A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH

Faith and Politics: Better Together

Interview With Archbishop Charles Chaput

By Karna Swanson

DENVER, Colorado, 22 AUG. 2008 (ZENIT)

Not only does religion have a place in the public square, a democracy needs the input of religious morals and convictions to remain healthy and strong, says the archbishop of Denver.

Taking religion out of play, adds Archbishop Charles Chaput, author of "Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life," is the fastest way to destroy a democracy.

In this interview with ZENIT, Archbishop Chaput talks about the ideas put forth in his book on Catholics and politics, and comments on what he thinks are the important issues facing voters this November.

Q: Catholicism in the public square in the United States has had a long and complicated journey, and you say that Catholics have a lot to offer the political process, but that more often than not they keep their beliefs and convictions separate from their political actions. Why is that?

Archbishop Chaput: Catholics have always been a minority in the United States, and prejudice against Catholics in this country has always been real, even before the founding. Sometimes the bias has been indirect and genteel. Just as often it has taken more vulgar forms of economic and political discrimination, and media bigotry. Either way, prejudice always fuels the appetite of a minority to fit in, to achieve and to assimilate, and American Catholics have done that extraordinarily well in fact, too well.

In the name of being good citizens, a lot of Catholics have bought into a very mistaken idea of the “separation of Church and state.” American Catholics have always supported the principle of keeping religious and civil authority distinct.

Nobody wants a theocracy, and much of the media hand-wringing about the specter of “Christian fundamentalism” is really just a particularly offensive scare tactic. The Church doesn’t presume to run the state. We also don’t want the state interfering with our religious beliefs and practices which, candidly, is a much bigger problem today.

Separating Church and state does not mean separating faith and political issues. Real pluralism requires a healthy conflict of ideas. In fact, the best way to kill a democracy is for people to remove their religious and moral convictions from their political decision-making. If people really believe something, they’ll always act on it as a matter of conscience. Otherwise they’re just lying to themselves. So the idea of forcing religion out of public policy debates is not only unwise, it’s anti-democratic.

Q: A chapter of the book was dedicated to St. Thomas More. In the same chapter you mention John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president of the United States. What is the fundamental difference between these two Catholic political leaders?

Archbishop Chaput: As I say in the book, we should be wary of drawing too close a parallel between More’s situation and the problems facing American public officials. But More and his friend John Fisher stay so vivid in our memories for a reason. They kept their integrity at the cost of everything they had, including their lives. They put God before Caesar.

As for Kennedy, we need to remember the context of his 1960 campaign. Kennedy had plenty of talent and courage, but he also had to overcome 200 years of ingrained Protestant suspicion.

Unfortunately, in easing those Protestant fears, he created a new and very flawed Catholic model of separating public service from private conviction. He was acting in good will, and of course he couldn’t see the future but he did a great deal of damage. Over the past 40 years, his example has guided every Catholic public official who is “personally opposed” to some grave evil, but won’t do anything about it. We’re still suffering the effects.

Q: You also note that the new media culture has created a new environment for public debate in which a "serious marketplace of ideas" is replaced by sound bites. How can faithful Catholic politicians operate in this environment?

Archbishop Chaput: There’s no easy answer to that. American Catholics need to take a much more critical attitude toward the mass media, including the news industry. Many very good people work in journalism, for example. But the picture of reality reported by the news media is always colored by at least three things: the technology of the medium, the need to make a profit and the bias of the organization.

What we see and hear in political reporting is often a dumbed-down version of the facts. Individual citizens need to be alert to how the media shape public appetites and mold our opinions. And Catholic political officials need to learn how to use the media honestly, of course and not be used by them.

Q: Did you hope the book, which was published months ahead of the presidential elections in the United States, would impact the election process in some way?

Archbishop Chaput: Actually, I finished the text in July last year and made final revisions last November. I wanted the book to appear in March this year to put some space between it and the campaign season. But the publisher makes those decisions.

It’s not my intention, in the book or anywhere else, to tell people how to vote. I don’t endorse candidates, I don’t use code language to get people to like or dislike any political party. That’s not the job of a pastor.

People need to vote their conscience. But “conscience” doesn’t miraculously appear out of nothing; it’s not a matter of personal opinion or private preference. Conscience is always grounded in truth bigger than ourselves. People who claim to be Catholic need to be honest with themselves and with the believing community. They need to really act “Catholic” in private and in public, and that includes the way they make their political choices. And it’s very much the job of a pastor to teach Catholics their faith and to encourage them to apply it.

Q: In this election year there seems to be more talk of "wider" social issues that Catholics should consider when voting. How do you see this trend? And what do you see as the biggest issues facing Catholic voters this November?

Archbishop Chaput: The moral witness of the Church doesn’t change, whether it’s an election year or not. We face a lot of very important issues this fall: the economy, immigration reform, the war in Iraq. These are urgent and compelling, but they can’t be used as an excuse to ignore the unborn child.

No matter how much we want to cover it over with talk about “wider social issues,” the abortion struggle remains the foundational social issue of our time. There’s no way of wriggling around the profits, the brutality and the injustice of abortion with pious language or theatrical gestures. Abortion is legalized homicide. It has to stop. Every other right depends on the right to life.

Q: The book is written mainly for a U.S. audience as it directly speaks of the Church in the United States. What could an international audience take away from the book?

Archbishop Chaput: All Catholics, wherever they live, whatever their country, need to remember that we’re citizens of heaven first. That’s our home. We serve our nation in this world best by living our Catholic faith fully and authentically, and bringing our Catholic witness for human dignity vigorously into our nation’s political life.

We need to stop being embarrassed to speak and work for the truth. We can be disciples, or we can be cowards. In today’s world, there’s no room for anything else. We need to choose.
 

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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