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Religion and Politics Are Inseparable: Get Over It

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Cardinal Timothy Dolan appeared on Face the Nation on Easter Sunday. The New York Times reported on the conversation:

Asked by Mr. Schieffer if he thought religion was playing too much of a role in politics, the cardinal said, "No, I don't think so at all."

"The public square in the United States is always enriched whenever people approach it when they're inspired by their deepest held convictions," he said. "And, on the other hand, Bob, I think the public square is impoverished when people might be coerced to put a piece of duct tape over their mouth, keeping them from bring their deepest-held convictions to the conversations."

The cardinal of New York also quashed the idea that one should not vote for Mitt Romney just because he is a Mormon.

I agree with him on these two points. I can hear, however, the many people who have walked up to me and told me to keep my preacherly nose out of politics. Nevertheless, it should be clear from human history that religion and politics cannot be separated. Both of them arise from the fact that we Homo sapiens are communal beings: we cannot live completely alone. Every aspect of what makes us human develops completely from living in a community, beginning with the family. Anthropologists are clear that having a sense of the sacred (whatever one makes of it) is one of the fundamental aspects of what differentiates Sapiens from other hominids. Politics is how we order our common life.

It is therefore impossible to separate them, and anyone who claims it can and should be done is either lying or hasn't thought it through. It's pretty basic...

There are a lot of national elections happening this year around the world. Name one where religion is not a significant factor, even if it is not blaringly obvious, as it is in the United States. France, for instance, will elect a new president next month, and it is clear that Nicolas Sarkozy has been enlisting the help of religious leaders, including Muslims as well as Catholics and Protestants, in his re-election campaign. Just as obviously, his main rival, Socialist François Hollande, has been complaining about Sarkozy's alleged infringements on the République laïque, the legally secular, rigorously neutral French Republic. Atheists are religious too.

As a religious leader, I have often been told, as I said, to "stay out of politics." But that is impossible for a Christian, since Jesus of Nazareth's execution -- a crucial moment in human history for us -- was blatantly political. Proclaiming his Gospel therefore has inevitable political consequences. When Christians began reciting Kyrie eleison ("Lord, have mercy") in the liturgy, it was a powerful political statement. That is what a loyal Roman said to Caesar when coming into the emperor's presence. To repeat that in worship clearly states that God, not the emperor or other political ruler, is in charge. Can't get more political than that, especially considering that Caesar was thought to be divine himself.

Along the same lines, examine the places where religion and politics intersect in other faiths. Here, for example, is the right place to question the beliefs of the Mormons if one of them might become the President of the United States. John Kennedy had to answer similar questions, and his Catholicism was not held against him (just as Romney's religion should not stereotype him). The attempts by some Roman Catholic prelates to use excommunication against politicians who support abortion rights raise similar questions, however. Where does faith end and political loyalty begin? Can we reasonably expect people not to bring their deepest convictions, which are always religious in nature, to the public square, as Cardinal Dolan said?

The separation of church and state is certainly a major advance in human history and political theory. Under no circumstances should religious leaders ever be given political power merely because they are part of a religious hierarchy. Iran provides the latest example of how theocracy always corrupts both religion and politics. That said, all of us, even us bishops, have a duty and a right as citizens to engage in politics, at least by casting a vote. In particular, bishops having sworn to guard the faith and unity of the church must speak out from time to time. As Archbishop Rowan Williams has argued, this still has to be done while respecting the relationship between religion and human rights.

This is where I worry about the way in which the Catholic hierarchy, or the Mormon hierarchy for that matter, may try to influence politics. Dolan's call to his fellow bishops to man the barricades on the health care issue does not seem to me to respect the necessary requirement of all religious leaders' sallies into politics. The only way we bishops (or rabbis, or imams, or prophets, etc.) should publicly intervene in the politics of a democratic society is through linking our particular concern to the common good, not the rights of our particular religion. Nor can we argue purely from revelation: why should other citizens respect our opinions if we do not present them as applicable to all people regardless of religion?

As bishop of a multinational jurisdiction in which there is always some election happening, I always call upon the faithful to go and vote. It is biblical that Christians should care about the society we live in (Romans 13:1-7), and in a democracy, voting is a duty. (I also say that if you don't vote, you have no right to complain.) It would be a perversion of my authority to insist that they vote or against for particular candidates, though commenting on political ideologies that in my view threaten the common good is not inappropriate. In other words, it's not so much a matter of "do not vote for candidate X" as it is do not support fascism, racism, etc.

There is always a delicate balance to strike. So much is at stake, for all of us. But let us not kid ourselves, at least: religion and politics are inseparable.

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