Truth and Power: How I put my faith to work in Washington

In a religiously diverse society like that of the United States, all citizens must be given an equal chance to participate in government of, by and for the people. By law the government cannot exclude citizens on the basis of religion or require them to adopt any particular religious beliefs or practices. Nor can any citizen force another to live by the standards of any particular faith tradition—all of which brings me to a conflict I encounter every day.

I work for Network, a faith-based lobby in Washington, D.C., that engages in advocacy to influence national legislation. The organization’s mandate is to raise the voice of Catholic social teaching to the leaders who shape the country’s laws and direction. As Catholics, we on the staff believe in the social message of our faith—that living the Gospel is not a private matter and that institutions, systems and structures should reflect solidarity with the poor, concern for the vulnerable and the overwhelming mercy of God.


My colleagues and I spend our days telling members of Congress that their decisions, which affect the whole country, should be made based on the values of our particular faith tradition.

See the problem? If not, don’t worry; few people do.

As a Catholic organization, Network fits within the mainstream of the American religious landscape, so it does not raise many eyebrows on Capitol Hill. But imagine if, instead, it lobbied for legislation that was, say, more faithful to Islamic law. The resulting uproar would be forceful and immediate. We advocates would be blasted for trying to legislate morality and impose our values on the rest of society. Legislators would not give us the time of day, news media would treat us as a scandal, and we would have to struggle just to keep our doors open.

Network does not generally face this kind of opposition, because Catholicism is familiar and acceptable to most Americans. But the question remains: On what grounds do I get to tell lawmakers that they should organize society around my church’s teaching? Is that not legislating morality? Am I not trying to impose my values on the rest of the country? Should non-Catholics (and anyone who does not want the United States to become a theocracy) sound an alarm to warn that Network (or any other Catholic lobby) is breaching the wall of separation between church and state?

These questions are not merely hypothetical. During the health care reform process, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops played a highly visible and controversial role. Their advocates pushed for the inclusion of specific provisions regarding abortion funding and achieved success early on. When a reform package including the bishops’ preferred language passed the House of Representatives in early November, there was much talk of the influence that the U.S.C.C.B. was enjoying in Congress. Some questioned whether the conference had played too large a role. An article in Ms. magazine titled “Bishops, Keep Your Hands Off Healthcare!” exhorted the bishops to “keep the separation of church and state clear.” Representative Lynn Woolsey (Democrat of California) even suggested that the Internal Revenue Service reconsider the U.S.C.C.B.’s tax-exempt status.

Not only do others have questions about religion in the public sphere; I myself wonder whether I am justified in my daily work. I respect and revere our secular democracy. I think it is the best way to protect against religious discrimination and ensure religious liberty. I do not support prayer in public schools; I do not think America is properly called a Christian nation; I do not think that manger scenes belong on the lawns of city halls. So how can I, in good conscience, work for a Catholic lobby?

If there is a simple answer to my conflict, I have yet to find it. There is no shortage of legal, philosophical and theological scholarship surrounding religion in the public sphere. A host of thinkers far more brilliant than I, including generations of Supreme Court justices, have failed to settle the matter.

Yet a few insights from my work may help point toward an understanding of how people of faith can act on their convictions in the secular realm without undermining the Constitution.

No Such ‘Separation’

Like most other stock political phrases, the words “separation of church and state” are uttered far more often than they are understood. What separation is supposed to mean is far from obvious.

Separation surely does not mean simply physical separation, though at times this is its sense. Religious displays, for example, are not permitted on public land. Separation does not imply temporal separation, since we enjoy federal holidays on many days of religious significance. Practically, it often refers to financial separation, although some faith-based entities do receive public funding to carry out charitable functions. Nor can it mean personal separation, since countless people of faith serve in official public capacities. Elected officials are often quite open about their religious beliefs, and nobody suggests this violates the Constitution. (Concerns only arise in the case of minority religions: the worries about Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, or the rumors that President Obama is a “secret Muslim.”) Individual voters, who exercise a critical public function, represent all sorts of religious commitments. Indeed, every citizen is also a spiritual being, and there is no way to “separate” these parts of a self.

The “separation” phrase is not found in the U.S. Constitution; the wording comes from a later document penned by Thomas Jefferson. What is found in the Constitution is the First Amendment’s protection of “free exercise” of religion and its prohibition of state preference for one religion over another. These principles are specific. Wrestling with the actual constitutional language will bear more fruit than relying on the politically charged and highly unclear rhetoric of “separation.”

Most major American Christian denominations have offices in Washington, as do numerous other faith-based advocacy organizations. Every office has a particular focus. And while there is outright disagreement over some issues (abortion rights and the Israel-Palestine conflict are two prime examples), there is a wide area where values and policy priorities overlap. On many issues Christians and non-Christians work in coalitions on behalf of values shared by millions of people of faith across the country and throughout the world.

Advocates from non-Catholic traditions have often said to me that they envy the Catholic Church for its richly developed and clearly articulated social principles. Catholic teaching resonates outside Catholicism. And the language of Catholic social teaching (human dignity, civic participation, preferential option for the poor) is used widely by faith-based coalitions to express shared priorities.

Catholic faith values are often entirely comprehensible in secular terms as well and are shared by many who seek the common good. The public sphere can be a fertile ground on which to nurture and strengthen shared values. By working together for justice, we Catholics can grow closer to our religious and nonreligious partners and with them build a better world.

Raising the Moral Voice

I am often struck by the limited domain in which moral language is employed publicly. In contemporary political discourse, moral principles tend to be used to stake out positions on sexuality and sexual relations. Around these one finds no shortage of voices claiming moral authority.

In the rest of the policy arena, by contrast, the rhetoric is dominated by prudential, rather than moral, reasoning. Decisions about war, economics, education, health care and global trade, for example, are usually argued and explained on the basis of cost, economic or strategic advantage and the “national interest.” One unique contribution of people of faith has been a willingness to bring moral considerations to public discussions.

Take, for example, the topic of global economic justice. Whereas American politicians will often fight poverty in the United States as a service to those who elected them, they feel less accountable to impoverished people abroad. People of faith, however, see themselves as accountable not only to their constituents, shareholders or immediate neighbors. Christians are accountable to a God who knows no national boundaries and who is not swayed by “national interests.”

In its injection of moral reasoning into public policy debate, faith-based advocacy enhances public discourse. This holds true whether any particular set of moral reasons wins out or not. It is an achievement merely to have shifted public discussion from self-interested politics to concern for others in need.

Religion is not limited to words, of course, in its contribution to the public sphere. It is not limited to articulating values and persuading lawmakers. Rather, the church can influence society whenever its adherents live in accord with Christian teaching. As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said, “The first social ethical task of the church is to be the church.”

The invitation to discipleship has never been a matter of persuasion or of a detailed comprehensive philosophy. Christ did not convince people to follow him. Rather, the Jesus we find in the Gospels offered a fresh vision of how to live, in defiance of reigning social norms, proclaiming that a new kind of world is at hand. To some onlookers this vision appeared repugnant, even dangerous, but to others it was compelling. Indeed, it was compelling enough to motivate centuries of prophets who have faced rejection and persecution for their refusal to abandon that vision. Christ merely extended an invitation.

The church in the world today should not assume that its job is to convert officials, institutions or systems. It can work at these things, of course. But the church’s greatest hope should rest on the capacity of the reign of God to draw others in on its own. If the church can commit itself to radical compassion, radical nonviolence and radical forgiveness, it will inevitably draw attention. To some, it will appear repugnant and even dangerous. But to others, it will be compelling.

When hearts and minds are changed, legislation and policy will follow. If Christians can truly live as the church in the world—the pilgrim people of God, witnessing to the transforming love of Christ—all we will need to do is extend the invitation.

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Chris Cunningham
7 years 3 months ago
Nice Article David. I will look at the homepage for Network. You are doing an important job by lobbying politicans in Washington and your views are important and relevant.
With the recent financial crisis, the power of large corporations and in particular the global financial system has become very clear.
Do you think we need some kind of global governement to regulate global companies such as Goldman Sachs for example?


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