This past Saturday, I met up with J.S. Porter, who walked me through a number of changes he wanted to have happen to his website. John is a poet, a writer and a theologian. I don’t have much of an idea about what his politics are, other than he has a healthy disrespect for large, multi-national corporations and he opposes many of the measures of the Bush Administration. So, when it comes to religion, he is far more in the vein of C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle than, say, Jerry Falwell.
During the meeting, he met my mother-in-law Rosemarie, who is a staunch Catholic, a staunch Democrat, and one who comes from a long line of staunch Catholic Democrats. And, as you would expect, the conversation between the two of them hovered on the upcoming presidential election. They clicked.
As my mother-in-law, her husband, and their extended family are active churchgoers, they have made me aware of moves within the very conservative dioceses of Nebraska and South Dakota to shape the political debate in the church basements, the church newsletters and the rectory halls. The moves are designed to frame all elections, not just the presidential one, in religious rather than political terms. Consider the recent attempts within the Catholic Church to essentially get John Kerry and Tom Daschle ex-communicated because of their positions on the abortion debate. Speakers at the pulpits have gone so far as to say that a vote for Kerry, Daschle or other left-leaning Democrats is a mortal sin.
This startling attempt to control the political process goes beyond voicing one’s opinions; it is an attempt to hive off and isolate whole sections of the Catholic community, by arbitrarily identifying issues that divide people between practicing Catholics and not. Dissent on these issues, right down to deciding to vote in favour of Democrats on other issues, is seen as something that should remove a voter from the community in which he or she lives — a community which, many Catholics will tell you, integrates within the identity of an individual at a very young age and stays with you for the rest of your life, even if you leave the Catholic Church.
In the latter half of the twentieth century in North America, only the Jehovah Witnesses have practiced this level of shunning within Christianity, and it is seen (rightly so, in my opinion) as one of the worst aspects of their religion.
This attempt to externalize and condemn is not isolated to the Catholic Church. You need only to look to George W. Bush’s more fervent supporters, believing as they do that “God is in the White House”, to see some evangelical Protestant Churches getting well above themselves in defining not only what constitutes good morality in society, but also what democratic choices one can make and still avoid damnation.
This is precisely why the principle of the separation of church and state exists. It’s one thing to disagree within democracy; I make it a point to disagree with at least six bloggers before breakfast (apologies to Lewis Carroll). Disagreement is not sufficient to decide for me whether or not an individual shares a common humanity with me. But in the dogmatic, hierarchical and identity-defining purview of the Church, its power must be wielded with care by the imperfect humans who run it. Few churches are outright democracies — some could argue that they are not meant to be and that moral thought (or God’s will) is something that supersedes human choice — but Churches are not supposed to be dictatorships, either. The ability for believers within the church to come to good moral decisions on their own must not be impeded.
This isn’t to say that politicians shouldn’t be moral. One can admire Tommy Douglas’ Baptist compassion in crafting Canada’s national health care system, or Preston Manning’s Protestant work ethic, and commitment to living within one’s means. But when morality becomes exclusionary, something that seeks to isolate perfectly normal people rather than informing one’s own political thought process, democracy and society come to harm. There was a time a few decades ago where individuals within my mother-in-law’s family believed that one could not be a Republican and a member of the church in good standing. Such thinking was wrong then, and thinking the same about Democrats is wrong now.
The bishops seeking to ex-communicate John Kerry and Tom Daschle seek to make abortion and homosexual rights the defining issue of all elections. They argue that pro-life beliefs are the only moral beliefs, and votes for pro-life politicians are the only moral votes. They might be right on the first point, but the latter is very questionable. Such thinking, my mother-in-law argues, effectively disenfranchises Catholic or other true moral-thinking voters.
Consider: I’m pro-life. If I were an American and thus barred from voting Democrat because they run pro-choice candidates, I should be similarly barred from voting Republican. Why? Because one can argue that a number of their policies are anti-life. It is illogical for me as a pro-lifer to vote against Democratic candidates because of their stance on criminalizing a surgical procedure when to apply my vote to the Republican alternative means voting in favour of capital punishment, or in favour a war that one could argue was unjust, or in favour of tax cuts that benefit the rich far more than the poor, or in favour of policies that increase child poverty and suffering, or in favour of politicians who seek to rape and pillage God’s creation.
There are Republicans out there who argue that the Bush tax cuts are immoral, but they are not the people running against John Kerry and Tom Daschle. There are Christians out there who, while not condoning homosexuality, see no threat in allowing gay marriage. There are Christians who acknowledge that the fervour that some who call themselves Christians have in persecuting homosexual behaviour violates the love that we as Christians are supposed to have for every human being, regardless of their imperfections. If we continue to apply simplistic black-and-white viewpoints to the notoriously grey area of politics, we are going to paint people and their issues the wrong colour. That is plainly unjust.
Despite what some Christians may tell you, these issues are complex and open to interpretation, such that the ability to vote for a Republican or a Democrat, a Conservative, a Liberal, a New Democrat or a Green, is equally moral and equally immoral, depending on the amount of thought you’ve put into your choice. There are plenty more Christians who believe this. The truth is, no human being (and that especially includes politicians) has a monopoly on morality, and one should probably tend to the fleck in one’s own eye before one pulls at the fleck in one’s opponent’s eye. The issues that have been framed in these elections do not comprise the majority of political debate in the land, and do not have the effect that the other issues do; and seeking to isolate and essentially disenfranchise those who disagree with you, is an arrogant and immoral statement unbecoming of a Christian.
We render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and we render unto God what is God’s. Politics is not something God is likely to sully himself with, though lots of god-fearing people have tried their best making something better out of the world with it. This humility was what President Lincoln was speaking to when he asked that we pray that we are on God’s side and not the other way around. We are engaging in pretty sinful behaviour by flipping that prayer on its head.