often must vote for candidates who may hold the 'wrong' Catholic positions on some issues in order to maximize the good our vote achieves in other areas."

Leading Catholic conservatives reacted to the new guide with disdain. Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute in Washington, called it "a blatant attempt to convince Catholics that they can vote for candidates who are wrong on the primary human rights issue of our time, which is abortion."

The Rev. Joseph Fessio, provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., said it is "a flight into abstraction" that treats all issues as though they have the same weight. "Some issues are disqualifying issues. You don't vote for someone who kills babies. You don't vote for someone who destroys the family by supporting homosexual marriage," he said.

But the Rev. David Hollenbach, a professor of Catholic theology at Boston College, defended the guide. "If one were to decide the only thing that matters in the election is avoidance of war and not to look at abortion and poverty, that . . . would not wash, and vice versa," he said. "This cuts against people on both the left and the right."

In Protestant churches, the Christian Coalition's guides will face competition this year from "Voting God's Politics," a brochure produced by the liberal evangelical magazine Sojourners and the anti-poverty group Call to Renewal. Like the Common Good guide, it discusses issues, not individual candidates.

"Even the term 'voter guide' has been so tainted by the religious right that people are afraid that ours is going to be just a left-wing version of theirs, a thinly camouflaged signal to vote for particular candidates," said Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners. "Our guide levels the playing field; it makes clear that God is not a Republican or a Democrat."

In numbers, however, the battle of the voter guides is still not an even match. Sojourners has distributed 50,000 of its brochures and plans to print 150,000 more. Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition, said her group will distribute "millions" of its guides, which she said it is now compiling, to candidates in key races.