God, Caesar and the 2020 Election

God, Caesar and the 2020 Election

Barrett and Biden(Left:  Supreme Court Nominee Amy Coney Barrett; Right:  Presidential Nominee Joe Biden)

I am old enough to remember when the idea of a Catholic president invited frenzied opposition from those who believed that the Catholic candidate John F. Kennedy would be a tool of the Vatican in governing the United States. The opposition grew so intense that a group of Protestant ministers asked him to address the concerns.  JFK’s speech on September 12, 1960 to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association is worth reading in full, and these excerpts are especially relevant now, 60 years later in September 2020 as we consider the religious issues entwined with the 2020 presidential election:

Presidential Nominee John F. Kennedy in September 1960:  “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him. 

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all….For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew– or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. 

Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.”

How we render to God and Caesar are issues as old as the New Testament, and ever-present in American life, but in this presidential campaign season they have exploded upon the landscape as Catholic candidates are now nominees for President and for Supreme Court Justice.  But this is not just any old Church-State debate; the two candidates illustrate in very sharp relief the remarkable political differences among Catholics, as well as the dangerous ways in which extremists try to use religion as a wedge for political gain, and how the national view of Catholic candidates for public office has changed.

Today, unlike in 1960, the very same Protestant evangelicals who once harbored clearly anti-Catholic views on the grounds that Catholics would impose their religious beliefs on government now embrace the conservative Catholic candidate for the Supreme Court precisely because they think that she will make decisions according to her religious beliefs.  Billy Graham tried to deny Kennedy the presidency in 1960 on the grounds that a Catholic president would do the Vatican’s bidding.  But his son Franklin Graham was at the White House for the announcement of Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court and wrote admiringly about her faith on his Facebook page.

Meanwhile, the real opposition to the Catholic nominee for president, Joe Biden, is coming from … Catholics.  Some priests, bishops and lay Catholics have stated unequivocally that Catholics may not vote for Biden because he has political views on issues like the laws governing abortion and gay marriage that differ from Church teachings.  A few extremists have gone so far as to say that Biden is not Catholic, which is not true.

Writing in the New York Times (“Biden could be our second Catholic president. Does it Matter?” September 23, 2020), columnist Elizabeth Bruenig notes, “…in one of history’s many strange reversals, Catholics’ midcentury success set the stage for white Catholics’ indifference — even active opposition — to the potential election of America’s second Catholic president, Joe Biden.”  Kennedy helped Catholics to assimilate into the mainstream of upper middle class American culture and as they moved along in wealth and power, their liberal roots frayed as they adopted increasingly conservative political positions more aligned with the evangelical right.  Other commentators have noted that, this year, it’s very obvious that white American Catholics, a majority of whom continue to embrace Trump despite his many actions that offend our faith teachings, are more likely to pay attention to political leaders they agree with than the pope, who the right wing considers almost a heretic.

It’s important to note here that the official Church position is neutral on voting.  In “Faithful Citizenship,” the document of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, the Catholic bishops clearly state, “In this statement, we bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote. Our purpose is to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God’s truth. We recognize that the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience, and that participation goes well beyond casting a vote in a particular election.”

The bishops also make it clear why Catholics have an obligation to participate in political affairs:  “The Catholic community brings important assets to the political dialogue about our nation’s future. We bring a consistent moral framework-drawn from basic human reason that is illuminated by Scripture and the teaching of the Church-for assessing issues, political platforms, and campaigns. We also bring broad experience in serving those in need-educating the young, serving families in crisis, caring for the sick, sheltering the homeless, helping women who face difficult pregnancies, feeding the hungry, welcoming immigrants and refugees, reaching out in global solidarity, and pursuing peace. We celebrate, with all our neighbors, the historically robust commitment to religious freedom in this country that has allowed the Church the freedom to serve the common good.”

Making prudential political choices rooted in a well-developed understanding of the moral issues at stake in every political vote is what the Church expects of Catholic voters and politicians.  The Church acknowledges the reality that not every politician will choose what the Church wants on every issue.  If we are looking for a perfect alignment of Church teachings and political choices, we would have to withdraw entirely from political engagement.  In an extensive essay in America Magazine, former USCCB official John Carr analyzes the balancing act and choices before us as he endorses Biden for president while making it clear that he does not agree with Biden on every issue.  But the moral stakes are high in evaluating the ongoing damage to issues of human dignity and social justice wreaked by the Trump Administration while assessing whether and how Catholics might still influence a Biden administration.

While those on the right criticize Biden for not always acting in alignment with Church teachings, some of those same voices scream fairly loudly when people ask whether Amy Coney Barrett will impose her religious beliefs on cases before the Supreme Court.  Villanova Theology Professor Massimo Faggioli wrote a compelling piece in Politico about “Why Amy Coney Barret’s Religious Beliefs Aren’t Off Limits” thus incurring the wrath of conservative backers of Barrett who are quick to point out that Article VI of the Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office.

Let me just note for the record here that the same scrutineers of faith have not expressed any concerns about the apparent lack of fidelity or even moral formation in the current president who has committed grave offenses against the fundamental moral principles that most people of faith of all denominations hold dear.  Just sayin’…

Washington Post Columnist E.J. Dionne made this point:  “What degrades religion to the level of political propaganda is conservative double-talk that it’s okay for them to criticize Biden’s brand of Catholicism, but not okay for liberals to challenge Barrett’s brand of Catholicism.”

I do find myself hoping that everyone can turn down the temperature on judgmental religious scrutiny and return to an understanding of political and legal duties as serving the common good through a lens of social justice and moral cohesion.  I’m certainly with those who wish that the current president and his allies in the Senate would be more respectful of the moment and not rush through the appointment of the new Supreme Court justice.  But I also wish that those who are dismayed by the curdled politics of this appointment would not savage the reputation and personal life of Amy Coney Barrett who, from all I have read about her, is not a monster but a thoughtful and smart person who is certainly conservative — I disagree with her on many issues — but also deserves respect for her abilities and achievements and the personal choices she has made.

In the same way, I think the demonization of Joe Biden by the right wing of the Catholic Church is appalling, a rejection of the true meaning of our faith.  Moreover, and this must be said loudly and clearly, the current occupant of the White House is a moral scandal to our humanity and nation.  There is nothing redeeming about the current president.  Aside from his personal moral failings and corrupt business practices, he has officially directed actions that offend human life and dignity, from his assaults on immigrants and refugees to separating families and caging babies, to reinstating the federal death penalty, to refusing the call out the abhorrent levels of racism in this country while giving aid and comfort to white supremacists, to undermining the Affordable Care Act that so many people depend upon, to reducing benefits for people living in poverty while increasing tax advantages for the wealthiest, to lowering environmental protection standards and selling off environmentally sensitive lands for commercial development, and so much more.  He has also destabilized international relations and put our country in grave danger of new war.

The fate of our nation, our people, our values, our faith, our freedom is at stake in this election.  As John F. Kennedy said 60 years ago in his Houston speech, the debate about religious fidelity obscures the “real issues” that should decide the election are issues of our humanity:  “…war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.”  More than half a century later, those issues are as real and urgent today as ever.  The choice has never been so stark.

Constitution Day Reflections on Church and State

For Constitution Day (September 17) this year, I asked members of the Trinity community to weigh in on these questions:

The First Amendment says this about religion:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  What is your opinion? Should religion influence voter choices about candidates? Should bishops and priests preach about candidates and direct voters?  Do coronavirus restrictions impinge upon religious liberty?

Here are some of the answers:

  • Sister Camilla Burns, SNDdeN, Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies:

Should bishops and priests preach about candidates and direct voters? 

“My answer is a resounding NO to this question.  Their primary responsibility for the election is to preach about the sanctity of all life from birth to death in the spirit of Cardinal Bernadin’s image of all life as a “seamless garments.” Those who are making recommendations are single issue voters.  Single issue thinking is tantamount to putting on blinders to the rest of reality.  Yes, abortion is an issue but so is the death penalty and the humane care of immigrants, documented or undocumented.  Some clergy are being obligated to respond to public single issue endorsements as reported in the National Catholic Reporter.  “I think that a person in good conscience could vote for Mr. Biden,” Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark said on September 15. “I, frankly, in my own way of thinking have a more difficult time with the other option.” “

  • Allison Martin, student in the MSN Program:

Should religion influence voter choices about candidates?  No, not religious leaders in the literal sense. However, it does influence the person’s ideas on policies and how the government works. I found a quote that sums up the rationale that it does. According to Father James J. Martin in a Newsweek article (Fearnow, 2020),  “[We] bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote. Our purpose is to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God’s truth. We recognize that the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience, and that participation goes well beyond casting a vote in a particular election.”

Should bishops and priests preach about candidates and direct voters?   No. I don’t think bishops/priests should preach about candidates and direct voters to a particular candidate. Unfortunately, due to the state of the country due to covid-19, churches have been forced to discuss policies of the current President and the effects on society. However, I do believe religious leaders should encourage their parishioners to vote (on their own free will) and participate in the democratic process.

Do coronavirus restrictions impinge upon religious liberty? No. The restrictions do not impinge on religious liberty. covid-19 restrictions are in place to protect public health during the global pandemic. Religion practice is protected by the Constitution and the restrictions do not deny practice of religion.

  • Sister Ann Howard, SNDdeN, Director of Campus Ministry:

The First Amendment secures the freedom of religion for all Americans, thank God!  We can turn to our various faith communities to discover the merits and the costs of various decisions in our lives, weighing the ways we can move towards ‘forming a more perfect union’ while respecting diversity and ‘promoting the general welfare’ within our society .  Each has the freedom to vote according to [their] conscience, not taking instruction from anyone: parent, priest or political leader.  Read and listen and gather facts!  Definitely steer clear of a ‘herd mentality’ as each of us has the responsibility and the right to vote as well as to keep safe when and where we worship during a social pandemic.  Let’s cherish the freedoms we possess as we wade through these trying times in the USA, in the world, today.  To quote an English lad, “God bless us, everyone!” (Charles Dickens’s character, Tiny Tim, in A Christmas Carol)

  • Raneiya Ayim, CAS Health Services Major:

It is my belief that religion is a social construct that should help to build and stabilize communities; and to impose a personal belief onto another is morally wrong. God him/herself does not infringe on our will, so to have an imperfect human “guide” my decisions is blasphemous. The pulpit is not meant to impose ideas about how a person should vote, and it’s definitely not a place to impose judgement, as that is God’s job. My personal example of how we should treat each other and how we should be is Jesus. He wanted us to know that God’s Love is ♾ infinite, and it goes beyond our understanding. He was kind to those who society deemed unworthy and he was patient with those who didn’t always do what was right. A building or structure is not the church. The people are the church, that has to be understood. The building is respected because it is a place of assembly. As the church, we need to take care of one another, honoring each other as we honor ourselves. Always remembering that the body is the temple in which God should dwell. Online services is what is needed right now. It’s hard, yet, honoring ourselves as God’s creation is a way to honor God. My vote will always go to the candidate that considers all people. A leader, needs to practice impartiality, with an understanding that the freedom to be oneself should not infringe on another’s ability to be themselves. Encouraging inequalities as it relates to all levels of life in society (racial, immigration, sexuality, religion, economics, etc.) does not move America forward. Improving on past mistakes and correcting the wrongs in society is how America will finally be Great.

  • Barbara Sanders, SPS First Year Student:

No religion shouldn’t play a part in voting.  Knowing what people are going through, being a person with a heart for all people and a politician second.  Learn how to have compassion about today’s issues.

What do you think about all of these many issues of religion, faith, politics and moral values at stake in the 2020 election?  Please share comments by clicking on the comments link below, or send me your thoughts on email president@trinitydc.edu and I will include them in a future blog.

Whatever your opinion, VOTE!  Your responsibility as a person of faith, as a citizen is to VOTE.

If you are not eligible to vote, you can still participate by working for candidates and helping to get out the vote.