The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson is an excellent thinker. In fact, his columns have helped sustain at least one battered liberal as I deal with the wreckage of the past election. I never thought I would think anything he says is ridiculous. But Senators Feinstein and Durbin religious bigots? Ridiculous.
His September 14 column is entitled, “Senate Democrats Show Off Their Anti-religious Bigotry.” That claim is unworthy of Gerson’s demonstrably high standards.
My hope is that this displays a gap in his knowledge regarding the terms that both senators used as well as ignorance of the Catholic tradition’s substantial contribution to freedom from government coercion with regard to religious practice. The landmark “Declaration on Religious Freedom” from the Second Vatican Council came to be known as “The American Document” because of the influence of our great Constitution on the scholars and bishops who crafted it.
In the spirit of a teaching moment, may I clarify some of the terms that Gerson found troubling. Let’s start with “publicly acceptable religion” that he accuses Durbin allowing “in small, diluted doses.” This displays a lack of understanding of the most distinctive feature of the way Catholicism seeks to implement Jesus’ Gospel: sacramentality. A proper Catholic way of being in the world would be precisely the opposite of diluted or small doses. Catholicism sees the world as saturated with God’s presence and so religious practice oozes into every corner of human existence. Indeed, one of the enduring criticisms of the Catholic tradition is how cozy it has become with the world. Culture is not the enemy for Catholicism. Catholic leaders famously steal the best of the prevailing culture and adapt it to their goal of bringing about the Kingdom of God. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” display features that Jesus himself used to describe the Kingdom. “Salvation” is Jesus’ code word for describing his Father’s Kingdom; it means happiness, well-being and human flourishing.
Let’s add “Kingdom of God” to our list of terms. For Christians this is an essential, foundational, definitive term. But like other terms that fit into that category, there are many different ways to understand it. It is such a rich reality that it abounds in its expressions. I do not quibble with Gerson’s own understanding as he describes it: “That would be the kingdom that Jesus insisted is “not of this world,” much to the confusion of 1st-century politicians. It is a description of transformed hearts, not a prescription for theocracy.”
Certainly this way of thinking about the Kingdom of God displays a distinctly Evangelical tilt. This makes sense since Gerson’s biography informs me that he graduated from the excellent Wheaton College. But that Evangelical emphasis upon the interior transformation is not the only way to think about the Kingdom. When I was in theological studies at Notre Dame one of my Mennonite colleagues told me once she had finally figured-out the Catholic tradition. She like Gerson, was Christian in an Evangelical key. “Sally, you don’t belong to a Church, you belong to a school system; that is what Catholics do best.” I take her point that the proclamation of the Kingdom can easily slip out of first position in places like Notre Dame where the Catholic Tradition might appear to have more to do with football or Irish heritage than with Jesus. One of the things my Mennonite friend could never quite stomach was that the mural of the Risen Christ on the library at UND is widely known as “touchdown Jesus.”
Some Catholics might know more about the grand history of Catholic Social Teaching better than they know of interior transformation but that is not because they fail to attend to the Kingdom of God. The approach is different but the goal is the same. Surely a quick perusal of Durbin’s record on legislation that promotes human dignity and the common good discloses his commitment to the Kingdom. Again, my friend at UND could never get used the fact that when asked to lead a prayer before the meals that our families shared at each other’s homes, I always pulled out my favorite Catholic, one sentence blessing while she happily spontaneously crafted a lovely “grace” on the fly. Jesus himself used both styles; the Kingdom is served by both.
I value the wide range of religious believers that I have come to know; that was an enormous gift that Notre Dame’s titanic leadership gave me. Fr. Hesburgh was determined that the university serve both the academy and Jesus’ Kingdom; Fr. Richard McBrien, shaped a Theology Department that welcomed Mennonite and Lutheran Christian voices as well as scholars in the other great religious traditions. Unity in diversity was one of McBrien’s favorite principles. His commitment to it allowed me to be challenged and changed by Christianity in its wide expressions. I hope that the Evangelicals I studied with had a similar experience of Catholicism. But unity in diversity does not mean a vacant pluralism where everything that claims spirituality is uncritically accepted.
Being leery of how others actually implement their personal relationship with religion does not make one anti-religious.
I am a proud practicing Catholic; I am also an American woman who is deeply worried about how our current Vice President seems determined to deny women basic health care for religious reasons. So I expect Senators like Feinstein and Durbin to do their job and make sure that religious commitments do not undermine Constitutional commitments. They needn’t but they certainly can. Surely we have seen judges try to implement a narrow interpretation of what the Kingdom requires at the expense of Constitution.
Our Constitutional protection of religious practice does not require everyone to make the jump from valuing every human life to belief that there is a personal God who sustains that life. There are many deeply patriotic people who work for human rights but who do not believe in God. There are many people who are deeply committed to making the world a better place but who do not think that there is any divine activity tilting that work “towards justice.” Indeed, that elegant view of the “arc of the moral universe” can be shared by people who trust only in human agency as well as those who are convinced that God’s divine goodness is the sustaining power underneath each and every form of goodness. Our Constitution intersects exquisitely with the three Great Mono-theism’s understanding of God’s character. It does not require that every American claim the Living God the way those traditions do.
Constitutional government is not the same a confessional church or a synagogue or a mosque. I am very grateful that Feinstein and Durbin know well how personal faith and Constitutional protection are related.