When Priests Play Politics

Election '04

Two weeks before the national elections, WUSA's Inside Washington political talk show held a brief exchange which showed that in a country that boasts that it is one of the most religious in the world, ignorance of our own religious beliefs can have costly political consequences.

The discussion began with a news item about evangelical leaders who have been urging their followers to go to the polls to vote for George W. Bush. Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer – who most often takes the conservative line on the show – thought it a bit hypocritical to even bring the subject up, wondering that "African-American churches don't have the same effect and the same message in their churches?... What's new here?"

The exchange continued:

Moderator Gordon Peterson: [The] New York Times ran a story on [October 12] about a group of Catholic bishops using their influence to oppose Kerry, because of his position on abortion.

Charles Krauthammer: That's okay.

National Public Radio's Nina Totenberg: I actually don't think it's okay. It certainly is their right to do, but I don't think it's okay. And the reason I don't think it's okay really has to do with what kind of a country we are. Part of the way we sustain our complete tolerance and freedom of religion is to not entwine it with our government decisions. Catholics for decades, before John Kennedy was elected President, were discriminated against in part by the shibboleth, in part by using the shibboleth, if you elected somebody President you'll have the Vatican in the White House. I don't want that to happen again. I don't want that to happen to anybody.

Charles Krauthammer: That objection would have more weight if you had complained about black churches and their political influence in the past. People don't because that is what's a normal part of American life. It seems to me if it happens among evangelicals, or blacks, or among the Catholics, perfectly all right.

The conversation veered off into the subject of whether or not churches risk their tax-exempt status by political involvement, leaving the impression that Mr. Krauthammer had scored a point. He hadn't. There are real religious differences between the various branches of Jesus' followers, and their practical impact go far beyond abstract theology.

As to the comparison of the electoral activity of black churches and white evangelicals, Mr. Krauthammer is right on the money. There is hypocrisy afoot when you either applaud or overlook the one while condemning the other.

Black churches have served as political staging points since the Reconstruction days. In the mid-'60s, the premier black minister-activist group – Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference – even changed its slogan to "From Protest To Politics," officially announcing that it was taking its followers into electoral activity. Black ministers have long put their "blessing" on certain candidates by allowing those candidates to speak directly from the pulpit during Sunday service, a merging of church and state if there ever was one. And both white evangelical ministers and black ministers have made the jump from the pulpit to the stump, making Rev. Pat Robertson and Rev. Al Sharpton pretty much equal in that respect. Liberal-progressives, who benefit heavily from this church-electoral politics merging when it happens up in Harlem, can hardly complain when conservative whites take advantage of the same opportunity out in Oklahoma City.

Why, then, should it be viewed any differently when Roman Catholic bishops intervene in the 2004 Presidential election? The answer lies in the difference between the assumed powers of a Protestant minister and that of Catholic bishops and priests. Roman Catholics believe that God has granted to Catholic bishops and priests the power over the judgment of sins. That power is vast reaching and enormous, because Catholics also believe that one who is in a state of sin is not in God's grace, and therefore cannot enter heaven.

The Council of Trent, assembled by the Pope in the mid-16th century to combat the theological challenge of Protestantism, declared that "If any one shall say that in the New Testament there is no visible and external priesthood nor any power of... remitting and retaining sins,... let him be anathema." Protestants, on the other hand, believe that while their ministers are God's representatives on earth, who stands in God's good grace is a matter between God and the individual Christian. As Protestant theologan Philip Schaff explains it in "The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge," "The Protestant goes directly to the Word of God for instruction, and to the throne of grace in his devotions.... From this general principle of Evangelical freedom, and direct individual relationship of the believer to Christ, proceed [one of] the three fundamental doctrines of Protestantism – the absolute supremacy of... the general priesthood of believers." That leaves a Protestant minister with tremendous powers of persuasion here on earth, but none over the direction one goes in the hereafter.

And so, taking each faith at its own word, while one can assume that most of the members of Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church will vote for George W. Bush this Tuesday, those who sneak a mark next to the name of John Kerry in the privacy of the voting booth will not put their salvation in jeopardy.

Again taking each faith at its own word, that is not true for those Catholics who buck the will of certain bishops.

In the article referred to by Washington Insider's Gordon Peterson, the New York Times reported that in an interview with the highest-ranking Roman Catholic official in Colorado, "Archbishop [Charles J.] Chaput said a vote for a candidate like Mr. Kerry who supports abortion rights or embryonic stem cell research would be a sin that must be confessed before receiving Communion. 'If you vote this way, are you cooperating in evil?' [Chaput] asked. '... The answer is yes.'" Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis and Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley have gone further, stating that pro-choice politicians should be denied Communion because of their views, a severe punishment, since Catholics believe that participation in Communion is essential to salvation. To prevent a confrontation with Archbishop Burke, Kerry skipped Communion earlier this year while campaigning in Missouri, thus – if he believes Catholic theology – risking his immortal soul. Clearly, then, there is a difference between the political actions of the Protestant black and evangelical pastors and the political actions of the Catholic bishops.

Are the bishops right in taking these actions against pro-choice politicians and voters? Answering that is an act based upon belief, upon which we can reasonably disagree. But if religion is going to play an increasing role in American politics – and it shows every sign of doing so – then understanding the meaning of the differences in our various religions is an act of political necessity. In this case, ignorance is definitely not bliss.

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