Crossing the Line

Crossing the Line
Should the Church get involved in politics?
Paul Thigpen

© 2004 by Paul Thigpen

A presidential contender who identifies himself as Catholic recently criticized the Vatican for opposing the legal recognition of same-sex unions. His response: "It is important not to have the Church instructing politicians. That is an inappropriate crossing of the line in this country."

Consider the irony. Many today claim the Catholic Church did little to oppose Hitler, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. They rail against her for allegedly having failed to "instruct politicians" on the morality of public policies. Yet they rail against the Church today when it does precisely that.

"Of course you should have challenged those evil Nazis," they seem to say, "but don't challenge us. We're Americans."

The rest of that politician's comments on the Vatican document ran along those very lines: "Our founding fathers separated church and state in America," he said. "It is an important separation. It is part of what makes America different and special, and we need to honor that as we go forward, and I'm going to fight to do that."

He'd better make sure he's not fighting on the wrong side. Perhaps he needs a refresher course in American history. After all: Some of the greatest domestic moral victories this nation has ever won resulted from movements inspired by religious leaders "instructing politicians" according to the dictates of their faith.

In the twentieth century, for example, Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr. and other religious leaders — including Catholics — "instructed politicians" that God demanded justice for African-Americans.

In the late nineteenth century, Quaker activist leaders Sarah and Angelina Grimke "instructed politicians" that God wanted women to have equality with men before the law.

Not long before that, Presbyterian revivalist Charles Finney and other religious leaders "instructed politicians" that slavery was against God's will.

We could go on, but the point is clear: Were all these religiously inspired "instructions" an "inappropriate crossing of the line"?

The founders of our nation may have talked about separating Church and state, but they were much too smart to presume they could separate religion and politics. Religion deals, among other things, with standards for what is right, good and just; with notions of human origins, nature and destiny. Since state officials have the power to govern in keeping with these notions or in opposition to them, religion and politics will never be fully divorced. They have too many critical concerns in common.

Not surprisingly, then, history demonstrates that it's "the American way" for religious leaders to inform our nation's political conscience with their teaching. For our contemporaries to repeat the tired mantra of "separation of Church and state" only confuses the real issue here.

More specifically, and more importantly, the Catholic Church is morally obliged by its very nature to address such issues. As the Second Vatican Council taught, it's part of the Church's mission "to pass moral judgment in those matters which regard public order when the fundamental rights of a person or the salvation of souls require it" (Gaudium et spes, 76). We render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, yes, and to God what belongs to God; but whenever the two realms collide, "we must obey God rather than men" (see Matt. 22:21; Acts 5:29).

That unthinking politician's comments about "crossing the line" remind me of words I heard as a child in the morally troubled Deep South of the sixties. When white preachers thundered against drinking, cussing, carousing and such, their congregations shouted an enthusiastic "Amen!" But if pastors dared from the pulpit to defend civil rights for African-Americans, their flock would confront them quietly afterward, warning: "Watch out, Bubba. You done quit preaching and gone to meddling."

For some folks, when the Vatican "crosses the line" they have drawn to keep religious leaders in their place, Rome has "quit preaching and gone to meddling." But such meddling is a moral and religious duty, not to mention an old and honorable democratic tradition, a legacy of the First Amendment, that is itself "part of what makes America different and special." God help us if we ever lack Catholics and other people of faith with the clear sight and the courage to cross that line.