Religion in politics: An extreme position?

Loras’ Catholic identity forms a critical element of our home here. This is why we must pay attention when anyone’s religious identity is challenged elsewhere in the United States. A string of such incidences requires our attention.

On Dec. 5, Senator Maize Hirono (D-HI) told Brian Buescher, a judicial nominee, that, “the Knights of Columbus has taken a number of extreme positions.”

They asked him if he would terminate his membership in the group if confirmed. These “extreme positions,” it is worth noting, are only the teachings which are implicitly claimed by Catholics every time they identify themselves as Catholics. (I should note that I am also a Catholic and a Knight of Columbus. I acknowledge my own connection to the issue. Furthermore, on the local level, we are not a primarily political organization. Singing horribly to raise money and pay for a well in Africa is much more our speed.)

In an older incident, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told a Catholic nominee, “In your case, professor, when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern.”

In both of these cases, the nominees made it clear that they would abide by the laws of the United States and the expectations for judges to be impartial. This was not about their ability to do the job. It was simply a challenge having a public Catholic identity and serving in the nation’s courts.

My concern here is not with the separation of church and state as the separation of institutions. That’s a good thing. Nor is it only with the particular scenario of religious tests for holding judicial offices. Rather, my concern is with the claim that a person should check their religious identity before entering the door of politics. If the free practice of religion does not extend to the political sphere, then it is not freedom at all. Would we treat any other freedom in this way? If the freedom of speech did not extend to politics, we would recognize it as simply not being freedom. If the freedom of the press did not extend to politics, it would not be freedom. In the above cases, there was no reason to believe that these nominees would act as agents of or otherwise serve the interests of the Knights of Columbus, the bishops, or anyone else. This was not motivated by concern about the separation of church and state. This was motivated by a fear of Catholics being Catholic in the world of politics. There is no reason to fear religious people continuing to be religious while also being political. First, because of all of the good which has come from religious individuals bringing their religion into their politics. Their ranks include our own Samuel Mazzuchelli, a Dominican priest who dedicated himself to spreading the Gospel in our area. That’s a religious person with a religious mission if ever there was one. It was this religious element which drove him to make many political contributions from preaching against slavery and war to writing to President Andrew Jackson demanding an end to the maltreatment of Native Americans. The Christian beliefs of abolitionists also played a critical role in their political contributions, namely abolition.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize biography states, “In 1957 he was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization formed to provide new leadership for the now burgeoning civil rights movement. “The ideals for this organization he took from Christianity; its operational techniques from Gandhi.”

Perhaps religion in politics simply leads to better politics. Not always, but not infrequently either. Second, religion shapes the consciences of many people. In these cases, to say that one’s vote cannot be informed by religion is to say that one’s vote cannot be informed by one’s conscience. This is obviously problematic.

Third, because religious freedom is a human right. By ‘human right,’ I mean something which society as a whole owes to an individual human because it is necessary for that individual to develop into a mature, fulfilled human. Human rights secure these necessities on a variety of levels: the human as an organism, the human as a being with the ability to think and choose, and the human as a being which is born into and require social interactions and relationships. Religious freedom is the right to pursue those ends which are beyond nature or to pursue natural ends through supernatural means. For example, the right to go to Mass on Sunday or to produce and purchase kosher food are basic religious freedoms. Furthermore, religious freedom extends to the right to not fight in the armed forces during times of war and to educate one’s children in one’s beliefs. Certain religions, such as Catholicism, make demands in the political sphere.

Saint Oscar Romero wrote, “The church has a right and an obligation to speak about the political sphere.”

St. Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador, where he was martyred for preaching against the dictatorship. Curtailing religious freedom in politics, since it requires everyone to assume that there is no fulfillment beyond the natural when they operate in the political sphere, prevents humans from seeking supernatural maturity and fulfillment. Therefore, to constrain the role of religion in politics is to violate human rights.

In order to combat that trend, I would recommend first looking at all of the diverse contributions religious groups are making to politics today and recognizing that they fall all over the political spectrum. These range from working against the death penalty to suing the U.S. government to prevent the construction of parts of the border wall. Second, recognize the importance which religious values play in people’s relationships and not just in their private worship. There are few religions that don’t hold moral beliefs alongside the more abstractly spiritual ones. Third, religious freedom is a human right. Don’t violate human rights. It really is that simple.

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