May 20, 2018

Political engagement and the Holy Spirit

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *
United States Flag / Photo Credit: Joshua Hoehne-Unsplash
United States Flag / Photo Credit: Joshua Hoehne-Unsplash

Since 2010, world leaders, movie stars, CEOs, artists, and political activists have been meeting annually in New York for the Women in the World Summit. This gathering has become one of America’s most famous forums to foster women’s rights. In 2015, on the eve of launching her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton gave the keynote address. Her remarks sparked an immediate firestorm of comments and controversy over the endangered right of religious freedom.

Ms. Clinton proclaimed rather apodictically that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.” To be fair, it must be said that she was speaking directly about abortion. Nonetheless, she was introducing into the political discussion her thesis that government decisions trump individual conscience. Whether she intended it or not, Ms. Clinton’s words amounted to an effort to marginalize all those who do not accept the absolute right of government to dictate religious beliefs and to punish those who refuse to accept its decisions.

If the government can mandate abortion and demand that everyone conforms, then why can it not demand other things? It logically follows that the government would be able to dictate euthanasia for the terminally ill and the elderly and then punish those who refuse to commit these acts on the basis of their religious conviction. With the legalization of same-sex marriages, the government has already changed its definition of marriage and those who refuse to conform by changing their beliefs are already being dragged into our courts.

Our country has been able to survive a number of leaders whose personal lives were less than exemplary. We have had at least seven presidents who have had extramarital affairs while in office.

But, they were not strident in changing the moral values of the country. They simply gave in to human weakness. This is quite different from a leader announcing that religion itself must change according to the beliefs of the leader of the nation. No free nation can survive if that becomes the accepted philosophy of governing.

An individual who proposes that people must change their beliefs to be in line with government policies never rises to political prominence unless there are others who support such a view. Obviously, there are many others who either aggressively support or tacitly accept Ms. Clinton’s proposal. She is not alone. And this is even more disturbing.

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States prohibits the establishment of a religion as the official religion of the nation. But, it also protects the free exercise of religion on the part of individuals. In no way did our Founding Fathers intend to push religious beliefs from the public forum. The separation of church and state, so important to the well-functioning of our society, was never intended to secularize the public debate.

Wilfred McClay, a distinguished professor of intellectual history at the University of Oklahoma, makes a valid distinction between political secularism and philosophical secularism. On the one hand, philosophical secularism is antagonistic to religion. It seeks to remove it completely from any political discussion and replace religion with unbelief. On the other hand, political secularism is what the Founding Fathers envisioned for our Republic. It does not favor one religion over another. But, it does accept the role of religion within society.

Religion is never merely a personal matter. One’s beliefs shape one’s behavior and actions that affect others. Certainly, Christians have known this from the very beginning. When the Holy Spirit came down on the first disciples on Pentecost, he came to draw believers into a deeper communion with God through the Risen Lord. He came to unite all believers in the Church which Jesus himself founded. And, he came to impel Christians into the world to change the world.

Faith in Jesus can never be individualized so as to exclude any involvement in the affairs of one’s nation. Perhaps, this is one of the unspoken sins of many believers. They are willing to profess to be Christian while leaving their beliefs out of their political choices.

By not bringing the morality of the gospel into politics, we are allowing philosophical secularism and relativism to sink their roots deep within our soil and choke the consciences of many. No wonder we are now confronted with those who say that religious people should keep their values to themselves. The results are obvious and disastrous. Pornography. Abortion. Euthanasia. Dishonesty at the highest levels of government. The plague of poverty and violence, especially in our cities. In a word, the more religious values are driven from society, the more blatant is the disregard for the dignity of the human person.

In a pluralistic society, the political spirit of any age tries to form alliances among people of divergent opinions and beliefs. It looks to impose a conformity through the strategy of compromise. But neither truth nor morality can be sacrificed on the gibbet of expediency. In a representative democracy, every citizen is responsible for the choice of leaders who are honest, upright and steadfast in promoting policies that are moral. Every believer who professes the Lordship of Jesus, therefore, can never remove himself or herself from the politics of the nation. In fact, it is when committed Christians hand their future over not to the political spirit, but to the Holy Spirit that society changes for the better.

Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.