Religion and the White House

Gordon C. Stewart          Feb. 14, 2012

Is the religion of presidential candidates off limits?

President Obama’s remarks at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast and Mitt Romney’s statement about the poor and the wealthy resurrect a question regarded since 1960 as off the table.

The religious issue in 1960 was the Roman Catholicism of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. No Roman Catholic had ever been elected President. The question was whether a faithful Catholic would be subservient to the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, in matters of state. Finally the question was put to Kennedy himself.

Since that time, with the exception of conservative fundamentalist Christians, American culture has increasingly accepted the separation of one’s religion from one’s politics. Religious faith is regarded as private; political beliefs are public.

The old adage that the way to best assure civil tranquility is to steer clear of religion, sex, and politics is good advice at family reunions and the like, but does it serve the public interests of an informed electorate in a democratic republic?

It should not go unnoticed that then-candidate Obama’s faith was brought into the national spotlight when his political opposition sought to paint Mr. Obama as un-American because of comments made by pastor Jeremiah Wright.

The unspoken journalistic rule that “religion is off-the-table” was set aside by ABC’s investigative reporting into 500 hours of sermon tapes by Mr. Obama’s pastor and its decision to air a one-minute excerpt from one of Mr. Wright’s sermons.

It made no difference that the sermon from which the excerpt came was biblically-based and in the bold African-American preaching tradition of Sojourner Truth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Howard Thurman that thunders the Hebrew prophet’s voice in scripture as it apply to today’s news. Nor did it matter that the statement about the chicken’s coming home to roost on 9/11 came after a long recitation of the history of American violence at home and abroad. Mr. Obama’s religion was on the table.

The public wanted to know. Was the President a Christian? Or was he, as some of his opponents claimed or insinuated, a Marxist, a secret Muslim, or un-American?

Mr. Obama eventually denounced the excerpt from Rev. Wright’s sermon, resigned from the church, and used the controversy to spell out his own views in a brilliant speech in Philadelphia on race in America called “A More Perfect Union.”

So here we are in 2012.

Mitt Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS), a Mormon. His statement about the very poor, the middle class, and the wealthy became the center of media controversy. “I’m in this race, he told CNN following his primary victory in Florida, “because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the  90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.” To be fair, his statement, like the Rev. Wright’s ignoried his earlier remarks. Nevertheless, the statement deserved careful scrutiny.

At the same time, President Obama’s religion was in the news again because of heavy criticism for connecting his faith with his public policies at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast  where he described his motivation as “living by the principle that we are our brother’s keeper. Caring for the poor and those in need.”  “These values,” he said, “they’re the ones that have defined my own faith journey.”

In doing so, Mr. Obama voiced a conviction central to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The belief goes to the heart of the Christian faith – the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment in which Jesus tells his listeners that, if they want to know where to find “the Son of Man,” they will find him among the poor and destitute (Matthew 25:31-4.).”Insofar as you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me.”

Mr. Obama’s view came under attack from a number of quarters. One response came in the Washington Times with the headline “President Obama misrepresents the teachings of Jesus at National Prayer Breakfast,” arguing that “Jesus did not teach that wealthy people should give more money to the government or charity than others should.” And on CNN on-line, the public comments re: the President’s position ran heavily against his view.

At the same time, Mitt Romney’s stock was rising. So is his religion. Years ago Leo Tolstoy asked the American Ambassador to Russia about the new religion in America, the Ambassador pleaded ignorance, Tolstoy described Mormonism as “the quintessentially American religion” that would one day catch fire and be unstoppable.

Is religion on the table or off the table in 2012? If it’s on the table for discussion, as in Mr. Obama’s Prayer Breakfast statement, the question about the “quintessentially American religion” should also be on the table. How would Mr. Romney’s religious views affect his public policy decisions? What difference would it make to his conduct of foreign policy that his religion is American-centric, believing that “Christ  appeared in the western hemisphere between his resurrection and ascension to heaven; that the State of Missouri is the site of the Garden of Eden as well as the site where Jesus will return at the Second Coming? “For this and other reasons, including a belief by many Mormons in American exceptionalism, Molly Worthen speculates that this may be why Leo Tolstoy described Mormonism as the “quintessential ‘American religion'” (Wikipedia).

One does not need to be a partisan opponent or a despiser of religion to ask whether a candidate for the Presidency believes that America is sacred, God’s chosen people, and if so, what the implications are for how he would use American power and influence in a world that is always just one step away from nuclear holocaust.

It was the pernicious idea of American exemption from the way of the nations that got us into Iraq, and it is the rejection of that idea that has allowed us to begin to pull back into a more humble and realistic way of being America. The idea of American exceptionalism is widespread across party and religious lines in America, and, most sadly, an electorate that fears the future may fall for whichever candidate continues the illusion that America is God.

If I could ask one question to those who aspire to the White House, I would ask them to reflect, line by line, on the Clifford Bax’s hymn (1919):

Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.
Old now is earth, and none may count her days.
Yet thou, her child, whose head is crowned with flame,
Still wilt not hear thine inner God proclaim,
“Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.”

Earth might be fair, and all men glad and wise.
Age after age their tragic empires rise,
Built while they dream, and in that dreaming weep:
Would man but wake from out his haunted sleep,
Earth might be fair and all men glad and wise.

Earth shall be fair, and all her people one:
Nor till that hour shall God’s whole will be done.
Now, even now, once more from earth to sky,
Peals forth in joy man’s old undaunted cry—
“Earth shall be fair, and all her folk be one!”

Melody from The Genevan Psalter



The Shadow of the Grand Inquisitor

Conscience is the “still, small voice” (a whisper) that makes ancient truth appear uncouth. Conscience and dissent change the world.

It is a great sadness to learn of Archbishop Nienstadt’s reported threat of disciplinary measures against priests in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis who openly dissent from the proposed amendment to the Minnesota State Constitution that would restrict marriage to a man and a woman (“Priests told not to voice dissent,” Star Tribune, 1/18/12).

The protest of the priests and parishes under Archbishop Niensted’s jurisdiction will be mostly silent. They will simply go on about the business of being the church. Their Protestant brothers and sisters either stand by in quiet support or choose to speak out loud what they cannot.

It is customary practice – and a good one – to regard the internal matters of another church as off limits to non-members. Both as a person of significant frailty and as a Presbyterian minister, Jesus’ injunction to take the log out of my own (Presbyterian) eye before reaching for the speck in my (Roman Catholic) neighbor’s eye gives me great pause.

I choose to speak out of great love and respect fore the Roman Catholic Church, my priest colleagues and friends. I tremble that my words will be mistaken as disrespect or that they will turn the clock back to the era before the Second Vatican Council (“Vatican II”) that blew fresh air across the whole Christian world. Before Vatican II, Protestants and Catholics lived in self-imposed religious ghettos on opposites sides of the main street. Today the dividing line has been erased. People are talking, and what many of them are saying is the same…whether out loud or in the chain of whispered protest that happen when the old authoritarian patterns squelch conscientious dissent.

Jesus the Prisoner and the Cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor

We all do well to remember Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov where it is the Church, not Satan, that puts Jesus on trial in the parable of the Grand Inquisitor. The setting is the City of Seville during the 16th Century Spanish Inquisition. The night sky is lit with the fires of heretics being burned at the stake.

Christ has returned to the City of Seville – an unexpected Second Coming without notice or fanfare – to take his place once again among the poor and destitute. As at the first coming, his love for human dignity and freedom of conscience threaten the civil and religious order that has lit the fires of heretical burning martyrs – in his name and for his sake, at the command of the Cardinal of Seville.The Cardinal takes Jesus prisoner – a prisoner of the Church. He tells him that since his departure, the Church has corrected each mistake he had made in the temptations in the wilderness. He tells Jesus that he is a fool for failing to provide the people with what they most want – a hero who will take away their dread of standing alone in freedom before God.

“You thought too highly of them (i.e. ordinary people),” says the Cardinal, “for they are slaves, though rebellious by nature. Look around and judge, Jesus; fifteen centuries have passed. Look at them!   Who have you raised up to yourself?  I swear, man is weaker and baser by nature than you have believed him to be! Can he do what you did? By showing them so much respect, you failed to feel for them; you asked too much from them – you who loved them more than yourself!”

In the end the Cardinal does not execute him. With loss from his “bloodless lips” he sends the Church’s Prisoner off into the night and tells him never to return.

The Archbishop of the Diocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis is not the Cardinal of Seville. But the Grand Inquisitor’s dark shadow has fallen across the Diocese among those sworn to obedience to the Archbishop’s authority. It has also fallen over their parishes and their Protestant friends. A pall of silence has fallen over the parishioners for whom the Prisoner had “too much respect.” The conversations take place in whispers and in privacy over back fences, or in parish councils where priests and Catholic lay leaders discuss how to be faithful to their own consciences while living under the vow of obedience.

It is one thing for the Church to promulgate an official position on marriage; it is quite another for an Archbishop to tell a priest he must be silent if he dissents on a theological matter, much less on a political and possibly partisan matter.

The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) strongly re-affirmed the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.  It made clear that the entire baptismal community constitutes the Church, and that the Church’s teaching office and hierarchy exist to serve the people, not the people the hierarchy. Vatican II lifted up doctrines that date back to the Early Church Fathers: the sensus fidelium (the sense of the faithful) and the sensus fidei (the sense of the individual’s faith).

Among the documents produced by Vatican II was Dignitatis Humanae that celebrated the dignity and freedom of religious conscience. The document opened the Church’s arms to other religions, and there was a great swelling of joy within the Roman Catholic Church and in other Christian churches touched by the Spirit of respect for other views and practices.

No longer were conscience and dissent regarded ipso facto as enemies of the Gospel or of the Church. Those of us in churches separated during the 16th Century Protestant Reformation were embraced by our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters as partners in ministry.  The Second Vatican Council’s spirit of ongoing reform (“aggiornamento”) re-awakened in Protestant communions the call to continual renewal and reform by the Holy Spirit, a 20th Century reformation that refreshed us all.

The proposed Marriage Amendment is a moral question, and the Church’s leadership has a right and responsibility to address it, in light of Traditio (sacred tradition, or the movement of the Holy Spirit among earlier disciples) and the movement of the Holy Spirit among disciples today.

Priests, ministers, and lay people – Roman Catholic and Protestant – on both sides of the pre-Vatican II divide – do not share a single view on the question of the proposed Marriage Amendment that Minnesota voters will decide next November. What we do share is a deep belief in the freedom of the pulpit, the freedom of conscience, and the freedom of the Holy Spirit to work through an informed laity and the church’s ordained leadership in together interpreting Scripture and tradition. We share a deep belief in the sensus fidelium embraced by the Second Vatican Council.

Jesus leaving the city never to return

“By the light of burning martyrs, Jesus’ bleeding feet I track, Toiling up new Calvaries ever With the cross that turns not back; new occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient truth uncouth; They must upward still and onward, Who would keep abreast of truth” (James Russell Lowell, 1845).