Voting for the Common Good

Jim Consedine

Self-interest and fear are often the primary reasons why people cast their votes the way they do. The principal focus of campaigning for elections appeals to the self-interest and fears of voters. These form an unholy alliance of twin motives which often cloud more important issues.

This is not to say that there are not many who have a more visionary agenda. Most political parties give some recognition to this. Both self-interest and fear in theological terms reside within the dark side of human nature. They form a component part of the ‘unredeemed’ human psyche and just as ‘getting tough on crime’ rhetoric appeals to the dark fearful side of our human nature, so self-interest appeals to that same powerful force. Politicians know this. That is why they ratchet up the tough talk on law and order every election. And why they shamelessly appeal to our self-interests in seeking votes.

That is also why the Gospel of Jesus will only ever have a marginal impact on an election campaign. To appeal to peoples’ redeemed grace-filled natures would produce a vision of radical change in society which would threaten the very existence of some social institutions and political parties. Imagine if a mainstream political party promoted a truly holistic Gospel vision: a real and active care of the planet based on just social policies as a starting point, a living wage for everyone but no excessive salaries, the disarming of the military and promotion of a model of community development based on service and the non-violence of Jesus, creative work for all, inclusive social structures which ruled out all discrimination, education and medical care free and accessible to all, a fair taxation system where those who had most paid most and those with least paid proportionately? Jesus taught all this and more.

How then should we vote? My view is that the promotion of the common good is the antidote to self-interest and fear. A vote for the common good is a vote for our neighbor and an assured future for ourselves. Place that first – and the rest flows. The recent NZ Catholic bishops’ excellent statement highlighted this focus. They were not the first. In October 1996, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales produced a pastoral letter on the common good in the light of the Church’s social teaching. It’s a document that should sit on the bedside table of every priest and bishop and be required reading for every Catholic. In it, the common good was a defined as the whole network of social conditions which enable human individuals and groups to flourish and live a fully genuine human life. Far from each being primarily for him or herself, all are responsible for all.

They went on to point out that the common good stands on four other principles, essential to its realization. It’s like a healthy racehorse, standing on four legs. If one leg is damaged or missing, the horse is crippled and unwell. All four legs need to be sound. The principle of solidarity implies the interconnectedness of all human beings – we form one family. The protection of human rights speaks for itself. The principle of subsidiarity supports a dispersal of authority as close to the grass roots as good governance allows. And the fourth principle was to take a preferential option for the poor, so the poor were included in society’s structures and shared it’s resources fairly. Each of these if lived implies a radical redistribution of power and wealth which could well make the common good achievable and help bring God’s Kingdom. All four, along with the principle of the common good, help develop social justice which forms ‘a constitutive dimension of the Church’s teachings’, (Bishops Synod, 1971). But how many Catholics really know about or accept these Church teachings?

For a Christian, voting beyond self-interest and fear should be to vote for the common good. The fundamental question for voters is: which party protects, enhances and develops the common good best?

Tui Motu, November 2008

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