Should the church just stay out of politics?
December 6, 2019
Americans agree on a lot more than we think. Many times, it is for the good. Sometimes it isn’t. And an example of the latter is the agreement by a majority of Americans that religion should stay out of politics.
In a new Pew survey, 63% of U.S. adults said that churches and religious organizations should “keep out of political matters.” This is not surprising when, as the same survey revealed, only 55% of Americans said that churches and religious organizations do more good than harm in American society. Almost a full quarter think that churches and religious organizations make no difference at all. And about strengthening the moral fabric of our nation, only 53% of Americans say that churches strengthen it.
It would seem that a disturbingly large number of our fellow citizens view religious organizations to be useless at best and harmful at worst. But our fellow citizens are wrong. Our nation needs religion. Our church does a great deal of good. And the church should be involved in politics.
Let me be clear, though, that I’m not saying the church should be endorsing or condemning candidates or political parties. And though the church is allowed by law to talk about public policy, I’m not saying that the church should always do so. The problem is not so much with the distinction between theology and politics but with misunderstanding what “politics” is.
In my experience, many Catholics have no problem with the church commenting on a specific policy when the bishops agree with them. It is when the church disagrees with our own notions that the bishops are suddenly “playing politics” and so should just stick to theology. The word “politics” then shifts according to our own biases.
More difficult is when, let’s say, there’s a party whose platform includes rounding up everyone named Omar for extermination. When the church stands up and condemns the mass killing, everyone knows that it is a condemnation, by extension, of that party. The church is then accused of “playing politics” when, in fact, the church is simply fulfilling her God-given obligation to defend the fundamental human dignity of all persons.
The problem, then, is not with the church playing politics. It’s with many Americans, and I would say many American Catholics, who would prefer to conform their consciences to their own political and personal preferences rather than to the teachings of the Catholic Church. And so we get the Pew study which says, “Just stay out of politics.”
What’s the solution? First, there is hope. Forty-two percent of Americans say that the loss of religious influence in America is a bad thing. Though a minority position, it is a large minority. It also lines up in agreement with the thinking of George Washington, John Adams and Charles Carroll, all men of different Christian religious stripes who agreed that religion was crucial for the success of our republic.
Second, we Catholics should feel comfortable about being politically homeless. We should seek to better understand not just the bishops’ policy positions, but why they hold those positions, even when they are at odds with our preferred political party.
Third, for those Catholics who are willing to hear what the church says about a public policy, the church needs to do a better job of explaining why and how doctrinal principles lead to their conclusions. Then, perhaps, politics will be seen not as a power struggle, but as the forum in which the church applies her teaching to defend the fundamental dignity of all human persons and promote the common good.
Deacon Omar Gutiérrez is director of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the Archdiocese of Omaha. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.