Secularism in Political Speech

Over the years, there have been a number of speeches in which American politicians have dealt with the issue of political secularism. Many are vague or contradictory, some are just confused. Mitt Romney, needing to balance a refutation of the right’s anti-mormonism with the right’s pro-Christian position, has frequently been contradictory . But many haven’t had the option of being vague.

The most famous was John F. Kennedy’s speech on Sept. 12, 1960 before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Kennedy was on the spot, because a number of anti-catholic pamphlets had been circulating and the specter of Al Smith’s loss hung over his campaign. He needed to reassure America’s Protestant majority that electing a Catholic wouldn’t result in a tunnel being dug to the Vatican.

I want a chief executive whose public acts are responsible to all groups and obligated to none; who can attend any ceremony, service or dinner his office may appropriately require of him; and whose fulfillment of his presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation. […]

Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.

Jump forward to 1984, and we find Mario Cuomo caught in the exact opposite predicament as Kennedy. Kennedy had to reassure America’s Protestant majority that he wouldn’t be the Pope’s loyal foot soldier. Cuomo had to explain to the Catholic minority why he, as a faithful Catholic, could not endorse a constitutional ban on abortion as well as other Catholic moral issues.

Kennedy’s position allowed for no nuance, so he drew a strict line between the institutions between church and state. Cuomo’s position required nuance, so he focused on the distinctions between religion and politics. He spoke of the lack of Catholic political action against slavery, and accepted the argument that this was because such political action would do real political harm to the Church while changing nothing. He draws a lesson from that:

What is relevant to this discussion is that the bishops were making judgments about translating Catholic teachings into public policy, not about the moral validity of the teachings. In so doing they grappled with the unique political complexities of their time. The decision they made to remain silent on a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery or on the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law wasn’t a mark of their moral indifference: it was a measured attempt to balance moral truths against political realities. Their decision reflected their sense of complexity, not their diffidence. As history reveals, Lincoln behaved with similar discretion.

The parallel I want to draw here is not between or among what we Catholics believe to be moral wrongs. It is in the Catholic response to those wrongs. Church teaching on slavery and abortion is clear. But in the application of those teachings — the exact way we translate them into action, the specific laws we propose, the exact legal sanctions we seek — there was and is no one, clear, absolute route that the Church says, as a matter of doctrine, we must follow.

Politics is not religion, and law is not morality. Cuomo pointed to Prohibition as an example of what happens when people forget those differences. Cuomo accepted that Catholic teachings should inform morality, but how that morality should be translated into policy was informed by the political realities. And one of those realities was that public officials swore an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States.

Probably the best speech on secularism is Barack Obama’s keynote address at the Sojourners/Call to Renewal “Building a Covenant for a New America” conference from 2006.

Kennedy emphasized that the politician must consider the needs of the country and leave the institution of the church outside his office door. Cuomo emphasized that the politician must work within the political realities of the country, including the reality that the country is a religious pluralism. Obama explained what that all means for the religious believer:

… Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what’s possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It’s the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.

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