Holy Alliance?

The Danger of Mixing Politics & Religion

In September 1960, John F. Kennedy gave one of the most memorable speeches of his political career to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Kennedy addressed this group because Protestants, especially evangelical Protestants, were deeply fearful that a Catholic president would have to answer to the bishops and the pope on matters of public policy.

Kennedy began by saying that although he would prefer to talk about “the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills, the families forced to give up their farms-an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space,” nevertheless, because there had never been a Catholic president of the United States, he recognized the need to say what he believed about the relationship between politics and religion. This is what he said:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute-where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote-where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference-and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from a president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish-where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source-where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials-and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

Although few proponents of the separation of church and state would today-or even then-endorse the sort of absolute wall proposed by Kennedy, even a highly qualified version of this position is strikingly at odds with our current situation.

How did we get from a situation where the working assumption was that “no Catholic prelate would tell the president how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote,” to one where a Baptist pastor asks members of his congregation to resign if they plan to vote for John Kerry, and Catholic clergy issue voting guides that all but endorse specific candidates?

I do not have a ready or easy answer to this question and what I will suggest is incomplete. Still, part of the answer comes from examining the growing-and to my mind troubling-alliance between conservative Evangelicals and Catholics. (When I refer to conservative Evangelicals and Catholics, I largely follow the definitions of these groups found in the “Fourth National Survey of Religion and Politics” conducted by the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron, specifically white Evangelicals and Catholics committed to orthodox belief, high levels of religious engagement, and a desire to preserve traditional beliefs and practices in a changing world.)

There are many ways of explaining this alliance, but I want to focus on one particular area of common ground that, more than any other, sheds light on the alliance-namely opposition to abortion. (On the centrality of the abortion issue to this alliance, see Noah Feldman, Divided by God [Farrar, Straus & Giroux].)

To that end, it is worth noting the collaboration that began in the early 1990s between Evangelicals and Catholics and that resulted in a series of joint declarations. There was an original declaration, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, sometimes known by its initials, ECT, and a series of subsequent statements on justification, on the Bible, and on the communion of saints. Prepared by a group of roughly fifteen Catholics and Evangelicals, it was signed by an additional twenty prominent Catholics and Evangelicals. (This is a who’s who of conservative Catholics and Evangelicals.)

Reviewing the original ECT document is instructive because it foregrounds several themes that are central to this alliance, including a strongly dualistic and apocalyptic vision of human existence as a struggle between good and evil, a zealous commitment to missionary work and proselytization, an unapologetic commitment to an unfettered market economy, a conviction that American democracy (or at least a particular version of American democracy) is the last best hope in the fight against the Evil One, and a belief that secular humanists are the agents of Satan and threaten the very existence of democracy. All of this is tied together by a fierce opposition to abortion as illustrative of everything that is wrong with contemporary culture.

Thus, in what is probably the defining statement of this alliance, we read:

The argument, increasingly voiced in sectors of our political culture, that religion should be excluded from the public square, must be recognized as an assault upon the most elementary principles of democratic gov¬ern¬ance...the pattern of convergence and cooperation between Evangelicals and Catholics is, in large part, a result of common effort to protect human life, especially the lives of the vulnerable among us....Abortion is the leading edge of an encroaching culture of death.

Now, it is noteworthy that this joint declaration, a statement that delineates the contrast between a culture of life and a culture of death, was issued nearly a year before Pope John Paul II released the encyclical Evangelium vitae (EV), and there are some strong resonances between the themes of ECT and EV. For example, like Evangelical and Catholics Together, Evangelium vitae focuses on the legalization of abortion and euthanasia as manifestations of the culture of death. Nevertheless, because the vision of what promoting a culture of life requires, as set out in that document, is far more expansive than anything to come out of the joint declarations of Catholics and Evangelicals, it is worth taking a closer look at EV.

If we examine John Paul’s articulation of the distinction between a culture of life and a culture of death in EV, we find a series of contrasts: individual autonomy vs. the common good; economic efficiency vs. solidarity with the weak and marginalized, relativism vs. objectivism. These contrasts are said to shed light on movements to legalize abortion and euthanasia. Yet, it is important to note that promoting a culture of life and resisting a culture of death are not reduced to opposing abortion and euthanasia; quite the contrary. Consistent with the emphasis on the common good and protecting the weak, the document insists that promoting a culture of life and resisting a culture of death mean opposing poverty, hunger, war, torture, environmental degradation, and the death penalty, among other things. In other words, promoting a culture of life is not just about opposing abortion, stem-cell research, and euthanasia, and to the degree that it is about resisting these things, it is because opposing them is seen as protecting the weak. It is not about these things per se.

When the language of the culture of life vs. the culture of death began to emerge in the rhetoric used by politicians in this country to discuss issues of public policy, however, the expansive vision of a culture of life set out by John Paul was lost. For example, the Republican platform in 2004 had a section titled, “Promoting the Culture of Life,” but only two social issues were mentioned there: abortion and the assisted-suicide law in the state of Oregon.

If we ask how the rhetoric of culture of life vs. culture of death came to be framed so narrowly, the answer is almost certain: political expediency. Indeed, it is fascinating to trace the appropriation of this language for political ends in the speeches of George W. Bush.

As well as I can determine, the first time Bush used the phrase “culture of life” as president was in remarks he made at the dedication of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., in March 2001. Interestingly, his initial use of the term was fairly expansive. He talked about a culture of life requiring us to make room for the stranger, to comfort the sick, to care for the aged, and to welcome the immigrant. There was a reference to abortion, but it was not central (www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/ 2001/03/print/20010322-14.html).

By contrast, Bush’s most recent references to building a culture of life tend to be more constricted. Consider, for example an address he gave to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in June 2005. Here is part of what he said:

Building a more compassionate society also depends on building a culture of life. A compassionate society protects and defends its most vulnerable members at every stage of life. A compassionate society supports the principles of ethical science. When we seek to improve human life, we must always preserve human dignity, so that’s why we stand against cloning. A compassionate society rejects partial-birth abortion. And I signed a law to end that brutal practice and my administration will continue working to defend that law. To advance a culture of life, I was proud to sign the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act.

To be fair, there is also language in the speech about helping the poor and the sick, but the emphasis was clearly on opposition to abortion, stem-cell research, and euthanasia and not on the alleviation of poverty or inadequate health care. And, indeed, if you go through the approximately two hundred speeches in which the president has used the language of the culture of life, you discover that, overwhelmingly, that language is used primarily to promote opposition to abortion, sometimes euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and stem-cell research. (The exceptions, interestingly and shrewdly enough, are the president’s addresses to Catholic audiences. His use of the culture of life language then tends to be much more expansive. For example, in August 2004 he spoke to a Knights of Columbus convention and spoke eloquently about “the cause of the poor, the weak, the hungry, and the outcast.”)

Unfortunately, the rhetoric of the culture of life has not been used to shape policy around, say, health-care reform, immigration, war and peace, the torture of prisoners, or the death penalty. Rather, it has been associated with a very restricted agenda, and, in my view, misused by those who have sought to promote this agenda. Consider, for example, the use of the “culture of life vs. the culture of death” language in relation to stem-cell research, where advocates of research are often said to be promoting a culture of death.

If we keep in mind the fact that Pope John Paul II understood the contrast between the culture of life and the culture of death in terms of the broad themes of protecting the weak and the poor vs. promoting individual rights, we see why it is misleading to say, for example, that anyone who promotes embryonic stem-cell research is promoting a culture of death. For instance, in Jewish tradition, the embryo in the laboratory does not have moral status as a person (see William Galston, “Catholics, Jews & Stem Cells,” May 20, 2005). So for Jews it makes little sense to talk about protecting the weak by outlawing embryonic stem-cell research. But Jewish tradition strongly advocates for the weak and promotes a culture of life, even though the tradition is not categorically opposed to embryonic stem-cell research. To equate support for embryonic stem-cell research with the promotion of a culture of death is thus misleading, and uncharitable.

In his recent book, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis (Simon and Schuster), Jimmy Carter argues that some of America’s most cherished values-religious tolerance, civil liberties and personal privacy, free and open debate on controversial issues-are currently being threatened by the growing influence of fundamentalists in both religion and government. Carter’s is a voice to which we should listen. A lifelong evangelical Christian and public servant, he is not given to hyperbole or extreme rhetoric. He documents in painful detail how his beloved Southern Baptist Convention has moved sharply toward a fundamentalist mindset that is characterized by “rigidity, domination, and exclusion.”

Alas, conservative Republicans and the Southern Baptist Convention are not the only groups to move in this direction. And if it is perhaps understandable that conservative politicians may be inclined to a narrow vision of the culture of life for political reasons, it is hard to understand why Catholic leaders would be. Surely short-term gain in pursuing specific political ends does not justify rending the seamless garment of life.

If, as I believe, Jimmy Carter is right that the movement toward fundamentalism threatens traditional religious and political values, how should we respond to this challenge? I do not have a complete answer to this question, but a good start would be to insist as frequently as we can that promoting a culture of life is not merely about opposing abortion, euthanasia, and stem-cell research. (Interestingly, the only reference in Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus caritas est, to promoting a culture of life involves giving of oneself in service to others.) If religious leaders are going to insist on issuing voting guides, we need to make sure that these voting guides tell us where the candidates stand on capital punishment, universal health-care coverage, welfare reform, and environmental issues, among other life issues. With President Kennedy, we must insist on talking about hungry children in West Virginia, old people who cannot pay their bills, and an America with too many slums and too many dilapidated schools. Only thus can we be faithful to the vision of a culture of life set out in Evangelium vitae.