God and Morality in the Public Sphere: While Puritans Take over the Republican Party, Secularism Has Democrats Paralyzed

By Fredericks, James L. | National Catholic Reporter, November 18, 2005 | Go to article overview

God and Morality in the Public Sphere: While Puritans Take over the Republican Party, Secularism Has Democrats Paralyzed


Fredericks, James L., National Catholic Reporter


ONE ELECTORATE UNDER GOD? A DIALOGUE ON RELIGION AND AMERICAN POLITICS

Edited by E.J. Dionne, Jean Betheke Elshtain and Kayla M. Drogosz Brookings Institution Press, 239 pages, $17.95

CAN GOD AND CAESAR COEXIST?. BALANCING RELIGIOUS FREEDOM AND INTERNATIONAL LAW

By Robert F. Drinan, SJ Yale University Press, 272 pages, $18

The Republican Party, as the last presidential election made plain to all, is in hock up to its ears to a cabal of well-financed, media-savvy Puritans. The day is coming when these theocrats will discredit right-wing extremism for a generation. Why is it taking so long for the electorate to run the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Robert Reed and Chuck Colson out of the beltway?

There are several reasons. The religious right is well organized and awash in lucre. Moreover, at election time, the faithful in the megachurches are more than happy to take their marching orders from Karl Rove. Their pastors are adept at exploiting communications media in appealing to the fear of moral ambiguity and social change that resonates so strongly with the lower middle class. There is another reason as well: Democrats cannot seem to overcome their allergy to religious faith. By ceding "God and morality" to the right, Democrats play right into the hand of neoconservatives and their pastors in the Republican Party.

Take last year's presidential election. John Kerry seems to have campaigned under the misconception that the year was 1960, not 2004. Like the last Roman Catholic senior senator from Massachusetts who ran for president, Sen. Kerry thought he had to prove to the country that he would not allow his church to influence his decision-making. In 1960, Sen. John Kennedy stood before a group of Protestant ministers in Dallas in order to assure "Christians" that a Catholic could be trusted in the White House. In 2004, as George W. Bush was testifying to America how Jesus had changed his life, Sen. Kerry was going about the country telling voters that his faith was a private matter and that he wouldn't dream of letting it influence his decision-making in the Oval Office. Sen. Kennedy got himself elected in 1960 by proving that his faith would be private. Sen. Kerry lost the 2004 election because he did the same thing.

Maybe Sen. Kerry was getting advice from Mario Cuomo, another Catholic Democrat who thinks it's still 1960. Mr. Cuomo is the darling of the secular left because he is a "nice" Catholic: He keeps his embarrassing religious beliefs to himself. Mr. Cuomo's essay in One Electorate Under God? reprises the famous address he gave at Notre Dame in 1984. According to the former governor, Roman Catholic politicians are well advised to subordinate the moral demands of their faith in the interest of respecting the diversity of beliefs and values characteristic of a pluralistic "society. By working to guarantee the freedom of others, Mr. Cuomo argues, Catholic politicians are also working to preserve the freedom of Catholics. True enough, as governor of New York, Mr. Cuomo opposed the death penalty. But secularists need not be concerned. Mr. Cuomo's stance was not based on his religious beliefs and certainly not on the teachings of his church. In fact, he assures us, "When I speak against the death penalty, I never suggest that I consider it a moral issue."

Mark Souder, a Republican congressman from Indiana, offers an alternative vision of faith and politics for America. Do not be misled by the incoherence of Rep. Souder's essay. His message is clear enough: "a moment of silence in the classroom, the posting in the schoolroom of the Ten Commandments (as long as other expressions are also posted), and a Bible on a teacher's desk are not indications of state-sponsored religion." The contrast with Mr. Cuomo's stay-in-the-closet faith could not be more starkly drawn. "To ask me to check my Christian beliefs at the public door," Rep. Souder testifies, "is to ask me to expel the Holy Spirit from my life when I serve as a congressman, and that I will not do. …

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