What is Wrong — and Right — With the Role of Faith in American Politics Today?

Reprinted with premission from St Peter’s List

What is wrong — and right — with the role of faith in American politics today?

Several Patheos bloggers took a shot at answering this question before the November 6 election. To be honest, I’m more interested in what you think.

Before we devise a plan for what we’re going to do, let’s stop and ask ourselves how we got here. This question is a good one for beginning the process of thinking that through.

You may have noticed that what I’m doing with Public Catholic is building. I am trying to build a community of thinking, committed Christians who can take on the culture of death and win. Before we can do that, we’ve got a lot of thinking and a lot of learning to do.

I want to focus specifically on what is wrong and right about the way Christians and Christianity have conducted themselves in the political process. People who are not Christians are welcome to participate if they offer constructive thoughts and forgo diatribes and canned attacks on Christians and Christianity. It’s ok to talk about ways that you feel the Church in particular or Christianity in general have failed or succeeded in their political activities. Just do it in a constructive, idea-generating way.

Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them.”

What fruits do you feel that 40 years of Christian political activism have borne? Why do you feel this way?

What, in your opinion, is wrong — and right — with the role of faith in American politics today?

  • Ted Seeber

    Here’s the most horrid way I know. The Church doesn’t support Canon Law or the Catechism adequately, or conservatively enough.

    My favorite case in point is indeed (and I’ll say it before any atheist can come here and do it), the sex abuse scandals. Sexual abuse of children has been against Canon Law explicitly since 1917. The vow of celibacy for clergy has been common, though not universal, for over 1600 years.

    But in America in the sexual revolution, and quickly followed in Europe, large numbers of clergy began to ignore Canon Law and the vow of celibacy. Even before the sexual revolution- the balloon of cases in the John Jay Report start in 1956!

    And when you get people ignoring the very rules that are designed to keep the institution safe, you do great political damage to the institution.

    And so we get to 1974, where even though the sex scandals were still largely hidden, there was a general, almost subconscious suspicion of clericalism. And so when Humanae Vitae came out, the general response was “The Pope no playa’ the game, he no maka’ the rules”.

    If we want to change that, we need to start with ourselves- and be shining examples of Catholic morality in the world. That means that our best weapon against abortion is not voting for politicians who give lip service to it and never do anything- but rather generosity and charity to the unwed teenage mother facing the unplanned pregnancy that everybody else is telling her she must abort if she wants to avoid living in a refrigerator box under a bridge. That means being the friend of the downs syndrome man who sits alone at Mass. That means working in the soup kitchens to feed the hungry, and building shelters to house the homeless.

    That means in short being Catholic.

    And isn’t that enough to completely fill our time?

  • Faith

    I agree with you Ted. The thing is we already do a lot of that stuff. I think we do need to increase it but also get more public about it. I remember seeing a comment on facebook. Some meme of how Christians were hypocrites because they would line up to eat at Chick fil a on that one day that everyone was supporting them, but you never see Christians line up like that to help the poor. Well, this is bullpucky! Christians are out there helping every day all over the place but it simply doesn’t get coverage by the msm. Also, Catholics need to treat other people respectfully and intelligently. The nasty name calling and affiliating too much with knee jerk reactionaries has harmed us so much. Calling Obama Satan is only going to alienate. I think we need to focus on St. Francis de Sales who kept his strong temper in check and spoke with love and respect and was beloved of both sides. He was a great diplomat. His advice was ‘Live Jesus.” That’s what we need to do, speak truth to power but lovingly. But these nasty combox warriors who troll and whip themselves up just give fodder to those who don’t understand and want to reject our position. We need civility, love, courage and the willingness to graciously suffer sacrifice without name calling or viciousness. We have to reform ourselves if we want to reform the world.

  • vickie

    I echo what Ted and Faith have said:
    1) the scandal has resulted in a huge loss of moral authority of the Church
    2) the division of Christians into various political tribes and putting political tribe first
    3) In my case, the popularity of torture and the warfare state amongst conservative Christians really freaked me out.

    • Ted Seeber

      A question Vickie- does the popularity of torture and warfare on the left also freak you out? Because it most certainly does for me!

      • vickie

        Yes that too and very disappointed that their opposition to the warfare state evaporated with Bush’s term in office. But they are supposed to be the morally impure, not “my side”. The whole thing makes me hurt inside.

  • Indy

    Tough questions Rebecca. I was a political person long before I was a Christian. I tried to reconcile my politics and my faith and with this election I have surrendered and I have chosen to focus on life on Christ and to have my politics follow as much as I can. The political areas where my faith and politics intersect the most are abortion and HHS mandate. Because I do not believe that the war against abortion can be won politically – my focus has changed. I now prayerfully challenge the status quo thinking on abortion on a case by case basis. I am not silent on the topic but I choose to use apologetic strategies rather then yelling and screaming. That leaves the HHS Mandate – where do we go from here? I don’t know. Thanks Rebecca… tough tough topic but it needs to be put out there for us all to think about and discuss. God bless you.

  • Peg

    Some right things:

    Civil Rights movement-unity, nonviolence, articulate committed leaders, volunteers, courage

    Apologetics movement-grass roots aids to better learning and explaining the.faith

    Prolife march-particularly the youth groups

    Religious freedom ralliies

    Wrong Things:

    Putting party allegiance before faith
    Poor examples and hostility from public and media Catholics
    Leadership vacuum-in church and goby-ex new age movement of LCWR leadership
    Inability to communicate truth in a soundbite world
    Lack of harvesters united in common purpose
    Not enough orthodoxy united in charity

    Just some thoughts…

  • marya

    There is no easy way for faith and politics to coexist in a democracy, at least not comfortably. Successful politics usually requires some degree of compromise between different interests and agendas, but judged from the standpoint of faith, those compromises can look like backsliding, and even betrayal of core religious beliefs. People of faith often don’t want to hear about how a politician negotiated the best possible solution amongst competing agendas, or achieved 3 out of the 5 goals on the list of desired outcomes. Instead, achieving anything less than all 5 goals can seem like failure, and so from a pragmatic perspective, the person of faith can seem unrealistic and unworldly. Conversely, politicians tend to accept pragmatic maneuvering as a fact of political life, to the point where they often do not do a good job of explaining why a certain bill or resolution passed or failed, or turned out differently than it was initially proposed. So there is a fundamental problem on the basic level of trust, as well as communication, and I can only imagine that for politicians who are also people of faith, their internal dialogue must be challenging, and even sometimes (often?)painful and difficult.
    This is a huge topic, and I will have to think about it some more.

  • Sus

    I don’t think the GOP needs to drop their pro-life stance, but I do think the conversation needs to drastically change about it. There may be selfish souls having abortions, but most are loving people in a desperate spot. With one million abortions a year, it’s very likely when hateful things are said about women and abortion, you are offending someone who might have had an abortion at some point. The hateful jargon doesn’t go very far in those cases and turns people off turns religion.

    Same Sex Marriage – For the past 10-15 years a lot of public schools have put out “No Bullying” policies. The schools often have activities and programs centered around “No Bullying”. Along with this, we have kids coming out gay much earlier than they have in the past. Because the kids have been taught not to bully, the gay kids are becoming accepted completely. If Christians don’t accept gay marriage, the kids aren’t going to accept Christians.

    • Ted Seeber

      On the first- that’s why I give money to promote Project Rachel instead of Operation Rescue, and PRC instead of RTL.

      On the second- I think what we need to do is start teaching our own kids the difference between harmful lust and love; and start exposing homosexuality for what it is- harmful lust. Don’t refer to religion at all- focus on the sexual objectification of the other and the problems with pornography.

      • Sus

        I need to continue to read the Catholic Catechism. I also need to remember that just because I don’t agree with 100% with a Church teaching, I should be able to ACCEPT it with faith.

        Whether faith is involved or not, I wish something could be done for pornography and sexualized everything on TV 24/7. I don’t appreciate watching a football game with my family on a Saturday afternoon and being bombarded with Viagra ads and the like. It really seems like the line is getting lowered every day.

  • Sus

    I don’t think the GOP needs to drop their pro-life stance, but I do think the conversation needs to drastically change about it. There may be selfish souls having abortions, but most are loving people in a desperate spot. With one million abortions a year, it’s very likely when hateful things are said about women and abortion, you are offending someone who might have had an abortion at some point. The hateful jargon doesn’t go very far in those cases and turns people off turns religion.

    Same Sex Marriage – For the past 10-15 years a lot of public schools have put out “No Bullying” policies. The schools often have activities and programs centered around “No Bullying”. Along with this, we have kids coming out gay much earlier than they have in the past. Because the kids have been taught not to bully, the gay kids are becoming accepted completely. If Christians don’t accept gay marriage, the kids aren’t going to accept Christians.

  • Bill S

    The way I see it is that the Catholic Church is and always has been run by a select group of men who, contrary to popular belief, are in no position to tell people how to live their lives. The faithful have no recourse to dissent. They don’t elect their leaders. They have no say in the effectiveness and fairness of the laws referred to simply as “Church Teaching”.

    The faithful in this country can disrespect the President, but God forgive them if they even dare to disagree with the Pope. What if there were a referendum question as to whether or not birth control should be looked at as “intrinsically evil”. Some would immediately look to see what the Pope had to say about it. But most would just use their own common sense and vote no. That’s why people don’t want to have anything to do with the Church. They see how democracy works and they prefer it to “theocracy”.

    • Ted Seeber

      Why would one want to dissent from scientific truth?

    • Ted Seeber

      And why would you want to hold a referendum that redefines reality in complete ignorance of scientific truth?

    • Ted Seeber

      3rd reply- which is why I’m sometimes tempted to say that democracy itself bears some resemblance to intrinsic evil.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      This is kind of odd logic Bill. If people don’t have to follow Church teaching (they don’t) then what’s the big deal?
      The reason people choose to follow Church teaching is, at least for most of us, because we believe it. The Catholic Church has one job, really, and that’s to get people into heaven. Being the salt and light in a world as dark as this is part of that job. There isn’t any vote to be taken on the 10 Commandments and the Beatitudes, which are the source of the almost all of the Church’s teachings which you seem to find objectionable. These things are non-negotiable for anyone who wants to follow Christ and who desires to go to heaven.

      If a person doesn’t agree with this, all they have to do is not do it. There are, of course, consequences. You cannot violate these teachings without injuring other people and the larger society. You also cannot toss following Christ out of your life and still have secure plans to go to heaven. Jesus said, “I am the Way.” I think He meant it.

      I find it odd that someone would accuse the Church of all manner of evil because it teaches people to follow the 10 Commandments and the Beatitudes, but people do it all the time. Of course, my feelings that it’s odd come mainly from the fact that it’s inconsistent of them. Like, say, a group of corrupt priests and a cowardly politician hooking up with a slavering mob to knowingly crucify a man they themselves said was innocent.

      People don’t like what Jesus taught and they blame the Church for following in His footsteps and teaching the same thing.

      As I asked earlier, if people have to follow Church teaching, then what’s the big deal? I think it’s their sad, sick consciences are affronted by the anyone or anything that tells them they are wrong.

      • Bill S

        “I find it odd that someone would accuse the Church of all manner of evil because it teaches people to follow the 10 Commandments and the Beatitudes”

        No one would have a problem with the Church if that were truly what it taught.

  • Peg

    Another problematic area is the mixing of issues. For example I saw a lot of campaign material from Republicans that mixed in immigration, union and environmental stands with prolife. Mixing non negotiable issues with negotiable ones will create a divide and confusion. If one is against the keystone pipeline or for collective bargaining that does not make them opposed to Christ as supporting the killing in the womb.

    Pope Leo wrote a great encyclical on Capitol and labor and I wish more Republican Catholics would understand that our church has always supported the rights of workers to organize and not create further divide.

    Democratic catholics might learn also that care for the poor and social justice does not trump life issues either.

    • vickie

      Yes a better understanding of what is negotiable, what is open to debate and what is simple partisan politicking maybe would help make a more effective Catholic vote. Another thought that just came to me: I remember getting these issue surveys from different political groups asking us which issue are most important to us. Pro-life was either not mentioned, or was mixed in with “values” as in values voters and people trying to oppose their subjective “values” on people that don’t share them. Maybe we also have to frame the argument better – life and death are not about “values” and even basic morality is not about “values”.

  • Bill S

    Who ever said that the “intrinsic evil” of birth control was a scientific truth? Paul VI didn’t even say that. Religion doesn’t deal with scientific truth. Science doesn’t deal with intrinsic evil.

  • Bill S

    “I need to continue to read the Catholic Catechism. I also need to remember that just because I don’t agree with 100% with a Church teaching, I should be able to ACCEPT it with faith.”

    Why do you feel that way? Don’t you have faith in your own power of reason? Suppose you read something in the Catechism that your reason tells you is incorrect. Do you stop believing in yourself because of something you have read in a book? I’m not trying to be a contrarian. I’ve read your posts and know that you have the ability to state your views rationally and intelligently (particularly concerning DWD). Why would you give that up?

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Perhaps because the human power of reason is always going to tend toward self-justification. There is none of us who doesn’t look on our own sins with sympathy. We are harsh only when we are judging one another.

      Human reason is at best conditional, and at worst selfish, cruel and tyrannical. What you are suggesting here when you talk about “believing in yourself” is something I’ve written about a lot: Making yourself your own god. People, making themselves their own god end up acting with utter, ruthless selfishness. It’s easy to see why, since making a god of yourself is making the self god.

      Also, from what I’ve seen and read in the comboxes, those who abandon Christian teaching, simply make a substitute catechism out of the hackneyed writings of Dawkins, Harris, et al. How is taking your thinking from a derivative and thoroughly nasty set of diatribes using your own power of reason?

    • Sus

      Bill, I don’t think I’d be giving anything up in my life if I were to convert. It seems like I’d be adding to my life. Honestly, I don’t know why I’m on this quest with religion. I just know that the feelings I have are extremely strong.

      I do read things in the Catechism that my reasoning tells me is incorrect. I think that’s where faith comes in. Out of disagreement comes ideas and information.

      With or without religion, I’ve always been open to different ideas. I think you continue to learn every day of your life. I don’t see any reason why it would be different with religion.

      • Bill S

        I have to be careful what I say here or I’ll get deleted. Whatever you do, don’t underestimate the power of your own ability to rationalize everything you read. The Church has this thing about infallibility that you have to be careful of. There is little evidence of any kind of infallibility in any human being and much evidence to the contrary. I think I can say that. If I can’t I’ll try something less deletable.

        • Sus

          Thank you Bill :)

  • http://jscafenette.com Manny

    Off the top of my head, I would say the Catholic Church doesn’t focus on an issue or two, but gives these vague statements on everything under the sun. How about focusing on an issue and bringing all to bear on one issue at a time.

  • http://jscafenette.com Manny

    One other thing, how about holding Catholic politicians accountable for supporting intrinsic evils like abortion? The church has allowed politicians to make disconnect what they support and their Catholic faith.

    As to what we’ve accomplished in the last forty years, I’m not sure it’s been much.


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