Political Religion

May 10, 2012


The Roman Catholic Cardinal of Maryland has issued an order requiring the reading of a political position statement he authored, in every Roman Catholic Church in that state.

Edwin O'Brien, the Roman Catholic Cardinal of Maryland, has issued an order requiring the reading of a political position statement he authored, in every Roman Catholic Church in that state. This position statement “strongly encourages” all parishioners to sign a petition to place a referendum on the Maryland ballot. And I thought churches were prohibited from active participation in political campaigns. At least that was always the answer I got back from my church when I asked them to support or participate in anything remotely political. “Oh, we can’t do that, it would be too political.” Turns out, I was wrong.

The IRS has very special rules governing permissible political actions of nonprofit organizations, especially churches. When an organization flouts those rules, they endanger their tax exempt status. This is one of the ways in which our system maintains the separation of church and state by disallowing churches from bankrolling candidates for office or lobbying directly for government programs or initiatives.

For a leader of a church to, in essence, tell its members that they must vote this way, is specifically forbidden by IRS regulations when speaking of elections to public office. The regulations are more vague, but still clear, when speaking of other ballot initiatives. Church leaders can strongly encourage, but not require, their members to cast votes in a certain way. In general, churches have been given a significant degree of leeway in interpreting what constitutes lobbying (prohibited) as opposed to education (permitted). Of course, many churches have evolved all manner of sneaky ploys to communicate political goals to the faithful without actually coming out and saying what they are to do.

In this case, it seems clear that this is not an educational activity. Since it is not an educational activity, and since this is an initiative that is strongly favored by one party (Republican) and strongly disfavored by the other party (Democratic), it seems clear that this is an activity that should threaten the tax exempt status of the Catholic Church in Maryland.

Or is this all just a sham? Are churches given tax-exempt status because they have always enjoyed it, and nobody wants to incur their ill-will by suggesting that they lose it, even if the reason for giving them this tax exemption is no longer valid? Or are they just tax-exempt lobbying organizations?

The recent Dan Savage media storm brings up another aspect of this whole thing: The Christian Right fanatics earnestly believe that Christianity and homosexuality are completely incompatible - that one cannot really be a Christian and be a homosexual, nor can any real Christian support or defend anyone who is a homosexual. For them, homosexuality of any kind is like child molestation or rape. Of course, when they make this pejorative value judgment, they are almost entirely ignorant, more than seriously misinformed, and as a result they are dead wrong on all counts, but that has never been an obstacle to belief.

The Bible is fairly unequivocal on the subject of (at least) male homosexuality. But that is also true about the Bible’s stated position on many things, which we ignore completely and would treat as complete nonsense if proposed out of context. The traditional attitude of the Christian religion (as roughly supported by scripture) is against sex of any kind for anyone in any circumstance excepting sex between a man and a woman who are currently married to one another, if and only if, the sex is engaged in solely for the purpose of procreation and neither party enjoys any part of it. That is perfectly obvious nonsense. We ignore it, in the same way as most folks ignore the blasphemy of eating shellfish or driving a car on Sunday.

But this gets to the similarity between these two issues, Cardinal O’Brien’s and Dan Savage’s: both are examples of religion adopting a doctrinal position and then seeking to influence politics. In both cases, religious groups are claiming special privilege and not accepting that they have any commensurate special responsibility. In both circumstances, the proponents are claiming that anyone who opposes them is bullying them and acting anti-religious: Either you agree with me or you’re against me. People who exercise critical thought and ask difficult questions are cast in the role of anti-religious bigots who hate God. This is both unfair and untrue.

People who speak from a pulpit already have privilege and authority. We have the right to question those privileges and challenge that authority. One of the chief differences between Christianity and many other religions is the idea that the conscience of the individual is of paramount importance. I need to find good and evil in my own conscience and then act according to how I believe; just doing what someone else says, regardless of who that is or why they are saying it, doesn’t supersede my own personal conscience.

It disturbs me to see the talking points of a political party, any political party, emanating from the pulpit. Government, church and the press are the traditional adversaries in free and open societies. The society works better when they’re at odds with one another and pulling in different directions. This is part and parcel of separation of church and state and a free and vigorously independent press. When the aristocracy and the established church leaders get together, bad things usually happen. Mostly the bad things happen to working people and poor people (you know, the majority) and tend to favor the wealthy andcomfortable (the minority), even despite all Jesus’ many strong hints about God favoring the weak, the meek and the lowly.

We need to understand the ways in which people with power and influence seek to manipulate political issues to influence us and gain our support, even when this support works directly against our own best interests. Historically, when religions have taken up political causes and used their spiritual authority for temporal purposes, this seldom resulted in positive changes for the majority of people - there are isolated exceptions, but they are very rare. We need to stand up and say no to this kind of dangerous, un-American shenanigans and keep religion and politics in their respective corners.

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