Can religion say that?
The fact that this may be my last column for the Collegian, at least for a while, gives me the stones to explore a subject that I normally try to avoid. Religion.
The reason I feel it is necessary to “go there” is a result of the recent brouhaha between Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island and the head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, R.I., Bishop Thomas Tobin. Their conflict stems from the fact that Kennedy is a staunch advocate of abortion rights, which places him in direct opposition to Roman Catholic theology.
Kennedy’s feud with Bishop Tobin has apparently been brewing since February 2007, when the Bishop requested that he no longer take Communion, one of the basic rites of the Catholic Church. Things heated up in October of this year when Kennedy criticized the church for opposing the health care reform bill then under consideration because of its subsidies for abortion, and really got nasty after Kennedy voted against the Stupak Amendment.
The reaction to their feud worries me because of the widespread lack of understanding of the separation between government and religion enshrined in our Constitution.
To be sure, most of us are leery about mixing religion with politics, and rightly so. Our nation was founded, in part, in response to the religious oppressions and orthodoxies of our European forebears. As such, a prohibition against government interference in what religion we choose to adhere to, and how we choose to express that adherence, is written into our fundamental laws in the Bill of Rights.
However, the generally hyperbolic rhetoric of responders on websites across the political spectrum, not to mention more mainstream pundits such as Chris Matthews and Larry O’Donnell of MSNBC, all have one thing in common; a misconception that the First Amendment prohibits religious groups from expressing their political views.
Simply put, there is nothing in the Constitution to prevent religious people or organizations from trying to influence the policies of our government. The First Amendment states that the government will not get involved in religion, either by favoring one over any other or by interfering with how individuals choose to practice their faith, yet religious groups and people have the same right as everyone to express their political views.
Clearly, if the government were to pass a law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” there would be a constitutional issue to argue. However, the same amendment that protects religion from the influence of government extends everyone the right to speak out on the functioning of government at all levels. There is no exception to that fundamental law because of a person’s religion, not even for those who hold high office in a religious organization, like a church.
Furthermore, one result of the way the constitutional separation of government from religion is structured is that there will be occasions when a person’s opinions on politics and government will conflict with some aspect of their religious ideology. In those cases, each of us must be free to decide for ourselves which will take precedence, civics or theology.
However, the flip-side of that separation coin is that a centrally organized religion, such as the Catholic Church, has the right to decide what rules a person must follow if they wish to be considered a faithful observer of that theology. The church must have the right to determine what beliefs are and are not a part of its faith and the government cannot decree they accept those who do not accept those beliefs.
This does not mean that Patrick Kennedy cannot call himself a “Catholic,” and he plainly has a right to continue to consider himself a follower of that faith if he so chooses. However, the Roman Catholic Church has the right to refuse to allow him to participate in its rituals if he does not live up to all of their rules.
While it is true that Bishop Tobin is among a small minority of Roman Catholic leaders who have chosen to take such a hard stance regarding the opinions and actions of pro-abortion Catholic politicians, the Constitution requires that any decision as to the propriety of his actions must be left to the authority of the Vatican.
Congressman Kennedy is equally free to choose to disregard those views in supporting abortion rights, but he has no right to demand that the church accept him despite his violation of its tenets. The church cannot force him to follow its rules, but neither can he require it to break them by giving him Communion.
Unless we choose to repeal the First Amendment, it cannot be done any other way, and I don’t think we really want to go there. Do you?
Ben Rudnick is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.