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Saturday, December 10, 2016

WASHINGTON — Does our presidential campaign lack a moral core?

The question arises in the wake of last week’s presidential debate. However you analyze it in electoral terms, the exchange between President Obama and Mitt Romney was most striking as a festival of technocratic mush — dueling studies mashed in with competing statistics. In many ways, the encounter offered voters the worst of all worlds: a great deal of indecipherable wonkery and remarkably little clarity about where each would lead the country.

But there are forces working to make the campaign about something more than a suffocating battle to influence tiny slivers of the electorate. One of my favorite pressure groups, Nuns on the Bus, will be launching a five-day tour on Wednesday through the red, blue and purple parts of Ohio.

Who better than a group of women who have consecrated their lives to the Almighty to remind us that our decisions in November have ethical consequences? Those who serve the impoverished, the sick and the dying know rather a lot about what matters — in life, and in elections.

If some of the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops often give the impression that they constitute the Republican Party at prayer, the activist nuns often seem like Democrats at the barricades. And it’s quite true that a struggle is on for the political soul of American Catholicism. Those among the faithful who see the abortion issue as trumping all others are in a quarrel with their brethren who place more emphasis on the church’s long-standing commitment to social justice.

Nuns on the Bus, led by Sister Simone Campbell, are very much players in this dialogue, and Sister Simone addressed the Democratic National Convention last month. Yet she was careful in her speech to emphasize that what she has been saying about government’s obligation to the poor — and about the problems with Rep. Paul Ryan’s budgets — reflected what the bishops have been saying, too.

She also noted in an interview last week that she had laid down some conditions before she spoke in Charlotte. “I would talk if I could say that I was pro-life, that I could lift up the people who live in poverty, and that the Democrats have a big tent,” she said.