Originally posted Wednesday, October 27, 2004:
I don’t agree with many things said by Patrick J. Buchanan; but twelve years ago, as Americans prepared to elect Bill Clinton as President, this most conservative of American observers made an observation that was exactly right. “As polarized as we have ever been,” he wrote, “we Americans are locked in a cultural war for the soul of our country.” It was true then, and it may be even truer as we turn the corner and head into this election week.
The President makes no apologies for his born-again Christian beliefs, and social conservatives claim God on their side as they do battle with the forces of secular society.
I believe that people of faith have every right to bring their faith into the marketplace of civic ideas. I’m one of them. And yet, few trends terrify me more than the idea of involving religion in government.
We have seen in the past twenty years the harm done to emerging and progressive societies by ayatollahs and mullahs. Some triumphal Christians suggest that these excesses are unique to Muslim fundamentalism; nothing could be further from the truth. At the heart of these excesses are clearly identifiable habits of mind: the tendency to view life in absolutes; the assumption of infallible wisdom that comes from on high; the refusal to seek common ground; and the damning of opposition as heretical, immoral, or godless.
Religion is the subtext of our nation’s political life. America’s religious right is fond of saying that America was founded as a Christian country. Actually, we’re a good deal more conflicted than that. Clearly, most of our early settlers were Christian, as were the countries from which they came. Many of them came to this country in search of religious freedom, and then, once established in their respective colonies, started denying it to anyone who didn’t share their precise set of religious convictions. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the first amendment leads off the Bill of Rights by guaranteeing freedom of religion; nor should we be surprised that states and cities all over the country enacted blue laws that limit what can be done on the Sabbath.
Buchanan despaired of every reaching any common ground in the Cultural War; but in a recent column in the New York Times, David Brooks point out that there is still a center in American politics. I’m trying to find it. Here are some thoughts.
First, seek humility and avoid arrogance. Catholics last week heard Luke’s story of the pharisee who prays a self-congratulatory prayer thanking God that he is not like other men. The religious right are the Pharisees of our time.
Second, use honest language and avoid distortion. Nobody favors abortion itself. If a candidate’s position is that all human life is sacred, that the death penalty should be abolished, that the nation should wage war only in self-defense, and that abortion is homicide, then that candidate can claim to be pro-life. Neither of the candidates for President is pro-life. Neither the religious right nor the Bush campaign is pro-life; they’re simply against abortion rights. It’s correct to say that Kerry’s campaign favors abortion rights; it’s inflammatory to charge that it favors abortion itself.
Third, use religious authority responsibly. Isaiah (40:13) asks, “Who has known the mind of God?” Eleven of America’s 400 Catholic bishops believe they do, and have stated that they would deny Communion to Catholics who support Kerry’s candidacy. They make a mockery of our religion and the dignity of their position. Regrettably, the secular press has exaggerated that minority position so that it sounds like a groundswell.
Fourth, don’t claim exclusive use of labels. I’m tired of Christians who appropriate that label only for their own interpretation of Christianity. And within Catholicism, we have our own faction that does the same thing with the label “Catholic.” If you want a religious label that you control, start your own church.
Fifth, respect differences. The fact that you think Harry Potter is satanic doesn’t mean you have the right to prevent other children from reading it. The fact that you want your children to believe that babies come from Wal-Mart doesn’t mean you have the right to deny comprehensive sex education to the children of others.
Sixth, get the facts straight. As I noted in a previous blog, public education in America started in a Puritan colony as a way to make sure than children could read the Bible and be protected from“that old deluder, Satan.” It has evolved into a nonsectarian educational system in which children can pray but not be compelled to pray and can study religious texts in literature classes but not in science classes. Some of them pray pretty regularly, but they do so on their own initiative and not because the school directs them to. The same Bill of Rights that keeps public schools from leading prayer bars them from preventing it. Yet I see all sorts of articles saying that “children can’t pray in public schools.”
I can’t support President Bush because he, and the people around him, have succeeded in turning faith into a political vice. I don’t doubt the sincerity of their beliefs; what I oppose is their excesses. The broad middle of American belief needs to reject the religious right, and one way to do that is by electing John Kerry.