by Barry Edelson


Keep Your Church's Hands Off My Government


Nearly 30 years ago, a divinity student of my acquaintance, then studying for the priesthood in Rome, opined over a memorable dinner in Trastevere about the many edicts of the Roman Catholic church that fell on the deaf ears of great numbers of the so-called faithful. He noted that the ban on contraception, in particular, was not merely ignored by the majority of young Catholics, but that he would be hard pressed to find many priests younger than middle age who did not give tacit approval to their flock to break this purported sin against nature. As in any organization of vast size and ancient traditions, the Church's agents who lived far from the centers of power very often adjusted their own teachings to the realities on the ground, notwithstanding the hellfire that their disobedience promised them. Rank and file Catholics, like the practitioners of other faiths, apparently have even less difficulty than their priests accommodating the cognitive dissonance that inevitably arises from the conflict between solemn theology and daily existence.

It seemed only a matter of time before dogma would ultimately catch up with the way adherents actually lived, and that the pronouncements of the church hierarchy would gradually come to resemble the actual beliefs of the laity. However, official doctrine has in fact veered in a more conservative direction in the intervening years, even as public attitudes towards contraception, premarital sex, women's rights, abortion and homosexuality have grown ever more progressive, particularly among the young of all faiths. The reformist trend that marked the post-war decades was followed by a backlash of conservatism, not only in the religious but also the political sphere, with those who never came to terms with the "sexual revolution" attempting to reverse what they saw as a degradation of values and a collapse of decent society. At the same time that the political realm has shifted inexorably rightward, the Church has selected a succession of conservative popes, who in turn have elevated a host of doctrinaire cardinals, in an effort to squash any hint of further reform. But, as in all efforts to turn the clock back on social progress, these struggles have been marked by a rhetorical violence that belies the spiritual ideal that is their alleged purpose.

We see this manifested in the campaign against same-sex marriage, which has made bedfellows of groups as disparate and mutually loathsome as Catholics, Mormons, white evangelicals and black Baptists, even as one nation and state after another removes the barriers to full recognition of gay and lesbian couples. We see it played out in threats and acts of violence against abortion providers, even as large majorities of all Americans plainly have no desire to make abortion illegal again. We see it in the virulent attack on the Obama administration's insistence that health insurance coverage include contraception, even for religious institutions like hospitals and universities that employ individuals who are not members of the faith. The conventional wisdom, at the early stage of this latest argument, is that this was a politically foolish decision, threatening to alienate even those Catholic voters who disagree with their own church leaders about contraception and who voted for the President in 2008. Some have suggested, on the contrary, that this was a shrewd gambit, because the more the 2012 election turns on "culture war" issues and less on the economy, the more independent voters will become alienated from the increasingly intolerant Republican right.

This latter view almost certainly ascribes too much deviousness to the administration, which genuinely seems to have simply blundered into this controversy. But the effect is much the same. As we have seen time and again, the religious zeal of the President's would-be opponents indeed makes them appear less palatable to the voting public than even their unconvincing performances to date on issues like the economy, which are less prone to moral self-congratulation. Rick Santorum's recent success in the primaries has clearly emboldened him to bring his most reactionary opinions to the fore — and he has dutifully put his foot firmly in his mouth with as much daily consistency as his fellow candidates have done over the last few months. Too bad for the Republicans that the last man standing against the nomination of the tone-deaf, charisma-challenged Mitt Romney happens to be the one with the most archaic, even bizarre, views on social issues of anyone in the field — and that's saying a lot in a field that has included Michelle Bachman, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich.

It is hard to believe that when John F. Kennedy ran for president a mere half-century ago there were millions who believed that a Catholic could not square his oath to his country with his fealty to the Pope. How ironic that American Catholic Bishops now routinely disgorge their positions on all manner of political issues, and seem to believe that their unelected authority within a single, albeit very large, Christian denomination gives them the right to peddle their influence among those holding and seeking office. When the State of New York debated same-sex marriage in the legislature last year, New York's archbishop made the same kind of public condemnation of the Governor, Andrew Cuomo, that the bishop of the day made against his father, Mario, for his support of abortion rights a generation earlier. This is not a question of the Church's moral authority or lack thereof. The Church's history of stifling dissent, from the Inquisition to the prosecution of Galileo, and its grotesque institutional failings when faced with unspeakable evil, from Nazi atrocities to the rape of children by its own priests, are too well documented to leave any doubt about its moral consistency. But even were the Church a model of rectitude, why should any non-Catholic be subject to its direct influence over matters of public policy? The Bill of Rights guarantees not only the freedom to worship the God of one's choosing, but also the freedom not to be subject to the religious dictates of others. It is this latter right, enshrined in the establishment clause, that eludes many for whom religious practice is just another weapon in the arsenal of control over society.

It is natural for men and women to bring their personal beliefs into the political arena and for those beliefs to inform their decision making. But it another matter entirely for anyone to enter a political race, let alone for the highest office in the land, with the express purpose of advancing a specific set of religious principles. Our Republican and Catholic friends ought to realize that the successive rise of Gingrich and then Santorum fills the hearts of progressive-minded voters with absolute dread — even as conventional wisdom dictates that the nomination of either of them would hand the election to Obama on a silver platter. They are both Catholics far to the right of most of their co-religionists, men who wear their moral narrow-mindedness on their sleeves and seethe with contempt for those who disagree with them. Perhaps it is true that they would make the election a cake-walk for Democrats, but it does no one in this country the slightest bit of good for the mainstream of one of its two major parties to be twisted into a grotesque parody of its most extreme elements, least of all the Republicans themselves. Granted, there are those in the Democratic Party whose views are also far from the political center, but that has less to do with the excesses of liberalism than with the recent redefinition of conservatism, against which even an ultra-capitalist troglodyte like Romney is now deemed insufficiently right-wing to carry his party's banner without arousing the deep suspicion of many of the party's rank and file. Furthermore, no extremist Democrat could conceivably win a presidential nomination contest, let alone the White House. This was true of the Republican Party some time ago, but no longer.

Conservatives are fond of reminding the nation that the Founding Fathers were religious men who frequently invoked the name of God (or the Creator, which may or may not have meant the same thing to them as it does to contemporary Christian conservatives). Whether there is consensus for any particular religious idea or whether it is anathema to most people is beside the point. We as Americans all have the right — an inalienable right — to be free of interference from religious authority in the formulation of law and policy. For those who insist that the Church's public stance on contraception, abortion, homosexuality or any other matter is an exercise of free speech, consider this: If you take at his word any politician who claims to be running to fulfill the will of God, you are just asking to be lied to.

February 19, 2012


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