Why Politics as Religion and Religion as Politics Don’t Work

The exploitation of one by the other demeans both — today's secularism was never envisioned by our Founding Fathers

In 1912 the father of an old friend contemplated a political career. In his idealism he traveled to Chicago for the Bull Moose Convention of the National Progressive Party. Its delegates announced they were “battling for the Lord” and that the campaign would be a new Battle of Armageddon.

The spectacle of many hundreds of portly men smoking cigars as they marched into the hot convention hall singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” was so unsettling to his acute instincts that he chose instead to become a clergyman.

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Politics as religion and religion as politics are sure ingredients for demagoguery. The exploitation of one by the other demeans both. In 1950, the young evangelist Billy Graham met with President Harry Truman and then held a press conference, histrionically kneeling on the White House lawn as he recounted what had been a private conversation. Truman used his vernacular vocabulary to express his indignation.

While demagoguery is rampant among those who distort the “wall of separation between church and state” to promote a secularity never intended by our nation’s Founders, one has to be cautious about sacralizing politics and politicizing religion. That feeds cynicism and fosters rebellion.

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When church leaders spend more time addressing public issues of a subjective nature than teaching objective essentials of faith and morals, they can be as self-satirical as Bull Moose progressives. As the bishops were preparing a pastoral letter on war and peace in 1983, Archbishop Philip Hannan of New Orleans spoke out.

He was the only bishop there who had served in World War II, as a chaplain in the 82nd Airborne Division in the Ardennes Offensive. Invoking Trumanesque diction, he told his episcopal brethren they did not know what they were talking about.

Those who inflate themselves with assumed moral superiority while skipping lightly over hard facts tend to be uniform in their notions of enlightened thought. One recalls an Irish bishop who refused to shake the hand of President Ronald Reagan, whom he called inhumane. And there was an American archbishop who declared Reagan’s economic policies unprincipled. The bishop was later exiled for having fathered a child — and the archbishop was found guilty of embezzlement and other transgressions. Self-congratulatory moral posturing, called “virtue signaling,” can be a semaphore for hypocrisy. It is condescension from below.

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The church’s prophetic voice is also hoarsened when it agrees to remove religious symbols in its schools in exchange for government funding, or when its social agencies rely on significant federal subsidies for staffing their charitable programs.

A cleric will have his personal views on prudential matters, but he becomes a clericalist when he stereotypes those who disagree with him as “un-Christian” or “un-American” or — mirabile dictu — both. Clericalism politicizes a sacerdotal charism in order to intimidate. To sanctimonious politician and priest alike, Samuel Johnson speaks from the grave: “My friend, clear your mind of cant.”

Fr. George William Rutler is a Catholic priest and the pastor of the Church of St. Michael in Manhattan. This article from his parish church bulletin is used by permission.

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