I’m Personally Opposed… But

In 2003 the soon-to-be-terminated governor of California, Gray Davis, was warned by his local bishop that the governor's boast of making California "the most pro-choice state in America" threatened his standing in the Catholic Church. When Davis was told by Sacramento bishop William K. Weigand either to change his views or to stop receiving Communion, a Davis spokesperson responded by charging that the bishop was "telling the faithful how to practice their faith."

Horrors! A church leader telling a member how to practice their faith. Isn't that part of what a church leader is supposed to be doing, at least sort of? And, considering the Roman Catholic Church's unwavering position on abortion, it's hard to imagine the church doing anything else.

This question regarding religion and politics has come more to the forefront recently because of the upcoming presidential election, in which the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, a practicing Catholic, is facing criticism from within the Catholic Church regarding his pro-choice stand. The "I'm personally opposed . . . but" position just isn't flying among some of the hierarchy. One bishop, during the primaries, said that he would refuse to give Kerry Communion. St. Louis bishop (now archbishop) Raymond Burke told Kerry a few days before the Missouri primary "not to present himself for Communion" in the St. Louis area while campaigning because of his pro-choice stand.

All this leads into another thorny question regarding the place of religion in politics. What right does the church, any church, have in dictating to politicians who are members of that church what their stands on various political and public policy issues should be? Aren't churches violating the premise of a secular government when they attempt to coerce politicians into positions that fit their own? Isn't this another example of churches trampling on the freedoms of others in order to promote their own agenda?

No! To the contrary. It would be an egregious violation of religious freedom if churches weren't allowed to pressure politicians of their own faith into line with their doctrinal and/or public policy positions. In fact, looking at history, one could only wish that in some cases the churches did put more pressure on their politicians to live up to some of the high moral ideals and standards presented in Scripture—all the church-going Nazis in the Third Reich being just one example.

Americans are, the last we heard, voluntary members of their communion. All are adults who have, of their own free will, chosen to be part of their church. None have to be there; none are forced by law to be part of the church. They therefore have freely placed themselves under its strictures and even authority. If they don't like the church's positions, they can either seek to change those positions or leave. Until then the church has the right, some would even say the duty, to use every legal means at its disposal to get its members who are in politics to tow the party line. It would be a terrible violation of free exercise if the church were forced, by law, not to speak out or even pressure members to adhere to certain views.

This isn't just a Catholic issue. In the 1990s Southern Baptists Bill Clinton and Al Gore faced criticism from their church regarding their abortion position. Clinton and Gore, voluntary members, simply chose to disregard that position. If worse came to worst, they could leave, just as Kerry or any other Catholic politician could; or, if it deemed it necessary, the Southern Baptist Convention could throw them out.

Some would argue that the Catholic case is a bit different because refusing to give people Communion is all but excommunicating them, which in some thinking is all but consigning them to hell. So what? Sure, that places more pressure on politicians, but again, they have chosen to be a part of a tradition that holds such a teaching. If John Kerry really thought he was going to burn in hell because he couldn't eat a Communion wafer, then he should seriously rethink whether he wants to remain pro-choice. But that, in the end, is between him and his church, not between the church and the government.

But what about voters? What about the political process? What rights does religion have in influencing candidates? It has the same rights as do the environmentalists, the National Rifle Association, and the beer lobby. Whatever separation of church and state means, it never meant—nor should it ever mean—that religious organizations shouldn't be able to influence the political process, as long as their actions are within the law; and the last we heard, it wasn't illegal for a Catholic bishop to deny Communion to those whom the church deems wayward. Maybe the beer lobby threatens not to donate to a candidate's campaign chest; maybe the NRA threatens to give money to an opposing candidate; maybe some bishop refuses to offer Communion. In the end, isn't that just part of the democratic process?

However offensive these threats might seem to some, what's the alternative? Tell the Roman Catholic Church it can't deny Communion to a politician who doesn't adhere to its views on abortion? Talk about a violation of religious freedom, or a violation of free exercise. It's hard to imagine any court even hearing such a challenge, much less upholding it. If religious freedom means anything, it means the right of a church to discipline its members.

Since the 1800s there have been a number of cases (Watson v. Jones, Presbyterian Church in the U.S. v. Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral) dealing with the question of church discipline and the law; and with few exceptions, such as when property is involved, the government stays out of it. As the High Court said in Kedroff, it's up to the religious bodies "to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine."

The question, however, of whether it's expedient for the Roman Catholic bishops to be issuing these threats is another matter. But it's not a matter of religious freedom or church and state separation. Though the concept of separation places certain restrictions on what houses of worship—or any other nonprofit organizations—can do regarding political activism, threatening excommunication isn't a violation of federal election law, nor should it be.

To be fair, not all bishops are threatening Catholic politicians. Most, in fact, aren't, at least not yet. That more are speaking out now than in the past could, indeed, be the harbinger of a shift in strategy. If so, the Catholic Church should proceed with caution, if for no other reason than that—considering the pro-choice views of many Catholics, much less the American electorate as a whole—such tactics could indeed backfire. For an organization already reeling from the sex abuse scandals, more bad PR is about the last thing the church needs.

In the end, threatening Gray Davis, John Kerry, and other politicians might be poor public policy, but it's hardly a violation of church-state separation, and shouldn't be mistaken for such.

Clifford Goldstein, a former editor of Liberty magazine, writes from Silver Spring, Maryland.

My fellow editor, Goldstein, makes a good point about the right of the Catholic Church, or any other, to demand that its members represent the church correctly or face the consequences. Of course, the issue is not quite so simple, and the current situation evokes parallels to church actions in less pleasant times when it used all means, including force, to obtain compliance, and when it thought to control the state. The United States was founded on a rejection of that pattern, and we must resist it even in a somewhat post-reformation era.—Editor.

Article Author: Clifford R. Goldstein

Clifford Goldstein writes from Mt. Airy, Maryland. A previous editor of Liberty, he now edits Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.