This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  November 18, 2005

Edited by E.J. Dionne, Jean Betheke Elshtain and Kayla M. Drogosz
Brookings Institution Press,
239 pages, $17.95
By Robert F. Drinan, SJ
Yale University Press,
272 pages, $18
God and morality in the public sphere

While Puritans take over the Republican Party; secularism has Democrats paralyzed


The Republican Party, as the last presidential election made plain to all, is in hock up to its ears to a cabal of well-financed, media-savvy Puritans. The day is coming when these theocrats will discredit right-wing extremism for a generation. Why is it taking so long for the electorate to run the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Robert Reed and Chuck Colson out of the beltway?

There are several reasons. The religious right is well organized and awash in lucre. Moreover, at election time, the faithful in the megachurches are more than happy to take their marching orders from Karl Rove. Their pastors are adept at exploiting communications media in appealing to the fear of moral ambiguity and social change that resonates so strongly with the lower middle class. There is another reason as well: Democrats cannot seem to overcome their allergy to religious faith. By ceding “God and morality” to the right, Democrats play right into the hand of neoconservatives and their pastors in the Republican Party.

Take last year’s presidential election. John Kerry seems to have campaigned under the misconception that the year was 1960, not 2004. Like the last Roman Catholic senior senator from Massachusetts who ran for president, Sen. Kerry thought he had to prove to the country that he would not allow his church to influence his decision-making. In 1960, Sen. John Kennedy stood before a group of Protestant ministers in Dallas in order to assure “Christians” that a Catholic could be trusted in the White House. In 2004, as George W. Bush was testifying to America how Jesus had changed his life, Sen. Kerry was going about the country telling voters that his faith was a private matter and that he wouldn’t dream of letting it influence his decision-making in the Oval Office. Sen. Kennedy got himself elected in 1960 by proving that his faith would be private. Sen. Kerry lost the 2004 election because he did the same thing.

Maybe Sen. Kerry was getting advice from Mario Cuomo, another Catholic Democrat who thinks it’s still 1960. Mr. Cuomo is the darling of the secular left because he is a “nice” Catholic: He keeps his embarrassing religious beliefs to himself. Mr. Cuomo’s essay in One Electorate Under God? reprises the famous address he gave at Notre Dame in 1984. According to the former governor, Roman Catholic politicians are well advised to subordinate the moral demands of their faith in the interest of respecting the diversity of beliefs and values characteristic of a pluralistic society. By working to guarantee the freedom of others, Mr. Cuomo argues, Catholic politicians are also working to preserve the freedom of Catholics. True enough, as governor of New York, Mr. Cuomo opposed the death penalty. But secularists need not be concerned. Mr. Cuomo’s stance was not based on his religious beliefs and certainly not on the teachings of his church. In fact, he assures us, “When I speak against the death penalty, I never suggest that I consider it a moral issue.”

Mark Souder, a Republican congressman from Indiana, offers an alternative vision of faith and politics for America. Do not be misled by the incoherence of Rep. Souder’s essay. His message is clear enough: “a moment of silence in the classroom, the posting in the schoolroom of the Ten Commandments (as long as other expressions are also posted), and a Bible on a teacher’s desk are not indications of state-sponsored religion.” The contrast with Mr. Cuomo’s stay-in-the-closet faith could not be more starkly drawn. “To ask me to check my Christian beliefs at the public door,” Rep. Souder testifies, “is to ask me to expel the Holy Spirit from my life when I serve as a congressman, and that I will not do.” Where Mr. Cuomo equivocates about the death penalty, Rep. Souder stands up for Christ: “Either I am a Christian or I am not. Either I reflect his glory or I do not.”

Democrats should stop listening to Mr. Cuomo and learn the lessons of the making of the president 2004. Americans are scared and anxious. They are looking for moral clarity, not principled pluralism. The moderate secularism of “no unnecessary entanglement” is not winning votes today, let alone the militant secularism of the “wall of separation.” Democrats might want to pay attention to the essays by Paul Begala and Anna Greenberg. These contributors, in different ways, want the left to wake up and smell the incense. After years of grass-roots organizing, militant evangelicals have succeeded in doing for the Republican Party what the Catholic church (with more subtlety) used to do for the Democrats. This may be the most important political development in the United States since Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition brought blue-collar Catholics from the Northeast together with Southern Protestants. So far, the response of the left has been ineffective: an increasingly strident secularism that fails to take seriously America’s time-honored enthusiasm for religious faith. Ironically, the secular left has colluded with the religious right in making the phrase “religious progressive” an oxymoron in America today. Democrats are fools if they think they can take a pass on religious faith, concede God to the Republicans and still hope to win elections. The Democrats need to lose their doctrinaire secularism and find their own moral vision in the religious left. The resulting policies, I can assure Democrats, will be progressive.

This will not be the first time that a progressive politics have come out of the religious left. The progressive era itself was driven, in no small way, by liberal Christians. In fact, mainline Protestant ministers often pitched these reforms as “applied Christianity.” This point is front and center in Michael Kazin’s essay in this volume. The progressive era was American democracy’s response to the savage capitalism of the robber barons. “Savage capitalism,” by the way, is Pope John Paul II’s phrase, not mine. The legislative achievement of the progressives included not merely trust-busting, but also income tax, worker safety and child labor laws, women’s suffrage and laws protecting organized labor. The achievement of the progressives, by the way, tracked exactly the political agenda of the U.S. Catholic Welfare Society (what today is called the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), with one exception. Reflecting the emerging tradition of Catholic social teaching, the U.S. bishops had also called for universal health care.

We can hope that a major voice in a new progressive coalition will be the religious mainstream. We can hope that this coalition of political progressives and religious moderates will bring together mainline Protestants and Catholics in a way that is politically as well as theologically significant. The Protestant vision of biblically grounded justice needs to join together with the Catholic tradition of solidarity and the doctrine of the common good. Protestants will contribute the biblical language so familiar and congenial to Americans. Catholics will provide a natural law framework for this biblical language in a way that is compatible with America’s pluralistic political traditions. By joining together to support a progressive politics, Protestant and Catholic theologies will be mutually enriched. This hope reflects ideas Robert Bellah advances in his essay that looks to Catholic social teachings as an antidote to a pathological individualism that Protestant theology fails to challenge.

Will this work? The religious right expects Pope Benedict XVI to join them in their Kulturkampf against secularism. Long range, however, the papacy may turn out to be an ally difficult for American neoconservatives to live with. If Catholics are to be faithful to the legacy of John Paul II, they will have to become critics of neoliberal economics. Karl Rove, take note: The goals of social conservatives (including the religious right) are by no means identical with the goals of economic conservatives. Catholics, faithful to their church’s social teachings, may become the swing vote that undermines the Republican coalition and sets in motion a new progressive era. We can hope.

* * *

Robert Drinan’s book Can God and Caesar Coexist? underscores the need for an international tribunal dedicated specifically to the enforcement of religious freedom as a human right. The United Nations’ 1981 declaration on religious freedom, unlike its Universal Declaration on Human Rights, has not been supplemented by a covenant that would serve as a basis for an international tribunal to adjudicate violations of religious freedom. Other U.N. organs do concern themselves with violations of this right, but Fr. Drinan thinks that religious freedom has a special importance and is therefore in need of a tribunal dedicated to the thorny problem of developing international law in relation to religion and the state.

“This book,” Fr. Drinan declares toward the end of his reflections, “will undoubtedly be criticized for apparent contradictions, omissions and ambiguities.” He is correct. Many of the essays are unfocused. Some of his claims are wildly un-nuanced, which is surprising given Fr. Drinan’s background in law. For example, on Page 116 he asserts that “persons who believe in religion are better citizens.” In fact, this is “a hard-to-refute argument.” Really? In Fr. Drinan’s defense, however, the entire notion of human rights, and even more, religious rights, “bristles with concepts which seemingly do not cohere.”

Fr. Drinan’s last essay offers some general suggestions. First, the 1981 U.N. declaration on freedom of religion (which is reprinted as an appendix) provides a starting point for envisioning a tribunal. Fr. Drinan draws our attention to the ideas of Dinah Shelton and Alexander Kiss, who have worked out a model for a legally binding treaty on religious freedom in 17 controversial articles. The Shelton/Kiss draft includes the separation of church and state (a real difficulty not just for Muslim countries), the right to change one’s religion (currently a capital crime in some countries), a prohibition on the state bestowing privileges or exercising political authority over any religious organization (which would pose a problem for many European countries). While the feasibility of a tribunal continues to be debated, Fr. Drinan asks religious organizations to be restrained in their activities, especially as these activities relate to challenging the authority of governments. He also calls for governments to renounce any use of religious organizations for political ends. Most helpfully, Fr. Drinan asks that nongovernmental organizations address the problem of religious freedom more centrally. In the past, many such organizations have looked on religion as a source of human rights violations, not as a right that can be violated. In any event, the global controversies attending the coexistence of God and Caesar are going to increase in the future.

Fr. James L. Fredericks teaches theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

National Catholic Reporter, November 18, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: