We hear it in various forms. Some complain that the church should not be speaking out on divisive issues, but instead should spend its time and resources feeding the poor and spreading God’s love.
Others say the church as a religious organization should have no role in the formation of civil laws. Still others complain that the church should not be weighing in on so many issues where there seems to be legitimate room for disagreement.
So, what is the role of the church in public policy debates?
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it well: The church “is not the master, nor the servant, of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”
Catholics, individually and as a community, have a religious obligation to speak out on behalf of human dignity and the common good. We are our brother’s keeper and must seek to promote laws that foster justice and human flourishing.
Proposing, not imposing
That same responsibility compelled Rev. King, a Baptist minister, to work for civil rights. And today we all celebrate his witness, which relied heavily on the truths of the Bible, natural law and the founding principles of the American republic.
But aren’t we forcing our opinions on others? Absolutely not. The church can only propose; she never imposes. The church must convince others of the reasonableness of her views and make arguments that are persuasive to people of diverse faiths and people outside the various religious traditions.
Fortunately, we know all truth is one, because it originates in the logos of God. The truths of reason complement and reinforce the truths we know from faith and vice versa. Thus, Catholics are ideally situated to bring an effective Christian witness into the realm of politics.
Unfortunately, the well-worn and thoroughly discredited view that Catholic participation in politics somehow violates the “separation of church and state” continues to gain adherents, and even more so these days when the failings of the church’s members are all too visible.
But Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” metaphor (not found in the Constitution) was meant to ensure that the state would not interfere in the life and mission of the nation’s churches, not to silence religious people from speaking about public affairs. In other words, the First Amendment protects religious people from government, not government from religious people.
The ‘naked public square’
Banishing religious voices would result in what the late Father Richard John Neuhaus described as the “naked public square.” By that phrase, Father Neuhaus was describing a world in which religion was completely privatized.
Imposing the “naked public square,” however, would deprive this land of the public moral witness and social capital the framers of our Constitution believed was necessary to sustain the American experiment in ordered liberty.
That experiment was tied to the recognition that all persons are created equal and endowed by a Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Thus, the political deliberations of our representative democracy must be grounded in “self-evident truths” reflective of a respect for the universal moral law built into the fabric of nature by the Creator or — as the Declaration of Independence says — “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God.”
Promoting dignity, justice
As good citizens and people of faith, the church must remind American society of the universal moral law upon which its foundations were laid so as to promote human dignity, justice and the common good.
It must do so even when those truths are unpopular. Our voice of conscience will result in many complaints that we are supposedly infringing on others’ rights and violating the unspoken social compact that we keep our theology to ourselves.
It may even require the church to suffer. But our responsibility to animate the body politic with the soul of moral truth compels us to speak.
We will not remain silent.
Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.