The Religion Question

Posted by Censor Librorum on May 24, 2006 | Categories: Lesbian in a Catholic Sort of Way

Karl Rove, Republican party PR mastermind, developed a winning formula. Find two or three issues, tie them to religious values, and use them to build support in niche groups and pound away at the Democrats and liberals in the media. Keep it simple with good sound bites. The proposal to amend our constitution by limiting marriage to one man-one woman may be the next such issue. Fortunately, the Bush administration is beset by so many public relations disasters of its own making (Hurricane Katrina response; Iraq; domestic spying; K Street lobbyist payoffs; ever-rising gasoline prices; illegal immigration), they are running out of juice to pimp this issue for their evangelical partners. Gay bashing, however, can still be counted on as a lucrative source of fund raising cash.

President Bush’s falling approval rating and widening credibility gap has created a wonderful opportunity for Democrats to retake Congress, energizing their grassroots in the process. But the problem with Democrats is that they can’t seem to get to a starting point. The starting point is not getting everyone to agree on everything, but getting the bulk of their supporters–for the common good–to agree on one or two issues to capture the support of the general public.

But if the Democratic party is going to have any sustained success, they need to address the public perception they fear and loathe Christianity. They need to address the religion question–where do they stand on religious values, and specifically, christian values. The majority of U.S. citizens identify themselves as christian, and say religion is a very important part of their life. To express or imply distain for christian heritage or identity is going to alienate people at their very core. Instead, do what conservatives have done so successfully: recast the appeal to these values to help people face their fears and uncertainty on change, difference and shifting cultural mores. Offer a solution to the “spiritual void” so many people feel. For example, Catholic Social Teaching, an undiscovered gem for many Catholics in the public square, can lend moral authority to many “liberal” positions on social and economic issues.

I had a little experience of this in my old parish. One member of our Social Justice Committee was a guy in his early 40s (I’ll call him “Nick”) who was a pretty conservative sort of person. During the course of every meeting, he made sure to mention his work for the government. He made no secret of his feelings for gays, pro-abortion supporters, Michael Moore fans, critics of President Bush and the Iraq war, anything that smacked of liberal Democrats, and people who dared call themselves Catholic but disagreed on the Church’s stand on homosexuality. Committee members were subject to a patriotism and religious litmus test over every initiative suggested from Pax Christi to Bread for the World. Nick would arrive at our monthly meetings with a pile of files–one for each social justice topic on the agenda. Also included for quick reference was a file filled with news items and official documents cover Church opposition to gay marriage, gay relationships, gay lifestyle, gay families, gay adoption, gay supporters, gay anything.

One day, fed up with his intimidating tactics, I had an epiphany. I took a page from his book and arrived at our committee meeting with a sheaf of documents I downloaded off the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops web site on Catholic Social Teaching. As I began to speak about my Equal Exchange Fair Trade coffee project, Nick consulted his notes, and opened his mouth to interupt. Instead, I stood up and handed him and the other members of the group materials from the USCCB and Catholic Relief Service in support of fair trade coffee. He was shocked–stunned–to see his own arrows of Church teaching fired back at him. When Nick recovered he reminded me of the bishops’ position on gay marriage. “Yes, I’m aware of it, I said, “but are you aware of their opposition to the Iraq war and capital punishment,” handing him those materials to read, “Are you aware of the bishops’ positions on trade, work, environmental issues, and budget issues as they relate to preferential treatment for the poor vs. military spending?” Judging from the look on his face, no, he hadn’t…and it was..uh..not…good news.

When it comes to Church teaching, the sun shines on Democrats as well as Republicans, and the rain falls on both as well. The bishops generally, but not exclusively, line up with conservatives on the issues of abortion, gay rights and school vouchers. They side primarily with Democrats on health care, education, budget priorities, programs for the poor, aged, and working poor; the environment, labor, trade and global peace.

Instead of shying away from religion, Democrats need to reclaim the religious values that infused and inspired so much of the social legislation of the last century. These values produced triumphs in labor law, civil rights, economic security and educational opportunity. After progressives departed organized religion in the 70s, a spiritual vaccum was created for religious conservatives to step in and run things without much opposition. This change in leadership has lead to a withered, mean-spirited and nasty Christianity, emphasizing a judging God vs. a loving God.

We should not leave religion or the public square to people who put words in God’s mouth about lesbians and gays.

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