Thursday, September 30, 2004
I'm hoping that undecided Catholic voters will not limit their research of the presidential candidates to the predictably less-than-helpful insight offered by the GOP in its website, "Kerry Wrong for Catholics." The site gathers some of the more egregious quotes from Kerry on abortion, but also suggests that Catholics should reject Kerry because he opposed elements of the Bush Administration's homeland security efforts, and because he has taken communion at a Protestant church. Not surprisingly, there's no mention of just war, the preferential option for the poor, the death penalty, etc. I also confess to feeling a bit squeamish as I explored the GOP's "Catholics for Bush" website, which prominently features a "photo album" apparently designed to bolster Bush's Catholic-friendly aura. There are photos of Bush giving a medal to the Pope and plenty of photos of Bush standing with priests and the Knights of Columbus. I generally defend a visible role for religious values and language in our political life, but this struck me as a bit ham-handed. Are we to think that Kerry would refuse a photo op with the Pope? More troubling was the prominence given a photo of Bush praying. I certainly believe that prayer is a valuable element of our politicians' lives, including the public aspects of their lives when events warrant. But deliberately choosing to advertise that fact ("Our President prays in public!") on a campaign website brought to mind Matthew 6:5-6:
When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
Nevertheless, my discomfort with both websites pales in comparison with the revulsion expressed by James Carroll (of Constantine's Sword fame), whose column in the Boston Globe laments the websites' effort to twist Kerry's sincere religious devotion. Carroll portrays the election of Kerry as its own sort of religious contest:
Today, some Catholics, including many bishops, repudiate the theology of the Second Vatican Council, and they are the ones most determined to stop Kerry from being elected. Having a Vatican II Catholic as president of the United States would be a blow against those who hope to roll back the reforms begun at that council. More than that, Kerry's positions on a range of issues, from abortion to the death penalty to the centrality of social justice, mark him not as a renegade Catholic but as one of that increasingly large number of faithful Catholics who understand that moral theology is not a fixed set of answers given once and for all by an all-knowing hierarchy but an ongoing quest for truths that remain elusive.
Needless to say, of all the labels that folks seek to affix to Kerry given his pronouncements on abortion, "Vatican II Catholic" is probably not at the top of the list. But it is Bush himself that pushes Carroll to the brink of reality:
Bush sponsors "faith based" social projects to disguise his agenda of dismantling structures of government that provide basic human needs. Bush cites religion as a way of justifying a politics of exclusion -- wanting America to be a place that bans gay people, keeps women subservient, suspects religious "outsiders" (whether Muslims or atheists). Such religion is the ground of the "us versus them" spirit that defines Bush's foreign policy.
Even in a GOP platform that is, in my view, wildly over the top, I have not seen any reference to banning gays or keeping women subservient. Please correct me if I'm wrong.
Carroll finishes with a flourish of what can only be considered theological malpractice in the cause of political partisanship:
Bush uses religion to justify his penchant for violence, which is manifest in nothing so much as his glib use of the word "evil." Once an enemy is demonized, transcendent risks can be taken to destroy that enemy. We see this apocalyptic impulse being played out in Iraq today. If in order to obliterate "evil" it proves necessary to obliterate a whole society -- so be it. A divinity seen as willing the savage murder of an only son as a way of defeating evil is a divinity that blesses an America that destroys Iraq to save it.
This last sentence, of course, raises some issues bigger than the upcoming election. Is Carroll suggesting that God did not send Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for humankind? Or just that it's an unfortunate truth given its role in justifying future sacrificial violence? And who exactly is using the death of Jesus as an argument for invading Iraq?
In any event, the public square, at least in this election, is assuredly not a religion-free zone. That's a healthy development, albeit an imperfect, frequently messy one.