About Me

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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. My translation of Hildegard's Book of Divine Works is available from Catholic University of America Press here. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Difficult Mix of Religion and Politics

In yesterday’s New York Times’ Sunday Magazine there appeared a lengthy article by David Kirkpatrick that examined the current crisis among the nation’s evangelicals and “religious right.” Kirkpatrick describes how the original vanguard of the religious right movement (Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, etc.) is fading, and that the evangelical Protestantism stands at a bit of a crossroads today; will they follow the conservative (both theologically and politically) route of the last generation, or is the future face of the religious right in fact the religious middle or slightly left?

Kirkpatrick documents the fact that among many evangelicals, the key issues of abortion and gay marriage are no longer just the key issues; he quotes Bill Hybels, one of the leading evangelical pastors of today, as saying, “We are interested in the poor, in racial reconciliation, in global poverty and AIDS, in the plight of women in the developing world.” Or as Rev. Gene Carlson put it, “There is this sense that the personal Gospel is what evangelicals believe and the social Gospel is what liberal Christians believe, and, you know, there is only one Gospel that has both social and personal dimensions to it.”

The split between liberal mainline protestants and conservative evangelicals goes back a century, when it was crystallized by the fight over evolution. As Kirkpatrick seems to demonstrate, a new split may be forming among the evangelical community, a split between those who seem to dictate that “Evangelical Christian” = “conservative Republican”, and those who see beyond the political label to realize that neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party has a monopoly on representing the Gospel.

The growing inner conflict amongst the evangelical community has also opened the eyes of the Democrats. As Kirkpatrick points out, all three of the leading Democratic candidates for president (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards) have talked about their personal Christian faith more on this campaign trail than has a Democrat since Jimmy Carter, the evangelical who, or so it is perceived, turned his back on the evangelical community when he got to Washington (because of his support for abortion rights, among other issues). (And I should note as an aside that, despite Barack Obama’s being a baptized Christian, Kirkpatrick quotes Kayla Nickel, a member of the evangelical parish Westlink in Witchita as saying, “Obama sounds too much like Osama. When he says his name, I am like, ‘I am not voting for a Muslim!’ ” Her statement thus confirms what I’ve been saying for more than a year now, that whatever his politics (he could out-do Jerry Falwell and it would still be true), some people will still vote against him for the very fact that his name rhymes with “Iraq Osama”; a sad fact indeed, but a pertinent one).

The problem facing the evangelical community is, oddly enough, one with which the Catholic community has long had to deal. Catholics in our country (and, despite my denomination as an Anglican Catholic, what I write here, though based mainly on the experiences of Roman Catholics, is nevertheless applicable to all Catholics, since the few matters on which we disagree are not pertinent to the topic at hand) have historically voted Democrat, first because the Democrats were the party of the immigrants and minorities at a time when Roman Catholics (mainly Irish and Italian immigrants) were heavily discriminated against; and later because the Democratic platform stood for social justice with a social conscience, echoing the emphasis that Holy Mother Church has placed in the last century on the social message of the Gospel (though they might not want to admit it, the Democratic platform has often, if only unconsciously, echoed Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum, to which we will return below).

What has long irked Catholic politicians, however, is that the Democratic Party has often stood for things less than Catholic, and in those situations, the Republicans have often come through—I am thinking, of course, most especially about the issue of abortion. Before we continue, I should make it clear that Holy Mother Church always has and always will be opposed to abortion; it is not a matter of doctrine that is flexible (as has been, for example, the Church’s doctrines on usury), but rather a dogmatic statement of the value of human life that is absolutely central to the Christian message. The Church cannot now nor can it ever declare abortion to be anything but the sin of murder, and herein lies one of the key points of the entire argument: the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. The Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Church, granted her by divine revelation and the institution of her authority, invested in the Apostles by Christ in the Gospel. In other words, it is the authority by which the Church can teach the Truth.

The Truth is not something the Church, or anyone, can change. It is a permanent standard of what is reality, infinitely perdurable and infinitely unchanging. Unfortunately for those of us who live in the real world, however, very rarely do the decisions of our daily lives line up clearly with this Truth. This is never more so the case than in politics. Ask any politician, and he will probably agree that his party also seeks the truth—but in the political sphere, we speak of truth with a lowercase “t”.

Sometimes, we discover that the Truth aligns with the platform of the Republican Party—take abortion again as a capital example. Other times, it would seem to align with the Democratic Party—as when Christ proclaims the mission of social justice, to care for the sick and poor (as the Church has formally phrased it—and in a nice line of alliterative pentameter—“the preferential option for the poor”). Instead of identifying the Christian Truth with political truths, it might be better for us to do the reverse: a pro-life politician holds a view which coincides with the Truth, as does a pro-social justice politician.

A case in point is Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, which became the quintessential statement of the modern Church on the “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor” (its subtitle), and the Gospel’s intention therefore. While Leo categorically condemned the unbridled competition of pure capitalism as socially unjust and therefore uncharitable (for the political pundits that are keeping score, that’s +1 to the Democrats), he also decried the violence inherent in the system of class struggle that Marxists seemed so intent on perpetuating:

The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth. Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State is it ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. (Paragraph 20)
The political pundits should now remove that point from the Democratic column (and yes, I recognize that Marxist theory and the Democratic platform are not to be confused, but I ask you, when was the last time you heard a Teamsters negotiator praise the natural harmony between capital and labor?).

This dichotomy that has vexed Catholics for so many years seems finally to have caught up with the evangelicals. Abortion and gay marriage are important issues, yes, but the Gospel is about so much more than that, and Christ’s call to holiness is bound up with the entire message of the Gospel, not just bits and pieces (for the danger of a piecemeal reading of Scripture, just ask the Pharisees).

The problem, of course, is that both sides seem to engage in just such a piecemeal reading of Scripture. The Republican Party (and this is what is leading many evangelicals to reconsider their unwavering allegiance to it) has often of late skimmed over the social duties expressed in the Gospel. The issue of the justice of the war in Iraq is complex and certainly won’t be solved here, but the fact remains that warfare, the intentional destruction of human life (even if that life be guilty), is in some fundamental aspect morally wrong; even the most just of wars using the strictest of interpretations of just war theory still inflict a violence that is unsettlingly contrary to the principal message of the Gospel. Likewise, the Republican Party’s standard support of capital punishment, though technically justifiable under Christian notions of justice, seems to lend an unsettling appearance of hypocrisy to its pro-life message. The Catholics have this one figured out—even though it’s a nice political catch phrase, Sen. Sam Brownback’s “pro-life / whole-life” position is remarkably and refreshingly cogent: a Catholic Christian expression of respect for life at it’s every stage, from the moment of conception to a person’s last (natural) breath. Furthermore, most Catholics, and an increasing number of evangelicals, take the Party to task for its seemingly obstinate refusal to consider social programs that help the poor, the hungry, the AIDS-afflicted, the oppressed, etc.

Lest we should think that the Republican Party has left the Gospel behind, however, we must turn our attention to the often even more egregious piecemeal approach of the Democrats. Christ’s Gospel is all well and good for them when they want to oppose war and the death penalty and want to establish programs of social justice to help the helpless among us. But then they conveniently leave Scripture at the door when it comes to abortion (after all, they will help the helpless only if the helpless have already been born) and the promotion of lascivious lifestyles, whether they be heterosexual, homosexual, or anywhere in between.

Then there are issues in which neither side seems to support true Christian belief. The most significant of these are views on homosexuality. Democratic acceptance not only of homosexuals but of the homosexual lifestyle runs counter to a true understanding of sexuality. When the Catholic Faith expresses an opposition to the actively homosexual lifestyle (just as it expresses an opposition to the actively heterosexual lifestyle out of wedlock), it does so out of the ideals of compassion and charity. The Catholic understanding of the actively homosexual lifestyle is that it, as a state of sin, is harmful to its practitioner, for, in perverting the sexual act, it demeans and damages the order created by God and it harms the practitioner’s own sexual understanding. Therefore, the Catholic faith opposes that lifestyle out of a desire to help those who feel inclined to commit such a sin to refrain from it.

The Republicans, however, fare little better, for while preaching against homosexual acts, they go too far and preach against homosexuals themselves; Republican opinion is, quite frankly, founded more on homophobia than anything else. We must remember that it is not the state of being homosexual, whether secretly or openly, that is condemned as a sin; rather, it is the active, voluntary commission of the homosexual act that is a sin. Furthermore, the Catholic Faith calls upon its believers to practice their opposition to this sin in a compassionate, charitable manner. Any person whose opposition to homosexual acts is expressed without the love of God in his heart is not then a believer of the Catholic Faith.

Of course, from a truly Christian perspective, far more grievous than any support our modern society gives to homosexual acts is the support it gives to the perversion of heterosexual acts; the real epidemic is the general promiscuity that has followed in the wake of the sexual revolution, homosexual and heterosexual alike. As the Church teaches, a full understanding of one’s sexuality can only come through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, by whom and with whom and in whom all things were made and are, therefore, understood (this is the notion that sexuality, like all things, is “sacramental” in nature). In this context, one comes to understand that one’s sexuality is not some independent department of the self; rather, sexuality is inextricably bound up in the whole being of body and soul. Modern notions of sexuality on both sides of the fence present a sexuality that is missing its greatest context: Christ.

Voters, as good Christians, are obligated by their faith to vote for men and women who will uphold the message of the Gospel. This is why we had such a mess in the 2004 election over Catholic bishops telling their flocks it would be wrong to support a Catholic politician who supported abortion (i.e. John Kerry). The problem, of course, is reconciling the Truth with political parties that stand for only parts of it.

This reconciliation, between a Truth that must guide completely our lives and a political system in which nobody seems to stand for that Truth, will not be an easy one to effect. We are faced with a slate of candidates for the presidency who seem to wander every day farther from it. Rudy Giuliani supports abortion rights and is a lapsed Catholic multiple times divorced, and yet appears to be the best bet the Republicans have against the Democrats. All three leading Democratic candidates support abortion, and Hillary Clinton, at least, has shown repeatedly that she is not in the least bit dismayed by the moral licentiousness that permeates our culture (just check out her husband, whom President Gerald Ford, according to a recent book, called a “sex-addict”).

I thought I had found somebody that would work—the aforementioned Sen. Sam Brownback, who seemed to be step-for-step with the Church in his understanding of how to live a good Christian life in a flawed and sinful world, but his campaign never found traction (as the Sunday Magazine article points out, the man who should have been the darling of the religious right got left out on the front stoop by them; though Kirkpatrick attributes this to their desire to back a candidate with a greater chance for success, I think the reason for the religious right’s aversion to Sen. Brownback is at least partially attributable to that old anti-Catholic prejudice), and he has officially bowed out of the race.

The problem for me, of course, is that it would be near anathema to support a candidate who supports abortion; I am too strongly tied to my respect and love for the dignity of all human life to vote for men and women who disregard it so blatantly. Yet, that leaves me in the arms of a handful of Republican candidates whose anti-homosexual rhetoric is more homophobic than it is charitable and who seem to pay little attention to the Gospel’s imperative to care for the poor with a charitable heart (though they have their good intentions, it is hard to perceive just how their views on foreign aid and immigration mesh with the “preferential option for the poor”, a theological principle of action founded in Christian love and charity).

What is necessary, above all, is to breed in ourselves a renewed respect for the dignity of all people. When our society can find in Christian love the hallmark of humanity, then we shall be able to overcome this quagmire in which we languish. When we as individuals find our every action motivated by love of God and neighbor, then we shall find that the choice between one evil and another has been resolved, for there will be only one choice then. When we ultimately can submit ourselves wholly to the Will of God, then we shall discover that we need not think long and hard about our compromises, for only then will the Will of God—of Love—remain. The choice today between Republican and Democrat may not be clear, but the choice today between God and the world is. I do not yet know how I will vote a year from now, but what I do know is that I shall pray every day hence for the God’s guidance for me and for all of the men and women who govern our country.

1 comment:

Abu Daoud said...

Visited your old parish of Saint Mary's in Denver and was ref'd to the blog, very nice and insightful!

I will say though that IMHO the command for social justice need not and should not be accomplished through governments (the earthly city) but through the City of God and her instrument here--the Church.

When we ask the government to accomplish the duties of the church we harm both.

Please do drop by my blog at islamdom.blogspot.com and let me know what you think.