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Last Word - November 2012

Religion and Society at Election Time

There is a notion in contemporary society that religion ought to have no role in the public sphere. We often hear that opinion expressed, in one form or another, at election time. It is the notion that pluralism or the separation of Church and State demands the exclusion of religious belief from all activities of governance, voting, and decision making. Its fundamental tenet is the social and political irrelevance of religion, its exclusion from the secular affairs of the society and from education, its relegation to the private forum of conscience, or, at best, to the hushed confines of the sacristy. So what is the Church’s role in society?

Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., has been the most influential thinker on these issues in the last 50 years. Father Murray began his thinking about the question in the aftermath of World War II. He asked himself: How was it possible that the evils of totalitarianism, the suppression of human rights, and the wholesale disregard for human life, witnessed in the twentieth century, arose precisely in the most enlightened, educated, and sophisticated nations of the world? His conclusion was that this was possible because the Church had been confined to the sanctuary and its voice on matters of political and social importance had been silenced.

Once confined to the sanctuary, the political powers were free to do whatever they wanted. They were the only voice out there. They were the only center of power. They were the only arbiter of values. The only source of meaning. The totalitarianism of the twentieth century was the logical outcome of the removal of religion from the public square. Now I am not suggesting that the political leadership in America would become another Pol Pot or Joseph Stalin. But, “Religions,” as Catholic theologian David Tracy once pointed out, “are exercises in resistance.”

That probably sounds a little strong, so let me try it another way. It is the role of religion to counterbalance and offset the power of the State. Religions are to provide an independent moral voice. They are to be the conscience of the society. They are to be independent sources of meaning and autonomous centers of power. As the Yale Professor of Law Stephen Carter put it in his book The Culture of Disbelief, “Thus the very aspect of religions that many of their critics most fear – that religiously devout, in the name of their faith, take positions that differ from approved state policy - is one of their strengths…. Taking an independent path…is part of what religions are for.” Strong religions are the bulwark against totalitarianism and the protector of democracy.

One side or the other may not like the positions that the Church takes on issues like immigration, welfare reform, abortion, the universal right to healthcare, the protection of marriage, taxation, war and peace, but it is critically important that the Church speak out: not to force our opinions on society, but to question the assumptions of the dominant society and challenge voters to see questions in a different light.

Bishop Robert McElroy sums up Father Murray’s thought in this way: “Only religious belief could anchor the identity of the state in an order of justice which was deeper than the passions of the people or the whims of the rulers. Only religious values could provide a full-blown theory of the dignity of the human person, which was the sole legitimate end of the state. And only religious communities had the ethical power to awaken a moral consensus in the people of the nation and to focus that consensus again and again on the public issues which come to the fore of political life.”

- Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal