Every election cycle, millions of Americans go to the polls to vote for the candidate they feel will best represent their views in Congress. Voting is easy; the hard part is deciding how to vote. All Americans have a civic duty to examine the stances of candidates to determine who is the best man or woman for the job. Christians have the even more difficult task of taking biblical truths and commandments and applying them to modern political issues. It can be a difficult discernment process, and pastors and churches shouldn’t shy away from providing what help they can (within the bounds of federal law, of course).
Enter the United Methodist Women (UMW) 2014 Election Checklist. The United Methodist Church’s ever-declining women’s mission group recently gave thirty-eight political questions for members to ask candidates in the upcoming midterm election to “assess whether a candidate’s positions reflect your values.” But what would be an excellent idea in theory is unfortunately hindered by the political slant and baffling choice of issues the checklist chooses to highlight.
In theory, the questions posed to candidates are neutral, asking whether or not they support or oppose a given political position. But as any pollster could tell you, people are unconsciously biased towards “positive” answers and are more willing to say they support something than to say they oppose something. The UMW checklist likely reinforces this bias by having members mark supportive answers under a check mark, and opposing answers under an X. Unfortunately, the majority of questions on the checklist treat the liberal position as the “positive” response.
There are fifteen questions that ask about specific pieces of legislation. Of those fifteen, only one asks if a candidate supports legislation sponsored primarily by Republicans (specifically, legislation to encourage states to create teacher evaluations). The other fourteen questions ask about pieces of legislation where the majorityof sponsors– typically the vast majority– are Democrats. Four additional questions ask if a candidate supports White House initiatives. The undeniable impression one gets is that the proposals Democrats and liberals are putting forward are the ideas worth bringing to your future congressman’s attention, but only one Republican bill is worthy of the same respect.
Another eight question ask if candidates support traditionally liberal policy goals, six ask about traditionally conservative policy goals (including, to the UMW’s credit, one question about replacing Obamacare) and four more questions ask generically neutral questions. By my estimate, roughly 71% of the questions are phrased to favor “liberals” broadly speaking, 18% favor “conservatives,” while only 11% are truly neutral.
At times, the UMW’s descriptions of the issue seems fairly simplistic and biased. For example: “Do you support or oppose the bipartisan Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, to restore federal voter protections that determine where oversight of voting is required, and highlights areas with a history of voting discrimination?” Gosh, how could anyone oppose a bipartisan bill designed to restore voter protections? For some reason, this act is the only bill to be described as “bipartisan,” even if that translates to 11 Republican co-sponsors and 160 Democrats.
But other times, the issues the UMW highlights just seem plain outdated. One question asks if the candidate supports or opposes the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a bill that died in committee after a national uproar in January 2012. Another asks about the proposed “Buffett tax,” which was a major political issue back in 2011, but rarely comes up in modern discussions. By far the biggest blast-from-the-past is a question about extending the deadline for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Yes, the same Equal Rights Amendment that Phyllis Schlafly killed back in the ‘70s.
Then there are the issues which just seem insignificant. For example, the UMW checklist urges women to ask their candidate: “Do you support or oppose the proposal for a National Women’s History Museum on the National Mall to highlight the contributions of women to your country’s history?” Personally, I would welcome a women’s museum on the National Museum, and the proposal has strong bipartisan support in Congress. But I would be embarrassed for the state of American democracy if there was a single person whose vote hinged on a hypothetical museum hundreds of miles away, instead of the dozens of more pressing issues our nation– and indeed our nation’s women– face.
What I find most irritating is that there’s nothing about the checklist that would indicate that it was sent by an organization of United Methodist Women, rather than just an organization of Women. Missing from the checklist are any questions about alcohol, tobacco, same-sex marriage, abortion, pornography, gambling, domestic and international religious liberty, or basically anything that would indicate that a voter is coming from a distinctively Methodist or distinctively Christian background. I don’t support the all-too-common assertion that “voting like a Christian” means focusing only or excessively on social issues. But the UMW seem to swing too far in the opposite direction by leaving them off entirely, despite exploring equally contentious issues like amnesty or Obamacare.
Given the propensity of UMW’s leadership towards unambiguous liberal advocacy, perhaps one ought to be pleased with the bare level of nuance in their midterm election checklist. But I’m almost more disappointed that what could have been a helpful tool for prayerful discernment and political dialogue still ended up partisan and useless as it did. In the meantime, rank-and-file United Methodist women ought to look elsewhere for guidance. I recommend your Bible, for starters.