I scoff at myself after each presidential election cycle and vow to be a good little clergyman next time: I will embrace sentiment behind the first line of a March interview with my favorite Catholic priest, Father James Martin, S.J.: “I try to stay as far away from political commentary as possible.”
I’ll do it. It’ll happen. I’ll flee all Democrats, Republicans, Green Partiers and even pickled Whigs. I’ll articulate my stances on vital issues but hide my vote in my secret box. I promise. Cross my heart and hope to die. I’d rather write about theology and spirituality anyway.
But the perennial dilemma rears its head with the next campaign: The GOP has morphed into the POB without shame. The devolution from the Grand Old Party to the Party Of Brats began in earnest with Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and its thinly-veiled race baiting, which set the stage for Newt Gingrich’s character assassinations, followed by Willie Horton ads and Swift Boat ads and rich draft-dodgers cross-examining the patriotism of medaled war veterans. Muck and mire and mud prevailed in 2008 along with Sarah Palin’s ignorance-is-bliss politics, after which Mitt Romney flip-flopped like a fish out of water in 2012.
Surprise-surprise and wonder of wonders: The supposedly respectable members of the “establishment” POB feign the shock of frock-coated Victorian gentry: They’ve been dumped on The Donald’s doorstep. Who did this to us and why? They ask this even after purging their party of its former backbone, the Eisenhower-Rockefeller moderate-to-liberal, and cultivating the politics of fear, hatred, and xenophobia – disingenuously playing church organs to religious voters with their anti-abortion and “family values” stances.
A question to my fellow pro-lifers: Did the POB do anything about abortion when it had the chance?
The establishment POB members failed to grasp that they were writing the notes of a sour recital now performed by the brat par excellence: a foul-mouthed racist misogynist bigot wife-dumper huckster strip-club owner who closes businesses as rapidly as Popeye gulps spinach. Religious leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr., dance with enthusiasm to his tune.
And there’s the rub: If no one answers Falwell and others like him, the wider public will inevitably conclude that Donald Trump has the religious stamp of approval. Fleeing political commentary becomes a political gesture in itself.
What to do? Must I violate my pledge again? Will someone guide me?
Wisdom from nearby
Actually, Martin offers sage advice deeper into his interview, transcribed in the Fordham Political Review:
Priests [and other clerics] are supposed to be non-partisan; the Church is supposed to be non-partisan. However, I also think it’s important to proclaim the Gospel, and sometimes the Gospel message has political implications. So if you say that you need to care for the poor and the marginalized, and one party’s doing that and one party is not, then so be it. Sometimes what one says has political implications, but that’s not why I say it.
Martin is distinguishes between partisanship (the active support of a given political party) and politics, an Anglicized Greek word meaning, “of, for, or related to citizens.” Retrieving the word’s original meaning illuminates the obvious: Every social opinion has political implications. It also helps clerics grasp their civic role. We’re more prophetic than partisan. We speak spiritual and moral truth to power, whatever party is in control. As Martin says:
There’s definitely a duty to speak out – even in political matters. The great issues of our day are often political issues of the day, and the Church needs to be, and has always been, an active participant in the public square. That’s part of our role. The boundary is advocating explicitly for one political party or another, or telling people what candidate to vote for.
But how do we avoid partisanship in the year of Donald Trump? One remedy is to criticize both major parties with equal vehemence, but that dilutes the Trump critique and gives the impression of moral equivalence. Clearly, Hillary Clinton is a flawed candidate and merits prophetic scrutiny – and, in my opinion, the Democrats deserve a tongue lashing over their abortion stance. But Trump is the US equivalent of a banana republic’s thug. He is an existential threat to everything America stands for and a mockery to the label, “evangelical,” which he claims. Worst of all, the flag-waving POB leaders are falling in line with their endorsements as if he were just another brat.
Wisdom from afar
Again, there is guidance, this time from history. In 1934, German church representatives met and issued The Theological Declaration of Barmen, which protested the Nazification of their piety and administration. They were specific. They did not fire salvos at the Social Democrats in the guise of false “fairness.” Such criticism would have proven laughable. Hitler had banned the party and imprisoned many of its leaders.
I’ll come clean: I’m a registered, pro-life Democrat and I involved myself in local Democratic politics in the past, but I’ve since distanced myself from raw partisanship. It is almost always best for clergy to help shape the conscience of their church members (all Christians should be concerned about the poor and the helpless) and then leave policy details to voters and politicians (that nearly extinct species called the “moderate Republican” offered compelling, free-enterprise solutions that deserve a hearing). I should be extremely wary of branding one party with the cross.
I would steer clear of criticizing one candidate over another in normal election years, but this is not a normal election year – and the POB is no longer a “normal” political party. As Norman Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann have said, it is now an “outlier.”
Martin rightly says we should not tell people who to vote for. He also reminds us that we should be humble. How true. But there comes the moment when we must caution ourselves against paralyzing caution bombardments and remember that “humility” can become a foil behind which we retreat to avoid our prophetic responsibility. Evangelical Christians have exercised such duties vis-à-vis the Democrats. We cannot have it both ways. It is time we hold a mirror to the Republican Party and tell it: “This is the picture-perfect image of a brat.”