Thursday, August 3, 2017

Has American Catholicism Become Unavoidably Republican?

Putting a religious faith through a particular political ideology can be regarded as artificial because the transcendent is not limited to the confines of particular ideologies. Were it otherwise, the transcendent would not go beyond the limits of human cognition, perception, and sensibility. Leaders of religious organizations should thus be particularly careful lest they inadvertently cut transcendence short. Practically speaking, that some members could feel marginalized or leave the organization altogether is a capricious cost that can be avoided. In other words, according to religious criteria, no reason would exist for such marginalization or departures. Unfortunately, religious leaders can easily dismiss this drawback out of a desire to channel the religious through their particular ideologies. I suppose this is a form of idolatry.
In the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, a liberal political ideology became associated with Cardinal Blasé Cupich of Chicago after the “started a program against gun violence and opposed Republican health care proposals on the ground that they would strip coverage for the weak and poor.”[1] Alternatively, the Cardinal could have preached against the violence that had plagued parts of the city and for helping the weak and poor. He could have gone to some of the problematic neighborhoods as well as to places where the poor received medical services—even bringing along other clergy to volunteer. Starting a program specifically oriented to guns, and voicing opposition to a political party’s proposal is to step out of the shoes of the fisherman and into the shoes of a legislator. Faithful Catholics in Chicago could legitimately have had a different stance on guns as well as on health policy at the federal level. The Cardinal’s political shoes could easily have made such Catholics uncomfortable going to church and even, particularly sadly, with their Catholic faith. A desire of a religious leader to advance particular political platforms becomes self-centered if it causes members of the religious organization to feel even just uncomfortable.
Visiting a large Catholic church in my hometown outside “Chicagoland” in northern Illinois in 2013, I was amazed at how blatantly Republican the members were; they made no effort to hide their political identification, and it didn’t hurt that the bishop at the time made no secret of his political conservatism. The parish was socially conservative on political issues “down the line.” Even members who were political moderates must have felt uncomfortable there. Indeed, the parish lost considerable members. To be sure, the pastor, who would go on to become bishop of North Dakota, was extremely conservative (and reportedly not very kind). Sadly, “belligerence can acquire a theological justification,” according to Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa writing in La Civilta Cattolica.[2]
The authors look at American evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics as having been “brought together by the same desire for religious influence in the political sphere.”[3] Looked at in the other direction, the desire includes bringing the political sphere into church. The authors warn that the “religious element should never be confused with the political one. Confusing spiritual power with temporal power means subjecting one to the other.”[4] As people of religious faith are subjected to temporal, ideological constraints—even scripts—the faith is artificially circumscribed, as is the body of Christ gathered in fellowship. In fact, the fellowship itself becomes artificially delimited.
In short, the “article warns that conservative American Catholics have strayed dangerously into the deepening political polarization in the United States.”[5] Meanshile, American Unitarian Universalist societies have also contributed to the polarization by becoming virtual liberal camps geared to political activism. I could imagine Unitarian protesters facing off against pro-life Catholic protests with only a street between them as they shout at each other in the name of religion but actually in the sphere of politics—a domain that had become polarized societally by the time Donald Trump was elected U.S. President. The willowing down to ideology brings with it a perspectival narrowness in which even shouting under ostensibly religious auspices does not register as oxymoronic—not to mention as eviscerating any religiousity.  Clearly, it makes no difference whether the ideology is liberal or conservative; the effect is the same. I would even say a presumption to moral and political infallibility also comes with the partiality that is inherent in willowing truth down to a particular ideology. No self-corrective, let alone humbling, feedback loop can operate, so the partisans armed with what they presume is religious truth are unwittingly vulnerable to going too far without realizing it. Even Christian partisans could end up killing rather than loving their enemies without any recognition that they have violated Jesus’s commandment and teachings. That even something as obvious as this could easily be missed ought to be sufficient reason to ward off the temptation to get political and judge fellow religionists accordingly. Yet with an impaired self-corrective feedback loop, resisting the temptation “after the fact” may require nothing short of a miracle.

This book may be helpful for tips on how to sidestep the political: Spiritual Leadership in Business.  See also Christianized Ethical Leadership.

[1] Jason Horowitz, “A Vatican Shot Across the Bow for Hard-Line U.S. Catholics,” The New York Times, August 2, 2017.
[2] Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa, “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism,” La Civilta Cattolica.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Jason Horowitz, “A Vatican Shot Across the Bow for Hard-Line U.S. Catholics,” The New York Times, August 2, 2017.