Typically, the problem with many successful, secular types, be they politically liberal or conservative, is that they do not see what we believers see when they look at the Church. Liberals see a dark, oppressive institution. Conservatives see a prop for Americanism, a defender of good order and the status quo. Cynics of all ideological varieties do not see a coherent worldview rooted in experience of encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, crucified yet risen. They see the Easter Bunny with real estate.
Political conservatives have learned to appreciate the power of religion as a political organizing tool. Ever since Jerry Falwell organized the Moral Majority in the late 1970s, the Religious Right has been an integral part of the Republican Party. Falwell accomplished something very big. Baptists had previously withdrawn from the cares of the world for fear of getting entangled with "unbelievers and their unrighteousness," as Falwell once wrote. He led Baptists out of their chosen ghetto and into the mainstream of American political life.
Kathleen Parker’s column in Sunday’s Post called attention to a rift that is developing within the Religious Right about the demands of political life. Recently, Tom Minnery, who works with the conservative organization Focus on the Family, had a testy interview with Christian broadcaster Steve Deace. Focus on the Family has followed the model of lobbying and organizing set up by Falwell but Deace argued that this involved too much compromise with the ways of the world. It will be curious to see how this tension develops. Those who think they can get involved in politics without getting muddied every once in awhile misunderstand politics. Conversely, once out of the ghetto symbolized by the Scopes Trial, it is hard to imagine Christian conservatives simply retreating anew. The third option, a confessional party, has no tradition in America and would be fiercely resisted.
On the left, Democrats have been trying to close "the God gap." Sometimes, as in the roll out of the President’s decision to permit funding for embryonic stem cell research, liberals still get it vastly wrong and they fail to understand that the Enlightenment worldview may have been a blessing, but it was not an unmitigated blessing. Even the President sometimes employs the word "progress" with a confidence that makes one wonder if he really grasps the century of his birth was the most violent and vicious in the long, sad catalogue of human criminality.
Democrats have had a tactical problem too. In their rush to close the God gap, they were surprised to find that there actually are liberal believers. But, getting a few liberal theologians to sign off on a document or a policy is not the same thing as winning over the Catholic vote or even really engaging the Catholic Church. Democrats have learned how to preach to the choir but it was unclear if they understood the need to go beyond the choir too.
Yesterday, however, the White House announced that Anthony Picarello, the General Counsel at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, had been appointed to serve on the President’s Faith-Based Advisory Board. He joins Father Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities, who had already been appointed. These twin appointments show that the President understands that in engaging the Church, it is good to respect the organizational structure already in place, and not run around it to find someone more committed to political than to religious orthodoxy. It also shows that the President understands that if you want to help the poor in America, you must enlist the efforts of the Catholic Church.
Cynics complain about "organized religion." But, the hungry who are fed by the Church, the homeless who are sheltered by the Church, the prisoners who are visited by the Church, they do not complain. They like the fact that the Church organizes its ministries to be more effective in actually helping those who are marginalized in our society. What cannot be organized precisely is the movement of the Spirit: As Nicodemus said, it is like the wind and we can only see the leaves of the trees rustle as it moves by. But, someone at the White House grasped that our most organized of religions, the Catholic Church, is a big tree with a lot of rustling leaves, that the Spirit moves her, and that the government will benefit from her advice.