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I hate to mix politics and religion, but — well, someone is mixing politics and religion. From Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois comes a column entitled “Think and pray about your vote in upcoming election,” part of the series “Lex Cordis Caritas – The law of the heart is Love”:
“There are many positive and beneficial planks in the Democratic Party Platform, but I am pointing out those that explicitly endorse intrinsic evils. My job is not to tell you for whom you should vote. But I do have a duty to speak out on moral issues. I would be abdicating this duty if I remained silent out of fear of sounding ‘political’ and didn’t say anything about the morality of these issues. People of faith object to these platform positions that promote serious sins.”
“So what about the Republicans? I have read the Republican Party Platform and there is nothing in it that supports or promotes an intrinsic evil or a serious sin. “One might argue for different methods in the platform to address the needs of the poor, to feed the hungry and to solve the challenges of immigration, but these are prudential judgments about the most effective means of achieving morally desirable ends, not intrinsic evils.”
“Again, I am not telling you which party or which candidates to vote for or against, but I am saying that you need to think and pray very carefully about your vote, because a vote for a candidate who promotes actions or behaviors that are intrinsically evil and gravely sinful makes you morally complicit and places the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy.”
There’s also a video here. I’ve decided against embedding it.
Unfashionably enough, by some people’s standards, I’m religious. I fall within the broad bounds of Reform Judaism. My zeal for politics comes from that religious perspective, in which I truly believe that pursuing self-interest and wealth to the exclusion of social justice is, in some way that I intuit but can’t claim to understand, is simply morally wrong. That, and my belief that I am personally charged with acting in accord with those beliefs are the cornerstone of my faith.
I’m happy to use the word “faith” because my belief is exactly the way more traditional self-described “people of faith” describe it: I don’t “know that it’s true”; I can’t prove that it’s true; I simply believe (and choose to believe) that it’s true because that’s how the world makes sense to me; that’s what I “feel.” I’m not at all certain about the positive specifics of my cosmology, though I would be categorized as “universalist” (that to the extent that there is eternal life we all have equal access to it), but I do know what I certainly don’t believe: I don’t believe that there is a God who will punish you with eternal damnation if, say, you vote Democratic.
Opposing that sort of thing is part of my “religious fervor.”
What people do with their religious lives is up to them and I try not to criticize it. When that religious life extends into controlling other people’s political actions, though, I think that it becomes my problem. I think that when you (even implicitly) threaten people with the prospect of eternal damnation if they vote a certain way — not that they’re ”telling you which party or which candidates to vote for or against,” of course; Heaven forfend! — it’s a pretty clear sign that you’ve got nothing legitimate to sell. Not “your religion”; just you, personally.
I find this bishop’s little nod of advice to his flock to be unrepresentative of the many wonderful Catholics I have known. Frankly, I find it atrocious. I would be happy to say the same thing if someone from my religion did the same — even in support of the Democratic Party or of something further Left. In all my life I don’t think that I’ve heard anyone from “my side” of the political spectrum do that. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t single people out and say “if you don’t support my cause then you shall burn in everlasting flame.” He spoke of the arc of justice and the demands of mercy, but he didn’t tell people to vote one way unless they wanted their eyeballs leaking out of their face every five minutes.
My first wife was a (mostly) lapsed Catholic; my second wife and my stepchildren are devout but generously liberal in their beliefs. I know that to some extent people are motivated, at a deep and atavistic level, by a fear of Eternal Damnation. I’m not a cleric, but I would think that when the stakes are at that level a prudent person would take the advice they give with the utmost seriousness and restraint. The bishop failed that test. (I could quote papal bulls to make the point in Catholic theological terms, but I’ll spare everyone that.)
Bishop Paprocki cites the platform’s initially omitting a reference to “God-given potential,” supporting the right to abortion, supporting the equal rights of gays and lesbians to marry the adult of their choice as “intrinsic evils.” This gives them a different moral status than trifles in the Republican platform that seek more mass murder of foreigners, deny science, and favor despoiling the environment, promoting the unbridled accretion of wealth, and leaving the poor to suffer and die needlessly. Evil, maybe — but reasonable people can apparently disagree about them (at least without facing eternal hellfire, I mean.)
I (along with the vast majority of American Catholics, if public opinion surveys on birth control are any guide) disagree with the thought expressed. (If the Bishop wants to fight the scourge of pederasty, for example, plenty of work can keep him busy within the church hierarchy alone.) I will note that my support for separation of church and state comes not simply from the desire to protect the secular government, but from my desire to protect sectarian religion.
I have my own ideas, for example, about whether and how our abilities are “God-given”; what concerned me here is the demand of some politicians that the party force others to speak the religious catechism of the majority. (For me, for example, that’s blasphemy. I try not to force others to blaspheme against their will. I don’t think God wants that.) I have my own ideas about birth control and marriage equality that comport very nicely with my own benign conception of a spiritual font of morality. Here, the Bishop — thanks to his desire (and this is a point I won’t concede) to intervene in politics — has determined that his church’s dogma carries very very much about gay marriage (about which the Bible says almost nothing) but not about divorce (about which Jesus spoke repeatedly and at length.) Damning people for divorce, you see, is a political non-starter. Thus does politics pervert religious teaching.
The above alone would have led me to grumble about the Bishop’s writing but not to respond to it here. What leads me to do that is this: telling people that if they vote a certain way they will go to eternal Hell perverts our political system. That’s not only because it’s refuge for scoundrels surpassing even patriotism; it’s because it is, at base, winning votes through extortion.
Now, you can have extortion through our current system. The main problem I have with Permanent Absentee Ballots and mail-in ballots — both of which I support despite this misgiving — is that one can make someone else fill out their ballot in front of you, make sure that they did it “correctly,” and then you can make sure that it’s mailed. (Yes, they could override that ballot in person — but that leaves a trace.) If you’re saying “vote this way or I’ll break your legs, or I’ll break your kid’s legs,” that truly undermines the foundations of democracy. Now it’s not about who has the best ideas or values, but about who has the most ability to break other people’s legs.
For those who believe in an omniscient God, the notion that “God will see if you vote this way and will damn you to eternal hellfire” is pretty much the same thing. You’re not to consider the merits of candidate, party, or cause; you are solely to consider your self-interest (in not being consumed eternally by eternal flames.) Yes, in this case the Bishop is not doing the extorting himself; he’s just informing you that God is doing the extorting. Simply change the sentence to “you displease God” and it takes away much of the punch. I, you, all of us — we “displease God” (if we have such a belief) every day. We’re frail and we have free will; that’s a certain recipe for displeasure. But it’s not telling believers to cooperate or burn in Hell forever. This simply has no place, at all, in politics.
I hope that politicians of all parties (and none) will reject Bishop Paprocki’s statement. I hope that persons of all religious faiths (and none) will do the same. I hope that the Catholic Church, from the pope through the hierarchy down to the laity, will also pledge that — as a tax-exempt organization — it will not try to win votes for any party through religious extortion.