Monday, March 29, 2010

JFK and the Separation of Politics and Faith.

Terry (of "GetReligion" fame) Mattingly's "On Religion" column is carried in the Saturday edition of the Herald, our local paper. This past week he wrote a story entitled "An Archbishop Faces Ghost of JFK." I encourage you to read it all.

He quotes candidate John F. Kennedy as saying
“I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair.”

“I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.

“Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance … with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”

I think that JFK's strategy is an honest description of how many of us separate our spiritual life from our secular life. I wonder how many politicians have successfully used Kennedy's model to placate their voters' worries that religion might get in the way of politics. There are problems with living such a dual life as T. Matt goes on to illustrate by quoting Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput,

Kennedy’s speech was “sincere, compelling, articulate — and wrong...His Houston remarks profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America’s public life and political conversation. Today, half a century later, we’re paying for the damage..."

“...real Christian faith is always personal, but it’s never private...”

“...Too many Catholics confuse their personal opinions with a real Christian conscience. Too many live their faith as if it were a private idiosyncrasy, the kind that they’ll never allow to become a public nuisance. And too many just don’t really believe. Maybe it’s different in Protestant circles. But I hope you’ll forgive me if I say, ‘I doubt it.’"

Is it any different in your Protestant circle? I agree with Archbishop Caput; we confuse our personal opinions with a real Christian conscience over and over again. But how does one clear up the confusion? There is no Magisterium" in Protestantism to help decide what is a personal opinion as opposed to what our Lord is telling us. My Episcopal church has come to the erroneous conclusion that the results of votes cast by delegates and priests at a triennial general convention is somehow to be considered the action of the Holy Spirit and thus represents "a real Christian conscience."  I think the results of those resolutions indicate that a different voice is doing the speaking.

As Protestants, if others disagree with what we believe is our Christian conscience, we all too often leave and start a new church or join another denomination, but doesn't this just perpetuate the problem? Or does the ever splitting and multiplying denominations represent a form of spiritual free market capitalism? Unfortunately, when it comes to free market spirituality, we have to accept the fact that there will be the good (insert your favorite), and there will be the totally disastrous (i.e. Jonestown).

Is the only alternative the magisterium?


  1. I think our magesterium is found in Revelation chps. 2-3. No matter how visibly divided we may appear to be, no matter our the differences of opinion (apostasy excluded), the Lord knows them that are His. It is for us to love one another, and depart from iniquity.

  2. Lot's of meat here to chew on.

    Re: Faith and Politics. Given that we live in a democracy, our votes and participation in self-government are necessarily informed by our moral outlook, an outlook which is (or should be) defined by our spiritual choices. The typical canards about "legislating morality" are ludicrous because, by definition, 51% of the populace imposes it's moral outlook on the remaining 49%. Indeed, virtually all actions are supported through appeals to the population's moral sense.

    That said, when one obtains a leadership position in our representative democracy, which is chock full of checks and balances and defined rules of conduct and behavior, then those rules need to be followed out of respect for the rule of law. If one's personal morality does not allow it, one shouldn't take a position which requires one to take off one's moral coat to follow the rules.

    The problem is that most politicians change there moral outerwear with alarming frequency, usually donning it to solicit votes from the hoi polloi and casting it aside between campaign seasons.

    So, then, what is a Christian to do? Abstain from participation in self-government? Nope. Rather, it's our duty to be able to play on the other guy's field. You and I may completely agree on the Biblical basis for opposing same-gender marriage, but the rest of society won't. Ergo we have the obligation to fashion arguments for our position which do not rely on the appeal to Biblical authority.

    Stated differently, truth is universal. If a Biblical injunction is true, I should be able to demonstrate that truth independently of the Bible, much as I do 2+2=4.