Pat’s Perturbations

By Don Rollins

If I ever meet Pat Buchanan I’m going to kiss him. On the lips. That man has kept me in sermon material for the last 20 years or so, and for that I’m more grateful than GM and Chrysler combined.

It all started in 1989, when then Episcopal Bishop of New Jersey, John “Jack” Spong, up and ordained an openly gay priest in his diocese. Pat wigged out over the notion that such a storied religious tradition would commit so grievous a sin. So, hell-bent on revenge he fired off a syndicated column fairly singed with righteous outrage.

I got two sermons out of that one.

And when some two years later the same Rev. Spong, in light of some pretty sound biblical scholarship, posited the possibility that St. Paul might have been gay, Buchanan pitched a fit worthy of a canvas blazer and a padded room. In yet another heated column he lamented that the Episcopal tradition could no longer be characterized as “the Republican Party at prayer,” so far had the church strayed from its historical moorings. He clearly was at theological sea and didn’t like it one damn bit.

Cha-ching: more fodder for the old sermon mill.

And last month ol’ Pat gifted me with his latest foray into theological indignation: Notre Dame’s commencement address invitation to Obama, complete with an honorary doctorate. The presenting issue? Abortion. How, he asked, could a Catholic institution host—even honor—the man he referred to as “the most pro-abortion president ever”? Furthermore, can Notre Dame, he wondered, any longer claim to be a Catholic university?

Vintage Buchanan, man. I swear, the sermon material just keeps on comin’.

As luck would have it, I last month took part in Planned Parenthood’s annual anti-protest event here in the Twin Cities. The drill was simple and common: outside the clinic the anti-abortion folks marched in a circle, held signs, sang and prayed, and the PP staff and supporters (sans the prayers) pretty much followed suit. Save for a few conversion attempts from the anti-choice camp—plus, in the interest of full disclosure, an impromptu and thankfully short, “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries!” rant by a few pro-choicers—the rules of engagement were tempered by Minnesota nice. (Well, that, barricades and about a dozen of Minneapolis’ finest.) The kicker: in contrast to Buchanan’s single-minded view of the Roman tradition, self-identified Catholics were on both sides of the barriers.

The frontlines of reproductive freedom continue to shift in this country, and religious traditions are bound to evidence those same shifts. In the case of Notre Dame, it has a large, diverse theological carbon footprint; it follows that both progressive and conservative Catholics would want to weigh in on the university’s Obama invitation. But Buchanan’s frontal assault is based on the false premise that Notre Dame (and by proxy, American Catholicism) is uniformly beholden to stated Church doctrine. What appears to him to be a yes/no question—Is Notre Dame still Catholic?—is inextricably bound up with the true diversity that is the modern Roman Catholic Church in America. There’s the map in Pat Buchanan’s mind, and then there’s the actual lay of the land. Evidently frustrated by the difference between the two, he again invoked the blasphemy card, this time to impugn a woman’s bodily and moral sovereignty.

Look, wrapping oneself in religious tradition and self-aggrandizing judgmentalism is understandable when your world’s going to hell in the hand basket of “relativism.” And Buchanan is right about how the once monolithic bulwark of theology is breached each and every time another esteemed religious institution sheds the illusion of doctrinal lockstep. But pining for some morally pure “golden age” (real or perceived) is hardly an excuse for blaming Notre Dame for selecting as its commencement speaker the President of the United States, let alone denouncing somebody’s constitutionally sanctioned freedom.

So, my sincere (if somewhat ashamedly smug) thanks be to Mr. Pat Buchanan: loyal foot solider for past Republican presidents, onetime presidential candidate, hard-right pundit and friend of at least one liberal minister. Sure, some of my progressive colleagues think he’s daft—that his stick hasn’t been on the ice for quite some time now—but not me. No sir, Pat’s The Man in my book. I could kiss him for the veritable treasure trove of sermon material he’s thrown my way over the years. And if I ever meet him, I will.

Rev. Don Rollins is interim minister of the Minnesota Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Bloomington, Minn. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2009

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