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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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November 25, 2003 
Vol. 1, No. 35

  The rise of the other religious voice in the public arena
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

Nadine Gordimer wrote: "The greatest veneration one can show the rule of law is to keep a watch on it and to reserve the right to judge unjust laws. " Maybe -- but nobody likes the idea much. At least not if the watchers and the judges are religious types.

This country speaks very easily about the social, economic or political dimensions of a piece of legislation, of course. But we are far less comfortable with exploring the spiritual or moral effects of political actions. That, we seem to believe, must be reserved for the privacy of conscience.

Questioning the role of the church in politics is a constantly recurring preoccupation in American life. The Founding Fathers struggled with the issue and so do we.

Since the rise of the Christian Coalition with its emphasis on prayer in schools and anti-abortion legislation, for instance, religious participation in the public arena has, in fact, been a hotly contested one. Largely associated with fundamentalist traditions and the preachers who lead them -- Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart -- the coalition became suspect for attempting to impose denominational and single-issue ethics on the civil world.

At the same time, Roman Catholic bishops, the National Jewish Congress, the World Council of Churches and the religious conventions of almost every major denomination in the country issue major policy statements on national political proposals regularly. Unlike the work of the Christian Coalition, which sets out to organize resistance to given topics, those statements seldom trickle down to the people in the pews. Or, at least the ministers of these groups do not commonly mobilize to promote them.

As a class, barring moments of great national moral crisis -- slavery, the Vietnam war, desegregation, abortion -- professional religious types have been largely silent on public topics.

But the time of general religious disinterest in the moral consequences of public action may be fast coming to an end. A new group, the Clergy Leadership Network (, has emerged as the other voice, the liberal voice, of religion. CLN's avowed goal is "changes in our nation's political leadership and changes in failing public policies."

CLN sets out to galvanize the moral sensitivities of ministers, pastoral professionals, imams, and rabbis "as well as those with broader leadership roles in religious communities to participate (in the electoral process) in ways allowed to every citizen. ..."

The question is, should they?

Issues abound, of course. Seldom has the nation been at a clearer crossroads in terms of human rights and social equity than now.

The elderly lack health care.

Ten million children lack medical insurance.

Legislation passed to preserve the environment has been rolled back for the sake of corporate profit-making.

The economy has grown 7.2% but the number of listed unemployed is 6.1% in the same period.

Welfare for the poor -- called food programs -- is criticized, but welfare for the rich -- called tax breaks (taxes being the very well from which support for social program must be drawn) -- is applauded.

The United States is fast making itself into a military empire -- "using its power to make the world good," one leader of the Christian Coalition put it -- while the rest of the world grows more and more soured toward it.

Clearly, the seriousness of current issues is not what's in question. The need to "keep a watch on the law and judge unjust laws" is not what's in question. What's in question is whether or not ministers of organized religious groups have a right to participate publicly in a "religious assessment of the impact of public policies."

Three major arguments underlie the tension.

  • The first argument commonly used to curtail the activity of religious ministers in public affairs involves the age-old American commitment to the separation of church and state.
  • The second argument, at least for Catholics but a moral prescript for other denominations as well, lies in the pope's prescript against the involvement of priests and nuns in politics.
  • The third argument used as a firewall against the incursion of religious types into the political system is the words of Jesus himself, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God's."

The arguments are sound. The use of them to render the religious community comatose in the face of moral compromise with social evil is not.

  • The Founding Fathers' concept of "separation of church and state" intended only to save the United States the peril of any single state religion, the type of which had upset European stability for almost 200 years before them. The purpose of the separation clause was not to staunch religious thought in the new republic. On the contrary, it was to make all religions and all religious thought welcome in a democratic society's pursuit of wisdom.
  • The pope's proscription against the involvement of clergy in the political system --wisdom won the hard way after centuries of church-state involvement -- has nothing whatsoever to do with the involvement of clergy in political discourse. It is designed to keep the church free of the political process, not gagged from political debate. If anything, the Pope John Paul himself models the impact of the religious figure in public discussion.
  • Finally, Jesus' words that we must "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's" are fair warning that we must not give Caesar more than his due. The fact is that there is a law about the law which we are all beholden to use to assess the laws around us.

Clearly, the call of the Clergy Leadership Network ( for church professionals to hold voting registration events, to provide issue information, to sponsor seminars that evaluate social legislation from the point of view of the gospel values of peace, justice and compassion, and to advocate for change marks another urgent time in US history.

From where I stand, in a society whose present laws and legislation are shaping an entirely different society -- an entirely different world -- than as citizens we thought being American guaranteed, the CLN may be emerging just in time. As Edmund Burke warned us: "An event has happened, upon which it is difficult to speak, and impossible to be silent."

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