The presidential contest between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney is more than just a political struggle: It is also a clash of different views of Christianity, and more specifically, Catholic social doctrine. Leaving aside the personal faiths of the two presidential candidates, let us focus on the other major players in the arena who are of the Catholic faith.
Vice President Joe Biden is a Catholic, as are House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004. On the other side, GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is Catholic, as are House Speaker John Boehner and former presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
It is hard to imagine that these two sets of Catholics could attend Sunday Mass under the same roof or could have been instructed with the same catechism books in their youth. The Democratic Catholic politicians seem reflective of a new Catholicism that some clergy derisively call "Cafeteria Catholics," those who pick and choose what doctrines of the church they will follow. The GOP Catholics, for their part, are reflective of an emerging "evangelical" Catholic group that is more akin to Southern Baptists in its almost fanatical beliefs and interpretation of Catholic doctrine.
While the two Catholic political sides continue to clash over the abortion/right-to-choose issue, birth control, same-sex marriage and other primarily bedroom issues, there is a much broader conflict as they attempt to address the concept of the social covenant during this presidential campaign. The Democrats talk about improving health care for Americans and supporting education and protecting Social Security, while the GOP talks up big business, tax breaks for the wealthy, and more money for defense. Just how much government should do to better the human condition is a major conflict between the two parties and is reflected in the differences between the Catholic GOP and Democratic politicians in their respective parties.
The struggle that the Catholic Church is experiencing today in the U.S. is not unlike the church's struggle in Latin America during the 1970s and '80s. At the 1968 Medellin, Colombia, General Conference of Latin American Bishops, the bishops "legitimized" what was becoming a movement toward social activism since Pope John XXIII's Vatican II. They gave encouragement to those who believed that the church had been at the service of the elites for too long. The oligarchy of military dictatorships, plantation owners and foreign enterprises had for years been partners with the nearly medieval church in Latin America. Now the Medellin Conference sought to develop a critical awareness so that the poor could become more effective agents of their own religious liberty and assume civic and political responsibilities. From the debates that followed emerged the term "liberation theology," which had as its principal spokesman a Peruvian priest, Gustavo Gutierrez, who noted in his writings that: "Seeing politics as a dimension that embraces all of human life, entails conflict, and demands a scientific line of reasoning; and rediscovering evangelical poverty as fellowship with the poor and protests against their poverty, lead us to a wholly different way of perceiving ourselves as human beings and Christians."
Thus, today the U.S. political reality is reflective of that same struggle that occurred in Latin America toward the end of the last century. The difference is that in the Latin American case, violence and revolution often accompanied the struggle. The political elites in most of the countries, especially in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, did not easily surrender their control over the masses or make efforts to better their condition. Much of the leftist clergy, many coming from foreign countries, were sometimes identified as subversives and revolutionaries. American nuns and priests were murdered, as were many other foreign and native religious who, in most cases, only sought to practice the teachings of Christ in the Bible, which the Liberationists often referenced. "If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth." (John 3:17-18)
The recent Republican and Democratic political conventions put a spotlight on the struggle that is taking place between the two parties, and more specifically between the Catholic politicians in their respective parties. Some have even called it class warfare. On the one hand, Paul Ryan reflected in his speech the feelings of most of the GOP convention speakers. Rugged individualism, the "I built this" sentiment, and a budget plan that dismantles the safety net, were echoed by other speakers, as were the many comments supporting the GOP's views on abortion and other women's issues.
The Democrats presented an outsider at their convention who, in a sense, spoke for Biden, Kerry, Pelosi and the other Catholics on their side: Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic Social Justice Organization, gave a short but moving speech that took on VP candidate Ryan and the other Catholics in his party. She noted that, "Paul Ryan claims his budget reflects the principles of our shared Catholic faith. But the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated that the Ryan budget failed a basic moral test, because it would harm families living in poverty. ... Ryan says his budget is in keeping with the values of our shared faith. I simply disagree."
Both sides of U.S. Catholic politicians have their supporters among the public and among the political pundits in the media. Like the politicians, these commentators appear to be very supportive of their Catholic counterparts in the political arena. On the Catholic Democratic side we have MSNBC personalities like Chris Matthews, Lawrence O'Donnell, Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes, all Catholics. On the other side are Fox's Catholics, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity as well as independent commentator Pat Buchanan. There is very little difference in the political views of these media personalities and the Catholic politicians they support.
If there is any difference in how the Catholic Democrats and Catholic Republicans see their roles as political leaders, it may be that the Democrats draw a line between their religious beliefs and their political roles. While most Catholic politicians may support "the right to choose" in the case of abortion, they are not pro-abortion. Hardly anyone is pro-abortion. But they do not believe it is their religious duty to turn their religious beliefs into legislation. If that were the case, Mormon politicians would support legislation outlawing the consumption of drinks containing caffeine and Jews would promote legislation outlawing the consumption of pork, and thousands of other religious beliefs of numerous religions would find their way into our laws.
The Founding Fathers understood the dangers of bringing religion into our political life. The First Amendment to our Constitution declared, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This guaranteed that we would all be protected from the influence of the various religions in the Colonies at the time of our founding. There were Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists, Puritans, Quakers, Baptists, Catholics and Jews at the time the Constitution was adopted. How dangerous would it have been to create a political system that would have made it possible for any of these religions to impose their beliefs on the entire population? The history of Europe is replete with religious wars that went on for centuries. We have not had one here. As we see the turmoil in many parts of the world today, it is clear that religious zealotry is responsible for much of it.
We can find good religious direction in most of the books of the major faiths, but this should exist as a spiritual guide, not political doctrine. It means very little to argue over whether one party has the word God in its platform or not. What matters is that as a country, we recognize the concept of freedom of religion and we practice tolerance. If we rely on words, we may come up short in terms of deeds. Indeed, "let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth."
Ray Gonzales, Ph.D., a former Kern County assemblyman and U.S. Foreign Service officer, is retired from the California State University system.