The need for study of the nexus between religion and politics has seldom been greater. Ignorance of religion and bias against it are rampant. Religious prejudice is used to stigmatize President Obama, a Christian, as a Muslim; and anti-Mormon prejudice threatens to reduce support for Mitt Romney among Republican evangelicals. The abuse of religion, even by those we should expect to be most solicitous for its integrity, is common. With alarming hyperbole, one bishop recently associated President Obama with Hitler and Stalin.
The issue of religion has forced itself into the presidential election campaign. During the long Republican primary campaign, no issue produced as much heat as the place of contraception in health care. Now, as the election campaigns shift into high gear, the U.S. bishops have announced “a fortnight of freedom” to challenge a multitude of court decisions, legislative initiatives and executive decisions by both state and federal governments as violations of religious liberty.
In light of these developments, we ask what should students in Catholic colleges and universities know about the role of religion in public life? What sort of religious literacy will prepare them to read today’s headlines critically? Here are a few topics that schools might explore:
Religion’s role in public life goes far deeper than politics. The churches, along with synagogues, mosques and temples, are “the first of [American] public institutions.” They are the places where neighbors first examine local issues and learn to speak in public. Church volunteers are recruited for civic roles, poll watching, hosting blood drives or collecting disaster aid. Religious congregations sponsor schools, hospitals, clinics and retirement homes. All these belong to what the Catholic tradition used to call “society,” the set of associations that are intermediate between politics and the market. For individuals, families and communities, society remains an alternative to and a bulwark against both big government and big business.
Over two millennia Christians have taken a variety of postures toward the state: from sectarian disengagement to the social gospel and from the imperial papacy to state churches. The current wave of conservative American evangelical politics followed long periods of political disengagement, but evangelicals are not uniformly conservative. The evangelical community includes liberals like Jim Wallis and moderates like Richard Cizek and Ron Sider. Contemporary Catholic social action stems from the church’s engagement with the world begun at the Second Vatican Council. Today the American Catholic mosaic includes the Knights of Columbus and seamless-garment Catholics as well as Feminists for Life. Political stereotypes fail to reflect the complexity of attitudes toward politics even in one denomination.
Jefferson’s metaphor of a “wall of separation” between church and state obscures the real-life interaction between religion and government. The Constitution forbids the establishment of any one religion, but it also guarantees the free exercise of religion to all its citizens; and within a wide margin of freedom, believers and their institutions interact daily with government. From chaplains to the houses of Congress and in the military services to contracts with humanitarian agencies, the U.S. government interacts with religious organizations all the time. Every year presidents and members of Congress participate in prayer and Communion breakfasts, just as judges and legislators attend Red Mass celebrations. Religious leaders lobby administration officials on immigration and refugee protection. They communicate with congressional committees drafting legislation on moral matters as different as marriage and arms control and on their institutional interests in education and health care.
Religion is not essentially violent and is often a force for peace. The history of organized religion from the Crusades to jihadism and the Jewish settler movement has included violent currents. But religion has also been the source of pacifist movements, including monasticism East and West, the Mennonites and Quakers, the Catholic Peace Fellowship and the Catholic Worker. Religious leaders, like Gandhi, Abdul Gaffar Khan and Martin Luther King, led history-making nonviolent movements. In meetings in Assisi, world religious leaders have gathered with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to reject religious violence and pray for peace. Religious groups like the Mennonite Central Committee, the Catholic Peacebuilding Network and the Community of Sant’Egidio are working to transform conflicts and reconcile one-time enemies.
Alumni of Catholic colleges and universities ought to understand the complex history of church-state relations, the contemporary realities of religion in society and the contributions of religion to the common good and world peace. So informed, they will be better able to participate in the recurring debate over the role of religion in public life.