Politics is where the competing moral visions of a society meet and struggle. And since the overwhelming majority of American citizens are religious believers, it’s completely appropriate for people and communities of faith to bring their faith into the public square.
Real pluralism always involves a struggle of ideas. Democracy depends on people of conviction fighting for what they believe in the public square – non-violently, respectfully and ethically, but also vigorously and without embarrassment. People who try to separate their private convictions about human dignity and the common good from their involvement in public issues are not acting with integrity, or with loyalty to their own principles. In fact, they’re stealing from their country.
To be healthy, the political process demands that people conform their actions to their beliefs. For Catholics to be silent in an election year -- or any year -- about critical public issues because of some misguided sense of good manners, would actually be a form of theft from our national conversation.
For religious believers not to advance their convictions about public morality in public debate is not an example of tolerance. It’s a lack of courage.
If we believe that a particular issue is gravely wrong and damaging to society, then we have a duty, not just a religious duty but also a democratic duty, to hold accountable the candidates who want to allow it. Failing to do that is an abuse of responsibility on our part, because that’s where we exercise our power as citizens most directly – in the voting booth.
What the Founders intended was to prevent the establishment of an official state Church. They never intended, and never wrote into the Constitution, any prohibition against religious believers, religious leaders or religious communities taking an active role in public issues and the political process. The idea of exiling religion from public debate would have made no sense to them.
Jefferson and Franklin were Deists. But most of the Founders were practicing Christians. And all of them were deeply influenced by Christian thought. Our history as a nation is steeped in religious imagery and language.
The idea that we can pull those religious roots out of our political life without hurting our identity as a nation is both imprudent and dangerous. The United States is non-sectarian. That’s good. That’s important. But “non-sectarian” does not mean anti-religious, atheist, agnostic or even fully secular. Our public institutions flow – in large part -- from a religious understanding of human rights, human nature and human dignity.
When the “separation of Church and state” begins to mean separating religious faith from public life, we begin to separate government from morality and citizens from their consciences. And that leads to politics without character, which is now a national epidemic.
By the way, the state doesn’t seem to worry too much about “separation of Church and state” when it wants to force its point of view on Catholic hospitals, and it’s often the same people who clamor about "separation" and "choice" who take the lead in the coercion.
And here’s one final snippet:
Most people at most times in history have drawn their moral guidelines from their religious beliefs. And for most Americans, those beliefs are rooted in their churches and synagogues – communities of faith that exercise direct moral influence in society. Religion is about the meaning of our lives. It’s about purpose and last things and our final destination. If we begin with God’s love and the goal of heaven in mind, then we order our behavior in this life accordingly. We don’t steal, we don’t lie, we don’t commit adultery; we don’t deliberately kill the innocent; we help the poor, we comfort the sick, we shelter the homeless.
In contrast, the secular view of the world, by its nature, can’t deal with questions of larger meaning. And by refusing to engage the questions that really matter in life, secularism robs us of the foundation for our dignity and our moral vocabulary. It robs our politics of the ideals that make us a nation and a people, rather than just a mob of individuals.
Americans are a religious people. A church-going people. We deny that at our peril. The more we try to drive religion out of our public life, the poorer we become and the less we have to offer in our engagement with the world.
We are more than simply “one nation under God.” In the case of the United States -- in the light of our history and the founding ideas and documents that shaped us as a people -- we are one nation because of our belief in God.
What’s remarkable about this speech is that little of it derives from principles that are exclusive to Roman Catholic social teaching; most of it is "mere Christian" common sense. Also remarkable is the response it evoked from the audience, at least as reported in
this article, which refers to "verbal fisticuffs" between the Archbishop and his audience. Here’s a sample:
"Why do (religions) feel they have to impose their views on us?" asked one woman during a spirited question-and-answer session following Chaput’s speech to the City Club of Denver.
"If we don’t - you’ll impose your views on us," Chaput shot back to murmurs from the group of about 120 business and civic leaders.
We need more religious leaders like Archbishop Chaput who will challenge the simple-minded separationism that clearly informs the opinions of a significant portion of elite audiences like this one. And we need reporters who will cover these speeches fairly and honestly.
Update: Terry Mattingly discusses the press coverage of this speech over at Get Religion.