God and the Single-Issue Voter

Election 2004 | Building/Consensus
The former Mayor of New York, Ed Koch, a lifelong Democrat, is backing the re-election of President Bush on the basis of essentially one issue: Israel. Or, as he explains it, Bush is “the only one willing to stand up to international terrorism.” (see the interview in the March 2004 Hadassah magazine) Asked whether he basing his endorsement on a single issue, Koch grew defensive. Or rather, offensive. “When someone says to me what’s Bush’s position on abortion, I want to hit him.”

I worry about these “Empire Chicken Hawks” (after the brand of kosher chicken) in the Northeast, who are flocking towards this Bush and pulling with them their “snowbird” parents and grandparents in contestable states– Florida in particular. The short answer is that view is incomplete. John Kerry has a 100% rating from AIPAC over his years in the Senate. And for all of Bush’s stances, Israel is in no better state than it was four years ago. (an argument which I wrote in the Jewish Advocate last month). Standing up to international terrorism has had little consequence other than more terrorism internationally.

The deeper concern is whether any given issue can outweigh all others in a voter’s decision. While it is not uncommon for a single issue like abortion to be at the center of a voter’s choice, in Koch’s case the single issue overrides a general disagreement with the candidate’s other issues. This can be troubling for democratic participants, since a single-issue voter would be ignoring other facets of the election. To help address these concerns, I found an essay, written after the 1980 elections, “The Morality of Single-Issue Voting” by Father John Langan (then a research fellow at Georgetown University; today the Cardinal Bernardin Chair of Catholic Social Thought there ). Langan seeks to provide a moral framework in which single-issue votes can be rationalized. He advances that voters can morally choose a single issue, if a matter of conscience and principle:

“…we can recognize the overriding importance of those principles and rights which protect what is necessary for personal and communal survival. We can affirm that it is appropriate for people to take stands of principle to protect basic human rights, whether their own or those of others. This very general consideration is one that can be appealed to in arguments for single-issue voting on a diversity of topics: abortion, nuclear disarmament, El Salvador and Guatemala, the survival of Israel.”

In the intervening 24 years and 4 administrations, Israel has survived. As has abortion. And thus they’ve survived as issues as well while the others have come and gone. One commonality in the lasting issues is how readily God is summoned to the debate; the more fundamental or personal the beliefs, the harder it is for them to be relinquished.

Langan further writes that these beliefs must be held in a morally responsible way. A voter choosing a candidate based on a single issue must be prepared to carry the advocacy of the issue beyond election day. But they must take caution. Here’s a lesson from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Wisdom (1994), wherein he writes:

“Many people who conceive of idolatry as the worship of statues and totem poles assume that it no longer exists. From Judaism’s perspective, idolatry occurs when one holds any value higher than God and morality. A person whose says ‘My country right or wrong’ and, on this basis, acts unjustly, is an idolator. By regarding his country’s demand to do wrong as more binding than God’s demand to do right, such an individual makes it clear that he or she regards country as higher than God.” (Telushkin goes on to say that even Zionism, when held above everything else, is a form of idolatry).

If one picks a single issue, they must be able to anchor it in morality. They must not take the shortcut of divine justification — for the most powerful and dangerous grammatical structure in the human experience is, whether one is an atheist or a believer, to use God as the subject of the sentence. Instead single-issue voters must also justify it in within a greater sense of societal ethics. This is necessary whether they are fighting the Constitution (as with abortion opponents) or advancing U.S. policy (as with Israel supporters).

The issues we’ve considered seem like idols, lesser goals which divert us from the greater morality. Here’s a better example. Consider the voters for this coming election who generally subscribe to the values of the Republican party: fiscal conservatism, self-reliance, the traditional family structure, and an assertive foreign policy. There is single issue which should confounds them: that of truth, which rests at the heart of all moral reasoning. The President Clinton was nearly chased out of town for lying about sex; the President Bush sails by with deceptions on matters of war and finances. Worse than the truth being avoided, it is not sought. Scientific rigor is bypassed; alternative views are dismissed; probing questions are ignored. If there ever was a need for a single issue, it should that of truth.