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The Day After: Christians in the public square
 
Friday, November 09, 2012
by Michael Martin
 

 

During every election cycle, I often contemplate some extraordinarily poignant lines from William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Never have these words rung so true as in the cycle we have just completed, a period low on integrity but brimming with passionate intensity.
 
Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the election, for me, has been the way some Christian intellectuals have taken this opportunity to excoriate some of their brethren for not being “inclusive” or “progressive” or “open,” whatever those things might mean. This is the tack Frank Schaeffer takes in a recent Huffington Post blog (“Obama Wins: So Christians, Will It Be More Hate or Jesus?” the latest installment in his ongoing mea culpa for his Evangelical origins, an article bursting with passionate intensity and curiously void of any of the charity he accuses others of lacking.
 
 
Despite the stereotype to the contrary, to be a Christian—even a churchgoing one—is not necessarily to be a Republican. Christians who vote Republican do so for a host of reasons, of course, but many do so out of the conviction that, while their policies are not necessarily pro-Christian, at least Republicans are not anti-Christian. It is not at all clear that this is the case with the Democratic Party. In fact, some of the evidence suggests just the opposite.
 
For the moment, I will pass over the bizarre bit of maneuvering at the Democratic Convention that reinserted the name of “God” into the text, a document that had previously been “God”-less, and finally discovered that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Instead I will focus on the event that more than any other convinced many Christians that they are no longer welcome in the Public Square: the HHS mandate.
 
It is not my intention to explore every aspect of President Obama’s implementation of this law that forces Catholic charities to provide through health insurance practices that are antithetical to Catholic moral and social teaching. For the moment, I only want to explore why the President chose this time to do this thing. As an American Church official recently observed, “It wasn't necessary that he do it, and the fact he went ahead anyway — that’s not a great sign.” It may not have been necessary from the point of view of the Church, but it was absolutely necessary from the point of view of the President.
 
 
I am an organic farmer, and we organic farmers know one thing about plant pathology: insects and disease usually leave healthy plants alone and plants that do fall to these pathologies were usually unhealthy to being with. Same with the HHS mandate. The Administration knew the American Church was in a weakened state, due to the sex scandal and the foolish way it was bungled by hierarchs. They also knew that women, particularly single women, would welcome the offer of free contraception—though it is unclear how any women employed by Catholic charities thought along these lines. The mandate, then, did two things: it weakened the Church in America further and bolstered Obama’s bid for reelection through the tried and true method of panem et circenses. We should all now be ready to admit what a brilliant political move this was. And, from what we can see from Mr. Schaeffer and those of a like mind, there are uncounted benefits yet to be reaped for the Administration.
 
But we need to be clear on one thing: the imposition of the HHS mandate on the Catholic Church signified to many Christians that an Obama Administration will not be their friend, despite his hollow promises made at Notre Dame University. He has done nothing to change their minds.
 
Another phenomenon that became clear to me through the campaign is the love bordering on idolatry that many Obama supporters showed (and continue to show) to their candidate. It is real idolatry: the projection of one’s self, one’s hopes and desires upon a figure. I did not see this in Romney supporters, certainly not in Christian supporters of Romney. They usually pray in a different direction. Could it be that the secular ethos so prevalent on the left and in Democratic policies cannot escape the human need for something to worship? I think it could. What we see in the secular cultus of the State is, then, a migration of the holy from the religious sphere into the political. I don’t think this is a healthy development. 
 
 
Perhaps those Christians who hoped for a Romney victory as a way to avoid being run out of the Public Square would do well to think about this for the next four years. It’s happened before. As Yeats observed, “everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” It can happen again.
 
Spero columnist Michael Martin is a professor of English literature at Marygrove College.



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