USAToday guest column (op ed piece) about Cuba and religion

USAToday guest column (op ed piece) about Cuba and religion July 18, 2011

Today’s USAToday (Monday, July 18, 2011) contains a column on “The Forum” page by religion journalist Mark I. Pinsky entitled “Could this cardinal usher in a new Cuba?”  The article “puffs” (to borrow and term from newspaper mogul Hearst about Billy Graham) Cardinal Jaime Ortega (I think that should really be Jaime Cardinal Ortega), the archbishop of Havana.

According to Pinsky, Ortega is the right man to usher Cuba into its future post-Castro new social reality.  Among other things, Pinsky says “Ortega is uniquely equipped to fill any power vacuum.”  Shades of Leo I (“the Great”) and Rome when the last Western emperor abandoned Rome at the onslaught of the barbarians!  Since when do religion journalists promote Constantinianism?

Of course, Pinsky doesn’t explicitly SAY Ortega should hold any office in Cuba, but he clearly thinks Ortega is qualified to guide and steer Cuba into a new era.  What is that but informal, unofficial, but nevertheless powerful and influential, single church domination of culture?

One reason I’m concerned about this is that my uncle and aunt were evangelical (NOT “religious right”) missionaries to Cuba in the late 1950s and early 1960s–until they had to leave because of the Castro-led revolution.  I remember my uncle singing revolutionary songs to us at family gatherings, but he wasn’t for the communist revolution.  There were other, more democratic movements afoot in that era in Cuba’s history.  Unfortunately, it was the communists who overthrew the dictator Battista.

There are many evangelical and other Protestant churches in Cuba.  Why should the Roman Catholic archbishop play any larger role in the formation of a new society there (or anywhere else) than the leaders of those churches?  And IF the archbishop of Havana becomes the broker of the new power structure in post-Castro Cuba, what freedoms will be given to the Protestants to participate in the new society?  But most importantly, IF we in the United States so highly value separation of church and state (which I especially do as a traditional Baptist!) why should any of us (Pinsky included) promote the idea of a clergyman filling the power vacuum in a post-revolutionary country?

Frankly, I’m appalled and shocked and dismayed by Pinsky’s “puffing” of Ortega.  I would be JUST as appalled and shocked and dismayed if he were puffing a Protestant clergyperson to be such a central figure in a society.  What I want to ask Pinsky (and anyone who agrees with him) is why separation of church and state is good for us but not for others?  Or does Pinsky just not understand separation of church and state?

Separation of church and state does NOT just mean a single church (e.g., denomination) should not have political power.  It ALSO means that while religious leaders can and should speak truth to power they SHOULD NOT “fill a power vacuum” in society.

In Pinsky’s defense I should note that he does admit that the Vatican would not allow a priest to hold public office.  That has been the policy for some time now.  However, the very fact that Pinsky mentions that in the way he does worries me–that he WISHES it could be the case.  But we all know a clergyperson does not have to hold public office to have tremendous influence and power to promote his or her particular religious tradition.  One case in point is the Russian Orthodox hierarchy’s hostility to evangelical evangelists that led to sanctions being imposed on non-Orthodox churches that had been trying to function in Russian society for decades and more.  In other words, as I understand from news reports, the Orthodox church, after the fall of the Soviet Union, used the scandal of certain Western based cults and sects and new religions (and perhaps some not very savory evangelical groups) flooding into Russia and using dishonest and/or coercive means to proselytize to sway the government to place restrictions on all groups not approved by the Orthodox hierarchy.  Much of that has been resolved now, but this is an example of what can happen when religious leaders partially fill a power vacuum in a society.

I would like to have read Pinsky saying much more about exactly what role he thinks Ortega should play in any post-Castro Cuban society.  He leaves it too vague.  But just that one phrase (viz., “uniquely equipped to fill any power vacuum”) is enough to raise serious concerns on the parts of any people committed to separation of church and state anywhere.

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