In 1936, near the end of the election campaign, a Roman Catholic priest gave a nationwide radio address endorsing Franklin Delano Roosevelt for re-election. "In this critical hour, I urge you to use every effort at your command among your relatives, friends and acquaintances in support of Franklin D. Roosevelt," concluded Msgr. John A. Ryan. The broadcast was paid for by the Democratic National Committee and much of the talk was in response to another Catholic priest, Father Charles Coughlin, who had been denouncing FDR.
In 1954, Congress passed a law forbidding pastors to endorse candidates from the pulpit or risk losing their tax exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service. So, for legal reasons, we haven’t had Catholic priests giving endorsements in churches, although nothing in the law bans them from making endorsements in their capacity as citizens outside the confines of their church. Additionally, in 1980, Democratic Congressman Father Robert Drinan was forced to resign his seat in Congress under pressure from Pope John Paul II who did not want priests in politics, unless it was Poland of course.
This past weekend, a group of conservative, mostly evangelical, pastors decided to challenge the law banning endorsements. They gave sermons that explicitly endorsed a candidate for president. As far as the news reports indicate, the only candidate endorsed was John McCain, mostly citing his stance in opposition to both abortion and gay marriage, issues "that transcend all others" according to Rev. Ron Johnson, Jr., a pastor in Indiana who joined the protest. Rev. Johnson went on to say "The issue is not ’Are we legislating morality?’ This issue is ’Whose morality are we legislating?’"
Rev. Johnson is right on the second point: All legislation is in some sense a legislation of morality. The civil rights movement forced an all-white Southern morality that forbid racial integration to accept racial integration. The opposition that Pope John Paul II voiced against the Iraq War was based on moral principles, as was President Bush’s decision to pursue the war anyway. When the Supreme Court ruled that abortion was about "privacy" they begged the question that was at issue. So, yes, morality defines what we mean by justice and justice is the objective of law.
But, the good reverends should have thought twice about their protest on other grounds. For starters, these evangelical churches are the ones that distribute the bracelets that carry the simplistic slogan, "What Would Jesus Do?" or just the initials "WWJD?" As to the issue at hand, we know pretty well what Jesus did and did not do, and He did not get overly involved in politics. And, as the Catholic bishops argued in their document "Faithful Citizenship"), while some issues are more important than others, and a well informed conscience will rank the issues accordingly, abortion and gay marriage are not issues that trump all others, even though they are very important. Politics is a complicated business and reducing it to one or two issues is wrong. Similarly, and especially given the changes in the Democratic platform, an argument can be made that their policy directives will do more to reduce the abortion rate than the GOP call to overturn Roe v. Wade. You can agree with the argument or not, but you have to have an argument of your own.
Archbishop Favalora of Miami seemed to strike the right note about how churchmen should be involved in politics when he announced that none of his priests would be joining the protest. He cited several reasons, including all the good the Church accomplishes with the money they save from their tax-exempt status. "For another, ’scriptural truth’ is not that easy to attain. Which is more ’true’ in terms of scripture: The Old Testament passage that says ’an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ or Jesus’ admonition to ’turn the other cheek’? The problem is that people often quote selectively from Scripture in order to back their own opinions. The other problem is that rarely, if ever, does an individual candidate or political party embody the gamut of ’scriptural truth.’"
The day after the election, we will have a new President, not a new Messiah. The reason to keep religion out of partisanship is because faith will get sullied if it descends into those depths. The First Amendment protects religion from the State as much as the other way round.
Michael Sean Winters