I hope that at least a few Catholic bishops and evangelical leaders take the time to read a new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Harvard professor Robert Putnam and Notre Dame political science professor David Campbell. The authors’ research, examining the intersection of religion and politics over the last half century, offers some especially critical findings about why a growing percentage of Americans – particularly twentysomethings – now identify their religious affiliation as “none.” Writing in an a recent Los Angles Times op-ed , Putnam and Campbell identify how many young people point to faith leaders embracing conservative politics as the source of their disillusionment:
So, why this sudden jump in youthful disaffection from organized religion? The surprising answer, according to a mounting body of evidence, is politics. Very few of these new “nones” actually call themselves atheists, and many have rather conventional beliefs about God and theology. But they have been alienated from organized religion by its increasingly conservative politics…Just as this generation moved to the left on most social issues — above all, homosexuality — many prominent religious leaders moved to the right, using the issue of same-sex marriage to mobilize electoral support for conservative Republicans. In the short run, this tactic worked to increase GOP turnout, but the subsequent backlash undermined sympathy for religion among many young moderates and progressives.
It doesn’t seem that church leaders got the memo. Just yesterday, for example, we learned that Archbishop Raymond Burke, a formidable player in the 2004 presidential election after he publicly said Sen. John Kerry should be denied communion because of his position on abortion, was one of only two Americans named a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI. As religion writer David Gibson notes over at Politics Daily, Burke has said that those who voted for Obama engaged in “a form of cooperation” with evil and declared that Sen. Ted Kennedy should not be given a Catholic funeral. It’s hard to see how the Catholic Church and other Christian leaders begin to stem the tide of young Americans turning away from organized religion without some serious soul searching about their style of engagement in the political process. In an important essay for Commonweal magazine, Peter Steinfels, a Catholic and widely respected former religion writer for the New York Times, invites Catholic bishops to grapple with tough questions about this issue at their national meeting next month.
Only a few Catholic bishops have publicly acknowledged the need for this kind of critical thinking. See Archbishop Emeritus of San Francisco John Quinn’s America magazine commentary warning bishops not to become Republican partisans, and a candid National Catholic Reporter interview with Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe that makes the case for “building bridges, not burning them.” We need more church leaders confronting difficult questions and thinking more prudently about their political engagement. Reading Putnam and Campbell’s book is a good place to start.
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I admire people who have convictions and follow their conscience even when the consequences are difficult. Fr. Michael Tegeder, the pastor of St. Edward Parish in Bloomington, Minn., is clearly one of those people with a clear mind, a generous heart and an even stronger backbone. He recently went public with a disagreement he has with his boss: Archbishop John C. Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
First, some context by way of background. The archbishop is featured in a new DVD video message, developed by the state’s Catholic bishops, criticizing same- sex marriage and urging Minnesota voters to support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Over 400,000 Catholics in the state have received the DVDs, mailed just a few weeks before Minnesotans go to the polls to vote for a new governor. Two candidates running support same-sex marriage and one doesn’t. In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, the archbishop noted that this was the first time the diocese has used a mass DVD mailing to inform Catholics about specific church teachings. He referred to the DVD as a “teaching tool,” not a political statement, and said an “anonymous donor” funded the campaign.
Fr. Tegeder wrote a letter to the editor published in Minnesota’s largest newspaper, The Star Tribune, asking why this issue demanded such fervent advocacy from the diocese.
In every serious study, poverty is the top reason for marital breakdowns. It is very hard to make the case that a small percentage of the population who bond with members of their own sex and seek to live in a committed relationship could have anything but a positive effect on the general population’s appreciation of stable, faithful, life-giving unions…The bishops themselves are not united on how to approach this new reality of gays and lesbians claiming a right to have their own families publicly recognized with corresponding rights and responsibilities… Just recently the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph SchÃ¶nborn, the main author of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and friend of the pope, publicly stated that the church needs to look differently at committed same-sex relationships. His fellow Austrian bishops concurred. These are thinking, serious church leaders. They listen. The constitutional amendment being promoted by the archbishop does not allow even for civil unions, and it would limit current rights enjoyed by our gay and lesbian citizens. We as Catholics can have our own beliefs about marriage. But we must recognize that people of other faiths and of no faith have conscientious beliefs as well. Most scandalous is that Archbishop Nienstedt has compromised his office with the use of anonymous money to fund this effort. The constitutional amendment is a very political issue. The impression is given that political funding is at work here.
It’s not clear what the consequences will be for Fr. Tegeder, but this archbishop toes a hard line. He recently denied communion to about 25 college students and community members at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., because they were wearing rainbow buttons and sashes in protest of the church’s stand on gay relationships. Tegeder is not alone in his public disagreement. The artist in residence at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis for the past 15 years was recently suspended from that position when she expressed her opposition to the DVD mailings. A group of Catholics in the diocese launched a Return the DVD campaign and to date has collected over 1,500 DVDs to be sent back to the diocese. Every time they receive a DVD, the group makes a donation to St. Stephen’s Human Services and Episcopal Community Services — non-profits working to help fight poverty and end homelessness in Minnesota.
Polls show that Catholics and other people of faith hold diverse views when it comes to LGBT issues. Your position on whether gays and lesbians should be able to marry probably has as much to do with your age as your political views. The Catholic Church has every right to articulate its position on marriage in the public square, regardless of the changing winds of popular opinion. But a campaign funded by an anonymous donor just weeks before an election hardly seems to be a simple “teaching tool.” Most Catholics know what the church teaches about marriage, but many rightly wonder why a pastoral approach is often replaced by an aggressive and politicized call to arms. At a time when millions of Americans are unemployed and the number of people living in poverty has reached its highest level in a half century, how about a few DVDs on hunger, homelessness, the dignity of work?
Maybe an anonymous donor could even pick up the tab.
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As David Gibson at Politics Daily noted recently, some conservative Catholics are trying to use Catholic teaching to endorse the Tea Party.
“The pope and the tea party – these are not unrelated things. They shouldn’t be, anyway,” writes Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor-at-large of National Review Online. Lopez develops her position at HeadlineBistro.com, a Catholic site sponsored by the Knights of Columbus:
The tea party movement . . . isn’t an explicitly religious movement, by any strength. But if you talk to people who show up to the rallies, if you listen to some of the candidates who have showed up to run for office this year — to serve — it’s hard to escape this is a cultural movement of people who feel called to something greater than themselves. They dare to hope, to believe that we can be better than we have been. Of course, they dare to hope that we can be better when it comes to government spending, better when it comes to seriousness about homeland security, better when it comes to making people freer to make choices that are best for their families, and so on.
Lopez specifically touts Florida Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio and House GOP Rep. Paul Ryan, both Catholics and Tea Party heroes, as “among those who give a most compelling voice to people’s fears about the future of the American idea, the experiment that Pope Benedict spoke with respect and admiration of when he came here to visit” in April 2008.
Making a connection between Tea Party principles and the words of Pope Benedict XVI is a stunning distortion of Catholic teaching about government. Catholic teaching is unequivocal about the essential role government has in serving the common good and warns about the dangers of markets that fail to protect human dignity. In fact, the pope’s latest encyclical calls for a fundamental rethinking of economic systems that solely benefit multinational corporations at the expense of citizens, especially the poor and vulnerable. Lopez also might want to dust off her Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, released by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace:
The responsibility for attaining the common good, besides falling to individual persons, belongs also to the State, since the common good is the reason the political authority exists. The state, in fact, must guarantee the coherency, unity and organization of the civil society of which it is an expression…The individual person, the family or intermediate groups are not able to achieve their full development by themselves for living a truly human life…To ensure the common good, the government of each country has the specific duty to harmonize the different sectoral interests with the requirements of justice.
Sure doesn’t sound like a bold endorsement of Tea Party ideology or the warmed-over talking points about small government found in the Pledge to America.
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FPL held a press teleconference today featuring national security experts and diverse faith leaders making a compelling argument in favor of the Park51 Islamic Center and mosque near Ground Zero: the project not only has the legal right to move forward, it should be encouraged to do so because it would promote national security and embody American values of pluralism, religious liberty and interfaith cooperation.
Speakers included national security experts Matthew Alexander, a former high-level military interrogator in Iraq, and Andrew Bacevich, a nationally recognized expert on the military and international relations, as well as powerful voices (and strong allies!) from the faith community – Simon Greer of Jewish Funds for Justice, Lisa Sharon Harper of New York Faith & Justice, and David Gushee of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. (Full-length audio of the call is here.) Individually and as a group, they made a compelling case in support of the Park51 Islamic Center, and gave political opportunists who have used fear-mongering rhetoric to stoke opposition to the mosque the stinging rebuke they deserve. Quotes from each of the speakers are after the jump:
“Park51 would be a powerful symbol of U.S. tolerance and freedom that will stand in direct contradiction to al Qaeda’s narrative that Americans hate Muslims. As a symbol, its construction demonstrates that the U.S. is not at war with Islam and that Muslims are welcome in America. It communicates a message of moderation that stands in stark contrast to al Qaeda’s bankrupt ideology. Symbols like this matter. Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and the policy of torture and abuse handed al Qaeda its number one recruiting tool. Those who think al Qaeda will not be able to spin this controversy to their advantage are disastrously mistaken.”
Lisa Sharon Harper:
“As a New Yorker, I feel this debate in a very personal way–the area where Park51 is being proposed is not on Ground Zero. It is in a quiet community that has had an active Muslim population for centuries. The Muslims in the community have loved their neighborhood. They have loved their neighbors. We cannot allow Al Qaeda to gut us of our soul. We need this community center and mosque. It is America’s opportunity to put the words of Jesus to work. It is our opportunity to love our neighbors back.”
“We seem to be in a fight over what 9/11 is to mean in this country over the long term. We should remember that in the aftermath of 9/11, America came together in a show of unity and cooperation. Let’s hold our political leaders, and ourselves, accountable for returning to that spirit. 9/11 cannot be taken to mean a permanent state of fear, anger, and grief, nor the directing of all of that at our fellow Muslims.”
“As a minority community with a history of persecution and exclusion at the hands of the majority, how can we not appreciate the dangers of a society in which it is acceptable to persecute and exclude minority communities, in which the individual is always placed over the collective? Our safety and security and prosperity in this country are directly related to the success we have had, with others, at making the United States a more inclusive place, with more interconnected communities.”
“Speaking as a Catholic – a religion subject to considerable discrimination – I cherish the fact that I can be a full citizen and also be committed to my faith tradition. I find it unacceptable and deeply un-American to deny adherents of other faith traditions the freedoms I have enjoyed. Whether intentionally or not, the contrived mosque controversy wrongly and wrong-headedly conveys the impression that the United States views Islam itself as a national security threat.”
Other quotes and more information here: http://faithinpubliclife.org/content/press/2010/09/faith_leaders_national_securit.html
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Rather than portraying the Cordoba House/Park51 Islamic Center and mosque in Manhattan as what it actually is — a center promoting interfaith relations, combating extremism, and offering community programs for people of all religious backgrounds — opponents of the proposed complex such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have stirred up a great deal of publicity by labeling it an “insult” and a “provocation.”
Today more than 40 prominent, diverse faith leaders and religion scholars in New York and across the country issued a statement calling the rhetoric of pundits like Palin and Gingrich exactly what it is — an appeal to “xenophobia and religious bigotry.” The statement, signed by leaders ranging from Simon Greer of Jewish Funds for Justice to National Council of Churches President Peg Chemberlin to Salam Al-Marayati, President of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, argues that Cordoba House opponents “would make a more lasting contribution to our nation if they stopped issuing inflammatory statements and instead helped inspire a civil dialogue between Christians, Jews and Muslims committed to a future guided by the principles of compassion, justice and peace.” The entire statement and list if signatories, including numerous rabbis, is here.
Faithful America – Faith in Public Life’s online community of more than 100,000 people of diverse faiths – is also standing up to anti-Muslim sentiment and fierce opposition to proposed mosques in communities across the country by circulating and signing a petition to honor the “many contributions of American Muslims toward global peace” and denounce bigotry and limits on religious freedom as a betrayal of American values. The petition will be sent not only to American Muslim leaders, but also to Gingrich and Palin. Sign it here.
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