Respecting America's Religious Heritage within a Free and Disestablished Government

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Two items of what I will call “political malpractice” occurred in the past 14 days.  First, the “Komen for the Cure” foundation ignored the politics of related to the complicated morality, sensibilities and realities related to sex and the rights to choice and life.  By falsely cancelling Planned Parenthood funding based on a political investigation, the previously non-partisan organization hurt its brand by failing to see that clear political impact of a manifestly partisan decision.    

Later, the Obama administration committed Political Malpractice by ignoring the advice of its Catholic Vice President and Catholic High administration officials, who advised against such a plan without taking Catholic sensibilities into account.  

These two episodes of political mis-stepping highlights my favorite expression from law school, which is “even a dog knows the difference between being kicked and being tripped over.”  Of course that means that even when a person cannot articulate the reason why, people (and even intelligent animals) know the difference between accidental error and intentional injury.

While the Komen malpractice appears to this observer to have been intentional, and the supporters of Planned Parenthood clearly believed it to be intentional, President Obama's Political Malpractice appears to have been accidental.  Of course, that is was accidental makes it even worse, because this means it was unnecessary and avoidable.

America is a Uniquely Religious (and Secular) Nation

This raises two important points – 1) America is a uniquely religious nation; and 2) there is a growing divide between the parties based on religious practice that is bad for America.

The fact is that America occupies a unique place in the Western World.  America is both the first nation in the West to have disestablished religion and is also perhaps the most religious nation in the West.  Indeed, 43% of Americans regularly attend a church (23% every weekend).  

This amount of regular attendance is bested only by two European nations where the Catholic Church had been historically persecuted by former authorities: Ireland (54%) and Poland (63%).

Separation of Church and State Protects both the Church and State

While America is among the most religious, it is also the most disestablished.  (Indeed, America is most likely religious exactly because of our disestablishment).  The idea of Separation of Church and State is a uniquely American invention.  It was invented as a Christian Doctrine, by Baptists in Rhode Island and Presbyterians in Connecticut well before our revolution.  

The purpose for this doctrine was to protect the Church from the improper influences of politicians who would use the church as a basis to support political power and personal ambition.  

For example, the Baptist Minister Roger Williams left Puritan Massachusetts and founded the religiously tolerant colony of Rhode Island, naming the Capital Providence, because he was certain that God wanted believers free to choose their own church based on conviction and not coercion.  The resulting American adoption of disestablishment has produced a legal doctrine on the Separation of Church and State that has kept American religion vibrant because Americans are free to follow their conscience.  

Of course, there is little doubt that the absence of religious test, incorporated into the Constitution produces a better government.

Recent Political Trends

Recently, there has been a growing divide among the political parties as to the religious experience of each party's supporters.  According to recent Gallup survey, one can predict church attendance by party affiliation as follows:  

Attend Worship Weekly: GOP-43% Dem-29%  US Avg. 33%

Attend seldom or never: GOP-38% Dem-52% US Avg. 46%

No Religious Preference: GOP- 9% Dem- 19%

The 52% of Democrats that seldom or never attend church in 2011, is an increase of 2% since the identical 2008 Gallup poll.   “The slight two-point decrease in Democrats who attend church weekly is similar to the one-point decrease in the national adult sample,” Gallup said.  The survey also reported a decline in Catholic representation from 26% percent of Democrats in 2008 to 24% in 2011.So, How do All of These Collide?

Sense the majority of Democrats are not church goers, yet an important portion of them are, it is all too easy for the Democratic Party to forget the religious sensibilities of its party members.  There is no doubt that the GOP actively seeks to wrap itself up in the trappings of religiousity.  This author views this as a bad thing – I detest such abuse of religious adherence for partisan political power and wish the Church would seek to remain free from Political entanglement, while remaining free to be a voice for moral forces within our political decisions and culture.  For example, I doubt anyone who views this Blog would be upset when Christians use their devotion to the words of Christ to feed poor, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and seek the government to be more compassionate in having safety nets for the “least of these” among us.  I too, see my faith as a basis for seeking a society of Justice, where all who play by the rules and are willing to work hard have an opportunity to have a living wage, a decent home and the ability to raise a family of their choice.          

Preventing Political Malpractice While Maintaining Sound Policy

This leads us back to President Obama's decision related to access to contraception.  I must admit as a Protestant who enjoys the benefits of science within my marital relationship, I disagree with the Catholic position on contraception.  (Disclosure – I attend a United Methodist Church twice a week).  Even more, I disagree with the imposition of a peculiarly Catholic Doctrine on American public policy.  I love that each of our four children were part of a prayerfully entered plan for our life.  

Even so, I respect my Catholic brothers and sisters who disagree.

In determining how to reach a laudable goal of 100% access to full healthcare options, we must insure that those who have heartfelt disagreement with our positions feel we are treating them with respect and dignity.  After all, Catholics are a lot smarter than dogs, and “even a dog knows the difference between being kicked and being tripped over.”  

If we wish the important 24% of Catholics who vote Democrat to remain in our party, we must act with the knowledge that slights to religious sensibilities, even if accidental are often incapable of being articulated.  Even so, these slights, when perceived, will impact future voting habits.  Yes, 98% of Catholic women, according to some reports, have used birth control in one time of their lives. But even these women want their Church treated with respect.  

Whether the Administration's current compromise is successful, or whether an additional accommodation like the Hawaii or West Virginia compromises are needed, we can be a nation that maintains religious sensibilities and freedom of conscience in a manner that still supports sound, scientific public policy.  


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