Both Shrub and Stick (that's George W. and Al Jr. to you) have made a big deal out of appealing to what are called "faith-based communities." Apparently this means church congregations, supporters of religious private education including home-schoolers, and possibly even fuzzy-edged groups of people who watch the same televangelists at the same time. I wonder whether it includes the suddenly-prayerful contents of an airliner making a difficult landing in foul weather.
However it has come about, I am glad to see the putative presidential nominees of both political parties going after true believers. True believers, like any other non-voting group, cannot help but improve politics by becoming involved. This is accurate even though the beliefs sometimes lead to absurdities such as the Kansas Board of Education's adoption of creationist science. (Creationism is to science as sex is to virginity: in each case, the former doesn't so much replace as obliterate the latter.)
Despite our being the most clergy-ridden society in the world (even the Irish, the Israelis and the Iranians can't really compete with us in the influence and wealth of their ecclesiastical brethren) we are remarkably unconscious of it. We think of America as a free-thinking, multicultural kind of place, especially those who oppose such trends.
But even our Deist ancestors, such as Thomas Jefferson, saw the U.S. as more religious than secular. The removal of prayer from the schools only proves, it does not deny, the extent of religious influence on public life. By such cosmetic maneuvers the underlying stranglehold is better preserved.
In the course of the following discussion, I shall make the radical assumption that the Catholic Church in America is at least as representative of all the other churches as any other one of them could be. After all, aside from "lapsed Catholic," "Catholic" is the largest single religious denomination in the U.S. This remains the case despite the truth of Eugene McCarthy's observation that "Anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the left."
"One wonders what social justice has to do with the sacraments," was the recent plaint of one of my oldest friends. In the strict Catholic theology in which both he and I were raised, we work out our salvation by our behavior, both public and private. The goodness of God is not just heavenly; it is to be mirrored by his people on earth. The Kingdom of God on earth is the handiwork of his servants. It is not just humanly foresighted to have social justice (rather than repression and its pendulum cousin, revolution,) it is divinely mandated.
The sacraments mark the signposts of an individual life. Yet what that baptized, confirmed, reconciled, communioned, married (or ordained) and, ultimately, Last Rited person does with the public component of a particular life is as much God's affair as is private behavior.
It is a peculiarly American heresy to imagine that an individual's actions have no larger social echoes or consequences than their own shadows. Perhaps for this reason one of our national myths is that of the lone gunman riding into town to enforce his personal code of honor. Yet the force of the prescient remark, "If you want peace, work for justice," is hardly diminished by replying, "It's just my personal peace I want. Forget everybody else's."
My friend also noted, with barely repressed savagery, that "Bishops are selected for having been efficient accountants rather than spiritual leaders. That's part of the problem, related to belief that schools are essentially buildings and priests are primarily social workers. The Church is a great golden building with 'Sell all you have and give to the poor' written in diamonds."
There are really three arguments here, one of them contradictory to the other two. While the pencil-pushing qualities of the hierarchy is accurately represented, the bishops and the cardinals are the ones who oppose a socially involved priesthood. Administering buildings, collecting endowments, enforcing canon law, repressing discussion: these are the activities favored by the "old men in dresses," as the episcopate is most colorfully known. Like unindicted war criminal Henry Kissinger, the bishops collectively take their cue from the Austrian despot Metternich's post-Napoleonic dictum: "Govern, and change nothing."
Priests are not really limited to social work functions. The lame, the halt and the blind (whether physically, mentally and morally) show up at the parish rectory looking for advice with disgusting regularity. That is, the people elect the clergy as intercessors and advisors, often having nowhere else to go. It would be as cruel a limitation to prevent the clergy from calling the county housing services as it is to stop them from recommending abortions to frightened teenagers. While the theology of the latter is arguable, that of the former is not. "If religion was a thing that money could buy, the rich would live and the poor would die," sang the folksingers, to cite a non-canonical source.
Solely performing the liturgy, administering the sacraments, and teaching a little catechism on the side, is a severely crippled view of the powers of the clergy to minister to the people. Some Semitic wanderer, Yeshua bar-Miriam I believe it was, remarked that it was a sore disservice if one were asked for bread to give only a stone.
The faith-based community that needs to be heard from is the one insisting on the Six Corporal Works of Mercy: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the afflicted, visit the sick, bury the dead, visit those in prison. These are not just personal responsibilities but social ones as well. And the society that fails to mobilize all the resources of church, state and individuals to perform them is a society that ought to be looking over its shoulder. As Jefferson said, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."
With Ross (Pencil-Necked Geek) Perot, Jesse (Self-Destructing) Ventura, Pat (Heil Nixon) Buchanan, Donald (Fat-Fingered Vulgarian) Trump, Lenora (Giving Leftists A Bad Name) Fulani and possibly even Warren (Overexposed) Beatty going after the Reform Party nomination, that party's affairs begin to resemble a cheesier-than-usual made-for-TV pseudo-sports event. Like paraplegic mud-wrestling. Or obese-only roller derby. The only good that may come of it is some Democratic Supreme Court Justices in the year 2001.
James McCarty Yeager writes on politics from the Maryland forest near the Little Falls of the Potomac River. He can be reached at email@example.com.