The question is: What muddled Election 2000? The answer is: maybe us.

Television commentators are obsessed with procedural questions related to the seemingly endless vote-recount process in Florida. I'm not. I am much more preoccupied with a question that has been troubling my soul for years. This was an election in which single-issue voting played a pivotal role in the close outcome of the presidential race. Furthermore, many of the "single issues" that split the presidential vote so badly--and resulted in Ralph Nader's garnering a significant chunk of votes that might have gone to Al Gore, and Pat Buchanan's slicing on a smaller scale into George Bush's votes--were contentious moral and religious issues such as abortion, environmental protection, and the rights of workers in a global economy. So I've found myself wondering: What role, if any, should the ideals of a religious believer play in the politics of a religious believer?

If it hadn't been for idealistic voters casting their ballots for splinter candidates--Nader, Buchanan, and others--whom they viewed as representing their ideals better than the two mainstream candidates, it is highly unlikely that this election would have ever reached the recount stage.

As it was, many people voted this election year for candidates they knew could not win in order to "send a message" to the major parties that their commitments to moral issues important to those voters was unacceptably weak. What are we to think of this sort of reasoning--when the political reality is that a vote for a third party is really a vote for the party whose moral stance is even more unacceptable to the voter? Others voted to legalize their personal moral ideals. What are we to think of voting designed merely to enshrine our personal moral positions as law? Are either politics or morality served by the political crises created in the wake of this sort of idealistic single-issue balloting? What is the nature of our religious obligation in situations like this?

If Francis Bacon was correct when he wrote that "a prudent question is one-half of wisdom," simply asking whether that kind of voting is really most moral, most idealistic may be at least half-wise in a country that is clearly divided, perhaps even dangerously polarized, on issues called moral by many. Or to put the questions another way: what is something like "the Nader factor" and a "right-to-life campaign" all about--bad politics or good morality? What moral purpose does it serve to throw away a vote in the name of morality?

Religion and politics share a mighty ambition: the former to shape the state of the soul, the latter to demonstrate the quality of it in public life. The two do not always march abreast, however.

I have been opposed to nuclear weapons for over 30 years. A few political candidates have echoed that position, but none of them was strong enough to win the vote, let alone influence legislation. I also oppose capital punishment on the grounds that life is the only road to repentance, and that becoming what I hate is no answer to what I hate--but neither major-party platform endorses my position. I am in favor of gun control legislation, but I realize that many good people who use guns for nothing more than target shooting view this solution as a threat to their civil rights. I am opposed to abortion as a birth-control method of choice, but I am well aware that there are theological differences on that issue which make it a matter of conscience, as is nuclear-ism or military service or even religion itself.

None of my positions on these contentious issues is politically popular, despite the fact that I myself consider all of them moral issues. One presidential candidate this election year--Bush--generally opposes gun control. Two of them--Bush and Gore--are for capital punishment. One of them--Bush--wants more nuclear weapons. One of them--Gore--supports freedom of choice in relation to the issue of abortion. And at least one of them--Nader--is as quixotic as I am, but he couldn't possibly do more in a general election than make both his dreams and mine more difficult to achieve by diminishing the effectiveness of my vote in the current two-party system. I was, it seems, a voter in search of a candidate.

So--what did my religious faith demand in the face of the tension between political choice and idealism, between law and morality? I had three options: I could drop out of the electoral process entirely, refuse to support a system that I considered inherently sinful or at best ineffective. Or, in the hope of "sending a message," if not a legislator, to the center of the system, I could support a candidate I knew could not prevail. Or, finally, I could chart a middle course and pledge myself to work for the change of public opinion that would make the social change I want to see possible, while casting my ballot for the candidate who had a chance of winning and whom I judged to be closest to what constitutes "the good life." Then maybe, I hoped, little by little, we could as Americans reach as consensus again on what it takes to sustain the just life.

"Politics," Bismarck said, "is the art of the possible." What, I wonder, is the value of voting for what may be morally desirable but is not possible, when what is possible may be the only avenue we have to the desirable? Politics and religion are not the same thing, but politics may be the best chance we have, as a people, of eventually becoming moral.

In a country that prides itself on separation of church and state, nowhere, ironically, are the two more closely joined than at moments of national election. Then we have a chance to decide whether a vote for "morality" is always really moral. When concentrating on one single issue or one highly improbable candidate cancels the possibility of gaining wider issues of justice for the widest range of people the question itself is a moral one. That is a lesson we are learning the hard way as we wait for the recounts to end.

more from beliefnet and our partners