Faith has always played a role in American politics. This has been true from the moment George Washington swore the first presidential oath of office with one hand placed on the Bible in 1789, up until this very day.
Washington D.C. was electrified last week as the head of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, addressed a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress on Thursday. Republicans and Democrats alike stood in unison, giving an enthusiastic expression of applause when he entered the room.
It is truly amazing to see how far Catholicism has come in America in such a relatively short amount of time. It wasn’t until 1928 that a Catholic, Alfred E. Smith, was nominated to the presidency of the U.S. Not until John F. Kennedy’s victory in 1960 did a Catholic actually make it in to the Oval Office.
As of 2014, there are nearly 80 million self-identified Catholics in the country, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
What Pope Francis had to say
During his speech, Pope Francis gave his opinion on several key issues he felt were important enough to bring to the attention of the world’s most powerful legislative body.
In watching his roughly 50-minute speech, the most interesting thing worth noting was how this man of God seemed to decisively divide the room of lawmakers almost effortlessly. The most controversial issues he mentioned were climate change, abortion and capital punishment.
Religion, and in this case Catholicism, creates a serious dilemma for politicians who have to choose between following the stances that their church’s leader has or staying consistent with their political party’s ideology.
In addressing faith in politics, I will be commenting on the problem Catholics face. That’s not to say that Protestants, Jews or Muslims don’t have similar dilemmas. The reasons for observing Catholicism include the Pope’s recent U.S. visit and also the fact that the Catholic Church has a strict hierarchy that shapes the beliefs of the church as a whole, whereas these other faiths do not.
How did the religious politicians react?
The most vivid imagery of this bind lawmakers find themselves in came when Pope Francis made his proclamation for the “abolition of the death penalty.” The Democrats in Congress cheered in support, while the GOP members remained quiet.
The scene behind the Pope was a tale of two Catholic politicians reacting differently. Democratic Vice President Joe Biden clapped upon hearing the statement, while Republican (and soon to be former) House Majority Leader John Boehner sat and twiddled his thumbs. He very literally twiddled his thumbs, as if he was sizing up the response of his fellow party members rather than acting too rashly.
A man in Boehner’s position is under intense scrutiny from both sides of the political spectrum. As a result, he was better off not taking a risk and alienating himself from his party, so he did nothing. The Pope made a statement and he chose not to display any support whatsoever, playing it safe rather than sorry.
Climate change is one of the more clearer splits in the current political landscape. Some believe it is a serious threat to our planet, while some feel it is not worth sacrificing economic prosperity, and others fall somewhere in between.
His Holiness made his views clear that climate change does need to be addressed.
“… to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity,” he said. “I am convinced that we can make a difference … and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play.”
Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona went so far as to boycott the Pope’s visit to the capital. The conservative Catholic, in a Sep. 17 post on the right wing website Townhall regarding the Pope’s stance on the environment, said “But when the Pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one.”
The one thing that can be admired about Gosar is that at least he is straightforward. Pope Francis did not line up with his political ideology, so therefore he loses his support. Not only did he speak out against him, he wouldn’t even be in the same room as the leader of his own church.
Gosar chose the party over the Pope.
Republican Catholics are not the only ones who deviate from the church when it comes to politics. Biden has done so in his stance on abortion. Pope Francis reaffirmed the Church’s stance that life must be protected at “every stage of it’s development.”
In the 2012 vice presidential debate with Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the vice president said that he accepted the Catholic Church’s stance on the issue but finishes, “… I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians, and Muslims and Jews …”
With that being said, the vice president then is implying that he leads secularly when it comes to politics. But if that is the case, then why did he even show up to listen to Pope Francis speak? Why even let the world know he is Catholic? A secularly-inclined politician would have no need to hear whatever suggestions a leader of a religious institution would have to say.
It seems that Biden likes to talk Catholicism, but doesn’t seem to let it have an influence on hot-button issues that might deviate from the Democratic Party.
What does this all mean?
Politicians love to cite their faith when it is convenient. But when faith gets in the way of politics, they seem to get quiet. Like when Republicans heard the Pope’s death penalty comment, or his abortion line for the Democrats.
Maybe as a political system, we shouldn’t put religion on such a high pedestal. If religion helps lawmakers in one way or another, that’s fine. They are guaranteed that right by the First Amendment.
What they should do is maybe not try to broadcast it whenever possible to score points with certain members of the electorate. Keep religion personal. This way, when they do deviate from the teachings of their church, it doesn’t come off as hypocrisy. And if we are sitting around calling politicians hypocrites for preaching but not acting, it takes the focus off important issues that face our country.
Kennedy said it best when running for president while speaking of his religion: “I want a chief executive whose public acts are responsible to all groups and obligated to none; who can attend any ceremony, service or dinner his office may appropriately require of him; and whose fulfillment of his presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation.”
Brent Kennedy is a senior in political science.