Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Can religion say that?

By Ben Rudnick

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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 [email protected].


3 Responses to “Can religion say that?”

  1. Ed on December 9th, 2009 10:54 am

    There are three important points here.

    First as to “the widespread lack of understanding of the separation between government and religion enshrined in our Constitution” — THE FIRST AMENDMENT HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH SEPARATING CHURCH AND STATE AND EVERYTHING TO DO WITH SAYING THAT THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT COULDN’T STIPULATE *WHICH* CHURCH WOULD BE THE OFFICIAL ONE IN EACH STATE!!!!!

    Remember that in 1787, each state was an independent country and each state had its own official religion — and the Constitution was a federation (hence “Federal” Government) of quasi-independent states. This changed in 1960 with the Civil War and then again in 1960 with the Great Society, but the origional intent was more along the lines of the European Union.

    Massachusetts (and Massachusetts-founded Connecticut) was Puritan — the Puritan (now Congregational, now UCC/UCCC/UCCCC) Church would remain the taxpayer-supported church until 1855. Virginia was “fallen” Anglican, in 1787 the “churches stood open” and were largely abandoned. Maryland was Catholic, Pennsylvania Quaker.

    Remember too that every President before Jackson came from either Massachusetts or Virginia. The fear was that powerful Massachusetts would impose its Puritan faith – John Adams was the son in law of a minister – or that Virginia would impose Thomas Jefferson’s agnostic beliefs. The deal was that the Federal Government wouldn’t impose anything on the states, who could have whatever religion they wanted — and they could impose it on their own citizens as they desired.

    Second, the whole issue of the Second Amendment applies here – if the states have the power to regulate guns because the 14th Amendment (of 1867) doesn’t extend the ban on the Federal power to the States, then the First Amendment also is equally limited. Which, of course, means that a *state* could outright ban abortion as the Roe case is a First Amendment case – a point many people miss….

    Third, and perhaps most important, this issue defines the distinction between the Catholic and Protestant faiths. The Catholics believe in a organized structure who authorizes the priest to define the religion while the Protestants consider the minister to be essentially a Town Manager – re-elected each year in an annual church meeting where the minister’s salary is also set. The flip side of this is that while the Catholics have confession where the priest can give forgiveness for sins, the Protestants do not and individuals have to address such issues individually with the Almighty.

    So the question I have – more than anything else – is if Congressman Kennedy believes in the authority of the Vatican to tell him what to believe – which he does if he considers him self Catholic (and not Protestant) – then what is the issue? If he wishes to make his own personal definitions on ethical/religious matters, then he is, by definition, a Protestant….


  2. ED II on December 9th, 2009 10:25 pm

    I want to be ED I. He is insightful. Lets make abortion illegitimate


  3. JJ on December 10th, 2009 7:46 am

    Ed, thanks for the insightful response. I only have one response. You are grouping Protestants and basically saying that they are this or that. The reality there are so many different forms of protestants, some with barely any discernable differences from catholasism. Also I know very few protestant religions that actually elect their clergy. In every Christian faith the clergy is considered an interpreter more than anything. They interpret God’s message to “us”. This lends itself itself to moral leadership. The reality is people look to these people for guidence in this crazy mixed up world whether it is right or wrong. Joe Kennedy has made a conscious choice to be Catholic for what I assume is his entire adult life. I do not think the constitution is really in question here. Joe calls himself a catholic and has been one longer than a politician. The Church has rules. Some church leaders choose to ignore these rules for the sake of membership, some do not. Joe ran into one that did not.


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