Wayne O'Leary

The Politics of Theology

"April is the cruelest month," wrote the poet Thomas S. Eliot, and the April just past was no exception. Death was the order of the day, with two high-profile passings, those of Terri Schiavo and Pope John Paul II, following one upon the other in grim succession. The two spectacles, one filled with nasty internecine squabbling and the other reverentially celebratory in character, dominated the airwaves and the public consciousness for what seemed an eternity. It was in-your-face bereavement of a sort seldom seen outside the Middle East.

Making the deaths especially melancholic was not just that the two principals expired slowly in public, but that so many of the living who survived them used the occasions for naked political purposes. America's Christian right was in its element, and the Bush administration played to it shamelessly. The inside-the-beltway Republican chatter on the Schiavo controversy was that it had the potential to "excite the base" (the conservative evangelicals) and cause embarrassment for the Democrats, who would have to temper their blue-state secularism and cower before the righteous hosts of the Almighty. Those who opposed the "culture of life" would risk portraying themselves as pro-death.

The passing of the pope was handled a little less ham-handedly by conservative politicos, although with no less shame. Disregarding the fact that John Paul II had differed sharply with them on Iraq and on the economics of globalization, administration spokesmen stressed his doctrinal conservatism on such congenial social issues as abortion and homosexuality, and claimed him as one of their own. To hear conservatives tell it, the late pope had virtually been the spiritual advisor to the Republican Party. (The Rev. Billy Graham must have felt left out.) It was a tactic conveniently geared to winning support among so-called Reagan Democrats -- chiefly Catholic voters whose economic liberalism can often be offset by appeals to moral and religious orthodoxy.

The church itself was not above using the gathering in Rome for some intramural politicking of its own. John Paul II's successor, chosen by a conservative-dominated College of Cardinals, was an earthly, not an otherworldly, choice. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, known as "God's rottweiler" for his enforcement of papal dogma, was picked to carry on the stifling doctrinal inflexibility of his predecessor and continue the slow retreat from the liberal Vatican II reforms of Pope John XXIII. As Benedict XVI, he will see to it that such heretical concepts and practices as priestly marriage, euthanasia, "choice," contraception, stem-cell research and Latin America's leftist liberation theology remain out of bounds for the truly faithful. Whether the continuation of John Paul's policies will carry over to his enlightened critique of world capitalism remains to be seen.

It has been noted in thoughtful circles that a new philosophical/moral divide is emerging in the 21st century, not (as in the past) between religions or sects, but between liberal and conservative believers or, more broadly, between a secular world view on the one hand and traditionalist theology on the other. This is a worldwide phenomenon, and the US is not immune to it. Much of our domestic politics has become a confrontation between those favoring retention of the time-honored custom of church-state separation and those who would frankly establish a New World theocracy from sea to shining sea.

The American theocrats, who control the White House and Congress -- George W. Bush is the first conservative evangelical president -- are, temporarily at least, on a roll. They feel, rightly or wrongly, that they delivered the last election to the Republicans and are owed a payback. The Republicans, with their crude congressional interference in the Schiavo case and their demands for instant confirmation of conservative federal judges favorable to "people of faith," obviously concur. If national polls are any indication, however, they may have overreached; the public clearly recoiled against inserting politics into personal life-and-death decisions, and it appears to be rejecting the GOP insistence on a rubber-stamp judiciary composed of Christian conservatives.

Furthermore, the forces of theocracy are forgetting one thing: History is against them. Their protestations notwithstanding, America was never conceived as a "Christian nation." Most Americans have always been nominal Christians and semi-regular churchgoers, to be sure, but the nation's revered founders and iconic leaders -- the people who, like Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Paine and later Lincoln, created the national ethos -- were not. They were, for the most part, deists or naturalists, believers in a supreme being, but not in the divinity of Jesus, nor in divine revelation. Partly for that reason, a secular outlook and a broad tolerance has been key to American civic life.

Here's Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom: "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." And again, "The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted [sic] into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man."

Of the non-churchgoing and skeptical Abraham Lincoln, who rejected the doctrines of original sin and atonement as well as Biblical infallibility, a close friend (Jesse W. Fell) wrote, "I should say that his expressed views were such as, in the estimation of most believers, would place him outside the Christian pale." Pamphleteer Thomas Paine, the inspirational voice of the Revolution, put his freethinking views quite simply, dismissing all established creeds, Christian and otherwise, with the affirmation, "My own mind is my own church."

These outstanding Americans, and many others who shared their non-sectarian views, were what the new inquisitioners of the religious right would call "secular humanists," a disparaging designation that many of the Founders, rationalist sons of the Enlightenment, would have accepted as a badge of honor. As such they would have opposed what Paine called "the adulterous connection of church and state" by standing squarely against the attempt in our time to establish a faith-based judiciary dedicated to imposing state-sanctioned fundamentalism. And like the optimistic agronomist Jefferson, they would have been sanguine about the ultimate outcome, knowing that May flowers invariably follow April showers.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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