Campaign Speech: Having Conversations with Teens About the Election

The signs have been up for months and the ads keep interrupting your YouTube videos. The news is focused on it and social media is bursting with everyone’s opinion.

The election is here.

This year has been a rollercoaster. We’ve experienced a global pandemic, the suspension of public masses, and a light has been shone on racial injustice that exists in the United States. As we near the end of the year, we have an election in which many major issues are being discussed, argued, and campaigned for and against.

To think that your teenagers are unaware of what is happening surrounding the election or don’t care misunderstands how much teens see, reflect on, and are exposed to (just through social media alone, let alone their families and friends).

But, this year especially, it feels like a lot to wade into with teenagers. There is passion, vitriol, confusion, and a whole host of other issues to address that are sensitive and feel like they can quickly escalate into arguments. You probably don’t have time to scrape together a Life Night or Edge Night on the election and all of the issues surrounding it, but that doesn’t mean teenagers won’t be talking about it (or asking you about it).

You can use those questions and conversations to help disciple teenagers. Prepping your core team (and yourself) for those conversations over the next couple of days will be tremendously helpful if (and when) those topics come up.

There’s a Teaching For That

Every policy and position of a candidate has a Catholic teaching that corresponds to it. Use the publicity of these issues to help teenagers understand where the Church stands on them. It is important to note that, often, neither candidate will perfectly align with the Church and her teaching. This makes it even more vital to help young people form their conscience. While many of them will not vote this year, they all will eventually be voters. If a teen asks you, “what candidate should a Catholic vote for,” you may have an opinion, but the Church offers us all moral guidance on forming that opinion.

An essential place to begin is the four basic principles of Catholic social teaching: the dignity of the human person, common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity. Every issue in the election is addressed by these four principles.

When you talk with teens about the election and candidates, it is important to remind them that issues that directly impact the dignity of human life through the destruction of life (such as abortion or euthanasia) must always be opposed. This doesn’t mean we dismiss or ignore other serious threats to life and human dignity like racism, the environmental crisis, poverty, and the death penalty. For Catholics, an election always presents a need for serious moral reflection in light of human dignity. Remind teenagers that their Catholic faith and their responsibility to live as Catholic citizens supersedes allegiance to political parties or ideologies.

Here are a few things you can do to enter into these conversations:

  • Have a few good resources to recommend to teenagers. The USCCB document on faithful citizenship is a great place to start.
  • Don’t speak about things you don’t know a lot about – instead, commit to researching that issue with a teenager (e.g., “Yeah, that is a tough topic – let’s look that up together).
  • If a teenager disagrees with Catholic teaching on a particular topic, listen, ask them questions, and respond with the truth of the Church. Don’t jump to the last step (but don’t skip it either).
  • Educate yourself ahead of the election using reputable Catholic sources (like the USCCB website). A friend’s Facebook post is (most likely) not a reputable source. By knowing the Catholic stance on various issues, you will be able to talk to teens about them more effectively.

Civility Is a (Lost) Art

Many people lament the loss of civility that is occurring in our country. Whether it is rampant social media attacks or the inability to have a calm conversation in person, many of us feel anxious about talking politics or discussing these issues out of fear that a fight may erupt. Surely, all of these issues are worth being passionate about, and issues that are direct attacks on human life and dignity need to be addressed with zeal. In the process of defending life and discussing important issues, we cannot, however, fall prey to a temptation to tear down or harm others.

Engage in and model civil discourse with your teenagers. Teens are passionate, so don’t be surprised if they get heated about some issues. Help them learn how to discuss topics with passion and respect.

You also have a responsibility to model civility in your life, whether online or in person. Be aware of how you speak about politicians, especially ones you disagree with, publicly and online. If you are getting into Twitter arguments and Facebook feuds, your example will speak louder than your words.

By promoting civil discourse, you can help teenagers see beyond the rhetoric and to the facts at hand – and those facts are what we then run through our conscience, formed by our Catholic faith.

Here are a few things you can do to help teenagers (and adults) understand civility:

  • Challenge teens to think before they post on social media. It is easy to get into heated arguments online because we aren’t in person. Before you post, pray and ask the questions, “Is this true and do I need to say it?” Sometimes something can be true, but be something we don’t need to say. You can even make this challenge to the entire group at a youth night.

  • Avoid getting into arguments with a teen or parent that disagrees with you to prove you are right, and don’t enter into a discussion unless you actually want to listen to the other viewpoint. We can learn a lot if we listen and can also earn the right to be heard, but we can do a lot of damage if we choose not to listen.

  • In any circumstance, whether online or in-person, name-calling, over-generalizations, profanity, or attacks on a person rather than an argument (ad hominem attacks) are never appropriate. We may disagree with a politician or a person, but attacking them does not represent Christ or the Church well.

Don’t Be Afraid

Talking politics will always ruffle some feathers. Remember, your job is to help teenagers be disciples, to speak the truth of the Catholic faith, and to not be afraid to enter into the arena. The most important thing we can do and encourage teens to do is to pray for our elected leaders and our elections and remember that, ultimately, Jesus Christ has won the victory. This doesn’t mean that we draw back from public life; we have a duty to be advocates for human life and dignity. It does mean that we can’t become a people of despair. We hope in Jesus Christ, not in politics.

Here are a few things you can do to help teenagers let go of fear:

  • Pray with them. A teenager may want to talk about the election because he or she is afraid of the outcome. Listen to those concerns and offer to pray with the teenager, offering those fears to God (who is ultimately in control)
  • Pray for elected leaders over the coming weeks at your youth nights. We believe prayer is powerful; we need to model that.
  • Remind them that God wins the victory – regardless of who wins.

Over the coming days and weeks, teens will have questions about the election and how we engage it as Catholics. Don’t walk away from the conversations, but be prepared and prepare your core team to talk with teens, pray with them, and accompany them as faithful Catholics.

Photo by Paul Weaver on Unsplash