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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIII, No. 1
Eastertide 2008

The State of the Union of Faith and Politics

by Sheila Gribben Liaugminas

The risk of writing in a periodic journal about politics right now is that the presidential elections of 2008 are unchartered waters with a riptide, and one that shifts too frequently for even the dailies to navigate with any steadiness or sense of direction. So seldom have so many been so wrong about so much, as somebody once said and should repeat now.

In the December 2007 issue of First Things magazine, Amherst College Professor Hadley Arkes weighed in with an opinion piece titled “Abortion Politics 2008”. It agonized over what a Rudy Giuliani nomination would do to the Republican party and particularly, the pro-life movement in America. Within a month of publication, that concern became a moot point with Giuliani’s swift dismissal in the primaries and his practical irrelevance. Nobody saw that coming. Or much else that has happened since.

But some of Arkes’s concerns still apply and still sit restively over the pro-life forces that have gained tremendous ground in recent years. For one thing, who in representative government can be counted on for pro-life principles that protect the civil rights of every human person? Here is, roughly, where politics stand at this point, as Arkes described it in his recent First Things article:

Since the days of Ronald Reagan, the Republican party has become, ever more clearly, the pro-life party in our politics. And, just as clearly, the “right to abortion,” with its theme of sexual liberation, has become the central peg on which the interests of the Democratic party have been arranged. Under these conditions, the pro-life movement has become bound up inescapably with the fate of the Republican party.

With the qualifier that this could change tomorrow (literally), the Republican party right now is not making the issues of life any sort of centerpiece for the party platform, or much mentioning the topic in the debates and campaign speeches. Why? Americans and especially the media are preoccupied with anguish over the economy, taxes, health care, immigration and the war. The subject of abortion is only on the table for the pro-life movement at the moment.

One issue among many?
On the night of President George Bush’s State of the Union address in January, I was engaged in a talk at Holy Cross parish in the Rockford, Illinois diocese about faith and politics. The interactive session afterward went at least as long as the talk, and it was lively. Voters are engaged more this year than any time I can recall in the past, and they know their issues and candidates. However, some misinformation seeps in there as well, about candidates’ positions and the teaching of the Catholic Church on matters of faith and morals with relation to voting. The latter is the bigger problem, since so many Catholics are opposed to the war in Iraq and see that opposition as equal to the opposition to the taking of any human life whether through abortion, euthanasia or embryonic stem cell research.

It is a legitimate concern, and one that good Catholics can disagree on among themselves and even with the pope. But the concern for life lost in war, and life at risk to disease and starvation, cold and dehydration, is dependent on the ultimate concern for the sanctity of all human life at risk. Therefore abortion cannot be a secondary concern, or one among many issues. “To act against the judgment of conscience when it is certain about what is good and evil has the same seriousness as disobeying God”, wrote the bishops of Kansas in “Moral Principles for Catholic Voters” in August 2006. “It is important to remember however that it is possible for our conscience to be certain and at the same time incorrect about what is good and evil.”

In some moral matters, the bishops continued, Catholic voters may differ on which policies provide the better care. “Notwithstanding a possible diversity of prudential judgments”, they stated, “each of us should guide our decision-making on such issues by a fundamental respect for the dignity of every person from the moment of conception to natural death. This is a non-negotiable principle. It is the foundation for both Catholic social teaching and of a just society.”

Some Catholics refer to the “seamless garment” of social justice concerns, and equate them all. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin spoke to this belief in his instructive address on Respect Life Sunday in October 1989.

We Americans cherish freedom…. It is good to keep in mind, though, that freedom is not an absolute value…. The pursuit of values associated with the human spirit is the purpose of freedom. Protection of these same values is the justification for restricting personal liberty.

Not all values, however, are of equal weight. Some are more fundamental than others. On this Respect Life Sunday, I wish to emphasize that no earthly value is more fundamental than human life itself…. Consequently, if one must choose between protecting or serving lesser human values that depend upon life for their existence and life itself, human life must take precedence.

Cardinal Bernardin continued to refer to the fundamental value of life.

The primary intention of the consistent ethic of life … is to raise consciousness about the sanctity and reverence of all human life from conception to natural death…. This consistent ethic points out the inconsistency of defending life in one area while dismissing it in another.

There was a gentleman at my talk who had a difficult time accepting that this teaching required voting for candidates who uphold the sanctity of human life in opposition to abortion, euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research as a consideration even higher than their stance on war. He shook his head, obviously struggling with what he saw as a conflict on values he either equates, or holds disproportionately to the Church’s teaching.

In their November 2007 conference, the nation’s bishops released an updated statement on “Faithful Citizenship” in their “Call to Political Responsibility”. The document warned of the effects of political decisions on voters’ — and politicians’ — spiritual welfare.

It is important to be clear that the political choices faced by citizens impact on general peace and prosperity and also may affect the individual’s salvation. Similarly, the kinds of laws and policies supported by public officials affect their spiritual well-being.

In an opinion piece published soon after, USA Today summarized the bishops’ document in a sentence:

As if to stave off too much diversity of opinion on such fundamental issues as abortion or embryonic stem cell research or gay marriage, and reaffirming the Catholic Catechism’s rejection of the “mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience,” the bishops’ latest statement ups the ante regarding what is really at stake in the voting booth. It is nothing short of the immortal soul of the voter in question.

Do faith and politics intersect?
No. They serve the public interest and the common good together. They are mutually supportive, or are intended to be by the Founding Fathers. That terminology of the two intersecting has been used in mainstream media essentially since the 2004 elections when the Democratic party began to see the need to appeal to the religious vote. But an “intersection” implies two separate roads meeting at a cross point, when in fact the Church teaches that faith informs everything we do. Communications, politics, voting are all moral acts.

“The Church is not a political organism”, states Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput in a January 2008 column “10 points for Catholic citizens to remember.” “However, Scripture and Catholic teaching do have public consequences because they guide us in how we should act in relation to one another…. The Catholic faith has social justice implications — and that means it also has cultural, economic and political implications. The Catholic faith is never primarily about politics; but Catholic social action — including political action — is a natural byproduct of the Church’s moral message.”

There is a great divide this year within the moral conservative voter population, and much confusion. In the early going, evangelist Pat Robertson, who founded the Christian Coalition, threw his support behind former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, saying the “overriding issue” in the race is defending against Islamic terrorism. He called abortion “only one issue” of importance. His endorsement turned out to be irrelevant.

Senator Sam Brownback endorsed Senator John McCain. Moral Majority co-founder Paul Weyrich backed Governor Mitt Romney, while Christian activist Gary Bauer went with former senator Fred Thompson. Baptist leader Rick Scarborough endorsed former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Influential Christian leader Dr. James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, has declined to pick a candidate but urged social conservatives to vote their conscience and moral convictions.

Conservatives within the Republican party have split into social, fiscal and defense conservatives, backing different candidates, but that has continued to shift during primary season. As the Wall Street Journal summed up the situation even before the Iowa caucuses: “This election is forcing the evangelical community to decide whether it is more important to choose a candidate who shares their views or someone who can beat Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.”

Since then, Senator Barack Obama has built on swelling momentum to present the Democratic party with two serious contenders, both of them pro-abortion. And the moral conservatives remain divided over who can beat either one of them in a final election. “Electability” has become the primary concern of many voters. But the over-arching concern of life issues has been swept aside in the campaigns and media coverage of them, at least at the time of publication of this issue of Voices.

When Pope Benedict XVI served, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he issued a Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding “The Participation of Catholics in Political Life”, encouraging all lay faithful to participate in the democratic process. In it he emphasized some central points in the current cultural and political debate.

A kind of cultural relativism exists today, evident in the conceptualization and defense of an ethical pluralism, which sanctions the decadence and disintegration of reason and the principles of the natural moral law…. As a result, citizens claim complete autonomy with regard to their moral choices, and lawmakers maintain that they are respecting this freedom of choice by enacting laws which ignore the principles of natural ethics … as if every possible outlook on life were of equal value.…

If Christians must recognize the legitimacy of differing points of view about the organization of worldly affairs, they are also called to reject, as injurious to democratic life, a conception of pluralism that reflects moral relativism. Democracy must be based on the true and solid foundation of non-negotiable ethical principles, which are the underpinning of life in society.

It is unclear whether, in this election, the “pro-life party” will continue to stand on the platform upholding the sanctity of all human life. Or whether they will reconstitute themselves as a party with many equal concerns and battling factions, moral conservatives being only one of them. In his First Things opinion piece, Arkes cited the Lincoln-Douglas debate for wrestling with this same argument of equivalence.

Lincoln said that Douglas was trying to “blow out the moral lights” among us by teaching a policy of “indifference” — that slavery just did not matter enough to stir such divisions in the country.

It’s interesting that when the Democrats began to pursue religious voters, the Reverend Jesse Jackson publicly warned the party to avoid embracing a “false piety” for political purposes. He rightly asserted, in a Chicago Sun-Times opinion piece in July 2006, “faith is not a political posture”.

Values are not expressed by the paraphernalia of faith. Values are expressed by action. An abolitionist fighting to end slavery expresses faith. A slave owner attending a church that excludes slaves from attendance reflects bad faith.

The Reverend Jackson makes good points in this piece.

The Bible is clear about this. Faith is substance, not posturing. I was hungry and you fed me. Naked and you clothed me. Imprisoned and you comforted me. The Bible calls us to act, not simply to pray in public…. The parable of the Good Samaritan comes to us through the ages because it calls us to express our faith in action. We are judged by how we treat the least of these, not how pious we are in the first pew.

This is a firmly Christian view. But it begs the question of this avowedly Democratic supporter. If the very small, maturing and vulnerable unborn humans in the womb are not the least among us, who is?

The grassroots Christian and pro-life coalition will certainly raise these questions as this decisive election approaches.

Sheila Gribben Liaugminas, of Chicago, is a member of the Voices editorial board, and was host of “The Right Questions” on Relevant Radio and “Issues and Answers” news show. She and her husband have two sons, one a seminarian and the other a college student. Follow updates on this story (and contact Sheila) at

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