Not everyone is happy about a recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study that finds a growing number Americans want religion to play a role in U.S. politics. [i] One syndicated columnist rather hysterically likened the trend to the Taliban’s stoning of women for failure to wear “proper” head covering. “What in the world is going on?” she wailed, citing a Supreme Court ruling that “employers’ religious beliefs can justify not paying for female employees’ contraception through health insurance” as evidence of society’s growing fundamentalism. [ii]
Still, there are reasonable concerns. Winthrop Quigley, whose story about growing involvement of the church in public life was on front page of the Sunday Albuquerque Journal,[iii] writes that church involvement in public life makes him nervous. He says he’s “leery of the power of religion to hijack a debate.”
Allen Sánchez, lobbyist for the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, has evidently been trying to change Mr. Quigley’s mind.
According to the article, he suggested that Quigley’s “anxiety could be based on an improper understanding of the concept of separation of church and state” and explains that church-state separation “is about what government can do. It’s not about what the church can do.”
Since Sánchez is promoting a bill that would use some of the state’s emergency resources to fund early childhood education programs…and since Sánchez is the president and CEO of St. Joseph Community Health which runs its own early childhood education program… one can appreciate his wanting media support.
Separation of church and state isn’t the issue, however.
Quigley lost the issue when Allen Sánchez went off on his explanation of church-state separation.
The issue is “the power of religion to hijack a debate.” Actually, to put it more precisely, one might say that the issue is the power of politically savvy individuals to wield religion to hijack a debate. It’s an Alinskyian principle, after all, to clothe one’s political ambitions in the garment of morality.
Does this mean that religious people have no moral obligation bring their values into the political arena? Of course not. Quite the contrary.
But it does mean that the representatives of religious bodies have to be very careful to promote moral values rather than politically-orchestrated policy applications.
By definition, a “policy application” refers to one approach among many possible approaches. Whatever the effectiveness of early childhood education programs to address the problems of certain demographics, they are not the only way to address those problems and may arguably not be the best way. That’s what citizens are supposed to be discussing.
Introducing a religious “imprimatur” shuts down the discussion – what Catholic wants to be seen as opposing his bishop, even if the bishop’s opinion in policy application is often no better informed than any other citizen’s?
Furthermore, the nature of politics is compromise…meaning that policy applications are often compromised and compromising. For instance, federally funded early childhood education programs are mandated to contain family planning components – in direct violation of Catholic moral principles.
Family planning components are part of the secular worldview. For instance, a New York Times op ed piece on the benefits of these early childhood intervention programs describes how these programs eventually come around to “discussions of birth control” and “helping women to avert pregnancies they don’t want.” This is assumed to be of great benefit to program participants – part of a larger strategy to “beat poverty.”[iv]
Whether New Mexico state-funded programs would contain such components would depend on legislators’ willingness to exclude federal monies from the overall package. There has been no moment to propose such restrictions from the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops or any other direction.
Yet, there is pressure on the Catholic citizen to support this particular secular public policy that may not be in the best interests of New Mexico citizens. No matter how charmingly the issue is couched as “helping the poor,” putting the poor in a position where they are encouraged to make immoral choices is unethical.
But that’s what you get when politically savvy individuals are given the power to wield religion and hijack the debate.
Spero columnist Stephanie Block is the author of the four-volume 'Change Agents: Alinskyian Organizing Among Religious Bodies', available at Amazon.
[i] Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “Public Sees Religion’s Influence Waning: Growing Appetite for Religion in Politics,” www.pewforum.org/2014/09/22/public-sees-religions-influence-waning-2
[ii] Ann McFeatters, “Growing global ‘religious’ frenzy, and Americans’ search for yesteryear: Part of the global “religious” frenzy is desperation born of poor economic conditions and a yearning for a mystical past that seems far more stable and secure than it ever was, writes syndicated columnist ,” Seattle Times, 9-27-14.
[iii] Winthrop Quigley, “A Sunday Lesson in Church and State,” Albuquerque Journal, 9-28-14.
[iv] Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wedunn, “The Way to Beat Poverty,” New York Times, 9-12-14.