The case for Catholic engagement in an imperfect political order

With the 2024 elections a mere eight months away, American Catholics will once again be faced with a choice. As always, this election will undoubtedly be ‘the most important of our lives,’ a true ‘inflection point for democracy.’ But amidst a rapidly changing political landscape and growing opposition to the integration of Christian values in American political life, Catholics must reject the temptation of apathy or withdrawal.

Catholics in America are enigmatic in their electoral behavior. Polling shows that the Catholic vote is split evenly among Democrats and Republicans. Some argue that Catholics do not prioritize their faith in the ballot box, and others attribute this unpredictability to differences in prudential judgements of faithful Catholics. 

In another time, the latter explanation may have sufficed. Today, however, the political landscape has undergone a significant shift: One side of the ideological spectrum has grown increasingly hostile to allowing Christian beliefs to play any role in political decisions and policy-making. While astute observers of politics recognized long ago that such a phenomenon is simply the result of liberalism arriving at its logical conclusions, this transformation has gone from noticeable to an inescapable contradiction.

On February 23, Politico national investigative correspondent Heidi Przybyla took part in a panel on MSNBC to discuss the project that has become the new favorite bogeyman of the American left: “Christian nationalism.” Prophesying the alleged dangers of a Trump presidency aligned with Christian political priorities, Przybyla said, “The thing that unites them all as Christian nationalists—not Christians, by the way, because Christian nationalism is very different—is that they believe that our rights as Americans [and] as all human beings do not come from any earthly authority. They don’t come from Congress, from the Supreme Court. They come from God.”

Though Przybyla and her allies argued that this clip was taken out of context, the journalist held firm to her conviction that Christian nationalism is a malignant cancer on American political life because its adherents are “using it for a man-made policy agenda.” 

Bishop Robert Barron, bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota and founder of Word on Fire, responded to the MSNBC clip with a video reflection. Przybyla’s comments, Barron said, were “one of the most disturbing and, frankly, dangerous things [he’s] seen in a political conversation.”

Taking Przybyla at her word, it is evident that the loudest objections to the broad “Christian nationalism” movement are coming from individuals who would deny that the Bible, Catholic theology, and the natural law can ever inform politics and lawmaking. “Rights,” in Przybyla’s telling, are merely a cudgel for beating anyone who wishes to order society in accord with the truth out of politics entirely. 

But even for those who, hearing comments such as Przybyla’s, have concluded that practicing Catholics no longer have a home in the Democratic Party, a new malaise has struck: political apathy—the belief that political participation is ultimately meaningless.

In the eyes of politically apathetic Catholics, the two major political parties are, despite surface-level differences, really reinforcing the same agenda. This is most evident in the parties’ broad agreement on economic policy, approach to foreign affairs, and preservation of the entrenched political establishment. These people have a point. If American politics since 2015 can teach us anything, it’s that the uniparty is real. What’s changed, however, is the existence of an alternative strong enough to fight back against it.

Another group of people, including a number of well-intentioned, faithful, and devout Catholics, argue that politics is a distraction. They recognize that American society in 2024 is a mess, but they are skeptical of political solutions to societal problems because they believe participating in them risks muddying their souls. Instead of trying to improve things as they are, they advocate for a strategy of retreat from political life altogether.

Recently, this dissatisfaction and frustration with political engagement has been reflected in broader conservative discourse. Some commentators have pointed to Oliver Anthony, who captured the anxieties of Appalachian life in his song “Rich Men North of Richmond,” as a heroic avatar of ordinary Americans who have been left behind by a rigged system. Even those who do not reject political participation, such as Turning Point USA president Charlie Kirk, have called for conservatives to skip college and take up a trade—like plumbing or carpentry—to avoid higher education altogether. But despite the allure of withdrawing from hostile institutions and systems, exit is not a viable long-term solution for fixing what ails our nation.

There is no “return” to earlier times. There is no going back to simpler ways of life, at least if we want to win. We can only move forward. Going to Mass often, getting married, and raising a family in a close-knit community of other devout Catholics are all commendable goals, and we should never lose sight of our final end. But failing to address political questions—especially in an age so rife with confusion and outright hostility to the mission of the Church—is a hopeless, fatalist abdication of duty. The hour is late, but Catholics must engage with the political order before we find that our voices have been drowned out.

PJ Butler is a senior studying political science and theology. You can email him at