Sunday, September 27, 2015

Religion, The Pope, and Politics in the Real World

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr. 

            Pope Francis has put a new face on institutional Christianity.  He has been called a Pope for all seasons for his willingness to address controversial issues and consider changes in traditional Catholic doctrines, but he is also “old school.”  When asked about gay priests, he said, “Who am I to judge?”  But he called the rise of the LGBT community “a new sin against God.”  He has offered forgiveness for those who have had abortions and streamlined the annulment process for the divorced, but he has stood fast opposing birth control while telling Catholics they should not breed “like rabbits.”

            Pope Francis has condemned consumerism and the unrestrained greed of capitalism as the enemy of the poor, and issued an encyclical on climate change that he described as moral guidance rather than a resolution of scientific disputes.  Conservatives like George Will have criticized the Pope’s idealistic positions as “fact-free flamboyance,” but Fareed Zakaria has noted that any criticism of the message of Pope Francis is a criticism of the message of Christ.

            While emphasizing moral ideals, the Pope has also addressed politics in the real world.  When he met with Turkey’s Erdogan last year the Pope condemned the fundamentalism and fanaticism of ISIS and asserted that the freedoms of religion and speech should be a matter of faith as well as law, and repeated that theme in his address to Congress last week.  The Pope has also challenged the 21,000 Catholic parishes in Europe to each take in a refugee family.

            Pope Francis has exemplified the greatest commandment to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself.  Translated into real-world politics, that is not just an ideal but a moral imperative to put love over law and balance individual freedom with providing for the common good.  That means emphasizing the common good in libertarian democracies where individual rights have often obscured public obligations, and emphasizing individual rights in Islamic nations where apostasy and blasphemy laws preclude the fundamental freedoms of religion and speech.

            Religion and politics are interrelated forces in the real world that can help us or hurt us.  They can bring us together or polarize us.  When Jesus spoke of reconciliation and redemption in a universal family of Godit was not based on belief in any religion, but on sharing the power of God’s reconciling love to overcome our fear and suspicion of others—especially those of other religions.  Islamic scholars have asserted that the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.  But is it?

            Religious fundamentalism is an obstacle to religious reconciliation.  Its exclusivism creates fear and hate among religions, polarizing them in a world of increasing religious pluralism.  Religious fundamentalists—whether Jew, Christian or Muslim—believe that their holy scripture is the inerrant and infallible manifestation of God’s word and law, thus preventing them from supporting the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution and its secular rule of law.  Religious fundamentalists are a minority among Jews and Christians, but recent polls indicate that fundamentalists are a majority among Muslims—and that has political implications.

            Article VI of the U.S. Constitution provides, inter alia: The Constitution, and the laws of the United States…and all Treaties…shall be the supreme Law of the Land.  All officers of the U.S. and the several States shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation to support this Constitution, but no religious Test shall ever be required. 

            Kim Davis is a fundamentalist Christian and county clerk in Kentucky who went to jail for refusing to perform her duty to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because it conflicted with her religious beliefs.  It would be the same for any fundamentalist Jew or Muslim who could not put loyalty to the U.S. Constitution ahead of submission to Mosaic Law for Jews or to the Qur’an and Islamic law, or shari’a, for Muslims.               

            The 1960 Presidential election provided an example of such questioned loyalty.  As a Catholic John F. Kennedy had to assure the American public that his ultimate loyalty was to the U.S. Constitution and not to the Pope, the Vatican or to cannon law.  Today any person of faith seeking public office—whether Jew, Christian or Muslim—would have to pass the same political loyalty test.  And it is hard to imagine any fundamentalist believer passing that test.

            Believers in the U.S. who are not public officials can resort to peaceful civil disobedience to assert the moral supremacy of their religious standards of legitimacy over those of secular law, but they must still acknowledge the supremacy of secular law over religious law.  That is a prerequisite for anyone holding public office in the U.S. and applies to Christian fundamentalists like Kim Davis as well as to Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists who cannot subordinate their religious laws to the supremacy of the U. S. Constitution and its secular rule of law.

            The visit of Pope Francis to the U.S. has come during a messy debate over religion, politics and law, and his emphasis on moral ideals underscored the need for religious standards of legitimacy to be voluntary moral standards rather than coercive laws—but moral standards that shape our politics and law.  The greatest commandmentsummarizes the moral imperative of Jews and Christians to love their neighbors as themselves—including their unbelievingneighbors.  If Muslims can join with Jews and Christians and truly embrace that moral principle, then the three great religions of the book can be reconciled and coexist with a lasting peace.

Notes and References to Resources:

Previous blogs on related topics are: Religion and Reason, December 8, 2014; Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; Religion and New Beginnings: Salvation and Reconciliation into the Family of God, January 4, 2015; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? January 25, 2015; Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice, March 8, 2015; A Fundamental Problem with Religion, May 3, 2015; Liberation from Economic Oppression, May 31, 2015; Christians Meet Muslims Today, June 14, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015; Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities, August 9, 2015; Accommodating Religious Freedom under the Rule of Secular Law, September 13, 2015; and Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015. 

On Fareed Zakaria noting that those who criticize the message of Pope Francis are criticizing the message of Christ, see

On welcoming Pope Francis to the messy U.S. religious and political debate, see

On Pope Francis condemning religious fundamentalism and promoting religious freedom, see


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your comments, Jon. Those of us who are not Catholic don’t see Pope Francis in the same context as those, like you, who are so familiar with Catholic history and doctrine. Even if Pope Francis isn’t revolutionary, he seems to me more willing to challenge convention than his predecessors. And while I don’t agree with all of his views, I greatly admire his commitment to challenge our worldly values with his Christ-centered ideals. Viva Papa!