Americans, Religion and National Policy
the Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archbishop of Denver
Rothgerber Johnson & Lyons LLP
2004 Religious Institutions Law Day
October 7, 2004
grateful to Martin
Nussbaum for inviting me to join you this morning. Rothgerber
Johnson and Lyons has represented the Archdiocese of Denver
in a distinguished way on many issues, over many years.
Sperber and other members of the firm do an outstanding
job of serving the Catholic people of Colorado. I want to
thank them personally and publicly for their dedication.
also believe that a gathering like Religious Institutions
Law Day serves the common good of the whole community, and
I'm glad to be part of it. Obviously I'm a Catholic bishop,
speaking from a Catholic perspective, in a year when national
politics and Catholic faith have overlapped in some challenging
ways. But I hope at least some of my remarks today will
ring true with other religious communities, and what I don't
cover in my comments, I'll be glad to address through your
of the books that shaped my thinking as a teenager was George
Orwell's Animal Farm. Most of you know that it's
a political fable.
imagined an English farm where the animals revolt and throw
out their human master. But instead of creating a utopia,
they get a regime run by pigs. The pigs behave even worse
than the humans. And whenever anyone tries to question the
rules, the pigs bring in a chorus of sheep, who bleat "Four
legs good, two legs bad; four legs good, two legs bad,"
again and again, until everyone gets confused and goes home.
been thinking about those sheep all year long. I remember
them every time someone tells me that Catholics shouldn't
try to impose our beliefs on society. I remember them every
time somebody warns me that religious believers need to
respect the separation of Church and state.
think these two concerns"don't impose your beliefs
on society" and "the separation of Church and state"aren't
the real concerns at all. They're slogans. They are sound
bites designed to shut down serious thought. No one in mainstream
American politics wants a theocracy. No one in mainstream
American politics wants to turn meatless Fridays into federal
law. So we need to understand these concerns for what they
are: usually foolish, frequently dishonest and ultimately
dangerous arguments that confuse our national memory and
our national identity.
a few facts. Ninety-six percent of Americans believe in
God; 90 percent pray; 93 percent of American homes have
a Bible; roughly 80 percent of Americans describe themselves
as Christian; and more than 40 percent of Americans attend
church weeklywhich, at least on the surface, makes
the United States one of the most religiously devout countries
in the world.
between 50 million and 80 million American Christians claim
they've been "born again." Americans spend $4 billion dollars
a year on CDs, books and bumper stickers honoring Jesus
Christ. The Passion of the Christ made more than
$600 million in the first six months of its release, most
of it in the United States. Americans in 2004and not
only Christian Americansremain a deeply religious
people, not just in words, but also in practice. That doesn't
stop us from also being sinners and hypocrites. But it does
mean that most of us draw the moral roadmap for our lives
from our religious faith.
without simplifying things too much, law always involves
turning somebody's ought into everybody's must.
When we say that we "ought to" do something, we're making
a moral judgment. When we turn that moral judgment into
legislation, we're imposing our views on society.
shouldn't jaywalk because trucks will run them over, and
that's bad. Therefore we make rules against jaywalking.
People shouldn't racially discriminate, because other people
will suffer, and that's bad. Therefore we make laws to ensure
civil rights. The racial bigots among us may feel imposed
upon, but that's the way it is in a democracy. Some interests
win, and some lose. Racial bigots have the right to organize
and change the law. We hope they don't succeed, but they
have every right to try. Until they develop a racist consensus,
though, they suffer under the weight of majority moral opinion.
pluralism always involves a struggle of ideas. Democracy
depends on people of conviction fighting for what they believe
in the public squarenon-violently and ethically, but
vigorously and without embarrassment. People who try to
separate their private convictions from their involvement
in public issues are not acting with integrity or
with loyalty to their own principles. And in doing so, they're
stealing from their country.
an example. People who support permissive abortion laws
have no qualms at all about imposing their views on society.
Back in the 1970s, they couldn't do it democratically through
the ballot box, so they coerced it through the courts. And
over the past 30 years, they've fought every attempt to
limit or change those laws through the democratic process.
That's entirely appropriate. That's their right. They're
acting on their beliefs.
in a democracy, everybodyincluding religious believersgets
to play that game. In fact, to be healthy, the political
process demands it. So for Catholics to be silent
in an election year about easy abortion laws and pro-abortion
campaign agendas out of some misguided sense of good manners
is actually a form of theft from our national conversation.
Catholics really believe in the sanctity of human life,
then there's no way we can stand by while some people chooseor
allow others to chooseto kill their unborn children.
There's no way we can disassociate ourselves from 40 million
abortions since 1973. If we don't try to end abortion, not
just socially but legally, we become complicit in that violence.
we may lose the political battle to change our abortion
laws, but fighting that battle is the nature of the legal
process. Fighting it is thoroughly American. For religious
believers not to advance their convictions about public
morality in public debate is not an example of tolerance.
It's an example of cowardice.
we believe that abortion is gravely wrongthat it kills
an unborn child and attacks the common goodthen we
have a duty, not just a religious duty but also a democratic
duty, to punish the candidates who want to allow it.
Failing to do that is an abuse of power on our part, because
that's where we exercise our power as citizens most directlyin
the voting booth.
think we can agree that the many religious believers who
worked against slavery and segregation, or in favor of farm
worker rights and industrial labor justice, served their
country very well. They did what they did because their
view of human dignity was shaped by their religious faith.
Martin Luther King had not worked to "impose his
religious views" on society, the world would be very different
and worse. So we need to see that criticism for what it
really is: a modern version of "Four legs good, two legs
bad." People who fear and dislike religious faith don't
want it to be part of our public discourse. But if we allow
that to happen, we not only delude ourselves about the nature
of American politics; but we also only have ourselves to
same applies to the idea that "separation of Church and
state" somehow means that religious believers should shut
up about legislative issues, the appointment of judges and
public policy. To Catholics with a sense of recent American
history, "separation of Church and state" has a uniquely
anti-Catholic ring to it. Lurking behind those words in
the 1960 presidential campaign was the hint that Roman dogma
might somehow trump the American Constitution if Kennedy
handled it by simply separating his Catholic identity from
his public service. This wasn't too hard because his faith
seemed largely nominal. But in doing it, Kennedy confused
an entire generation of Catholics and other Americans about
the proper relationship of Church and civil authority.
Catholics, the civil order has its own sphere of responsibility
and its own autonomy apart from the Church. But that doesn't
mean that civil authorities are exempt from moral engagement
and criticism, either by individual believers or by the
Church as a body. And I think this fits very comfortably
with the mind of the Founders.
the Founders intended was to prevent the establishment of
an official state Church. They never intended, and never
wrote into the Constitution, any prohibition against religious
believers, religious leaders or religious communities taking
an active part in public issues and the political process.
The idea of exiling religion from public debate would have
made no sense to them.
Jefferson and Franklin were Deists, most of the Founders
were practicing Christians. All of them were deeply influenced
by Christian thought. Our history as a nation is steeped
in religious imagery and language, so I don't want to belabor
the obvious. But I do encourage all of you to read Vince
Carroll's excellent book, Christianity on Trial: Arguments
Against Anti-Religious Bigotry. Vince is the editorial
pages editor of the Rocky Mountain News. Chapter
8 of his book does a great job tracking the Christian roots
and Christian contributions to American democracy.
idea that we can pull those religious roots out of our modern
political life without hurting who we are is very dangerous.
The United States is non-sectarian. That's good. But "non-sectarian"
does not mean anti-religious, atheist, agnostic or even
fully secular. Our public institutions flow from a religious
understanding of human rights and human dignity.
the "separation of Church and state" begins to mean separating
religious faith from public life, we begin to separate government
from morality and citizens from their consciences. And that
leads to politics without character, which is now a national
a Catholic perspective, the better we live our faith, the
better we live our citizenship. The more faithful we are
as religious believers, the more faithful we are as Americans.
That may not get a candidate elected, but it will keep him
honestand his honesty will make our public life more
people are serious about their faith, then their whole lives
will naturally be formed and guided by their religious convictions.
For Catholics, all of our actions and all
of our choices should be rooted in our Catholic identity
and in our relationship with God. That means our choices
at work; at play; within our families; and also the choices
we make in living out our citizenship.
Apostle James wrote that, "faith without works is dead."
People need to act on what they claim to believe. Otherwise
they're just lying to themselves. Jesus told His disciples
to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and
to God the things that are God's. But what belongs to Caesar
is actually very limited. And our souls belong to Godnot
to Caesar. So for Catholics, our relationship with the surrounding
political order will always hinge on questions of faith.
And it's exactly that foundation of faith that gives American
often see this more clearly about our country than we do.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Lutheran pastor who was later
killed by the Third Reich, wrote that:
American Revolution was almost contemporary with the French
one, and politically the two were not unconnected. Yet
they were profoundly different in character. [American]
democracy is not founded on the emancipated man, but quite
the contrary, on the kingdom of God and the limitation
of all earthly power by the sovereignty of God. [In contrast
to] the Declaration of the Rights of Man, American
historians can say that the federal constitution was written
by men who were conscious of original sin" and the weaknesses
of the human heart."
having said all this, it's also true that vast elements
of the American academic, scientific, literary, artistic
and mass media establishments routinely treat religion with
contempt. Some of you will remember the artist Andres Serrano's
creation where he portrayed a crucifix submerged in urine.
Or the New York public museum that featured an image of
the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung.
a visit to Blockbuster last weekend, I counted more than
20 feature films released over the last decade that directly
or indirectly attack Catholic faith, practice or history.
The New York Times and other major urban newspapers
routinely cast evangelicals and the so-called religious
right as dangerous zealots. The paranoia that preceded the
release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ
was matched only by the surprise of Hollywood at how well
it did. And as Vince Carroll shows in his book, public school
textbooks have under-reported and distorted the role of
religion as a positive force in American history for decades.
religious tolerance owes as much to Roger Williams, who
founded the Rhode Island colony, and William Penn, who founded
the Pennsylvania colony, as it does to any thinker of the
Enlightenment. But you won't hear that in the average high
school history class. Both Williams and Penn were devoutly
gulf between what most Americans believe about God and the
anti-religious prejudice of many of our cultural leaders
is a mystery. Why does it happen? One answer is that religious
believers cause some of the problems ourselves. We're sinners
and hypocrites. That's pretty obvious. Every case of clergy
sexual or financial misconduct, and every example of bigotry
by a churchgoer, confirms our weakness.
the struggle of religious believers against our own failures
isn't exactly news. It doesn't explain the scope of the
hostility directed toward religion in the United States
over the last 50 years.
think the real answer lies elsewhere. We can hear it in
Ted Turner's famous crack that, "Christianity is for losers."
In a knowledge economy, religion looks stupid. In an aristocracy
of brains, faith is for suckers. We can see traces of this
attitude toward organized religion as early as Jefferson
and Franklin. But as America has become a world power in
science and technology, mass media, wealth and economic
influence, the confidence of her knowledge classes has grown.
breeds faith in itself. So do talent, achievement and success.
Many of America's creative and professional leaders feel
they don't need and certainly don't want a competing source
of authority outside of themselvesespecially if it
tries to tell them what they can and cannot do in the name
of a God they can't see.
is why spirituality seems so popular these days in the mass
media and "religion" doesn't. Spirituality can be whatever
an individual wants to make it. Religion is a different
story. Religion always involves duty to a larger community
and to truths bigger than oneself. That's what "religion"
means. It comes from the Latin word religare, "to
bind." The religious believer binds his or her life to a
creed shared by other people, and agrees to be judged by
it. Religious faith, lived consciously and seriously, is
an act of humility, not self-improvement.
a decade ago, the historian Christopher Lasch saw that today,
"it is [America's leadership classes]those who control
the international flow of money and information, preside
over philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher
learning, manage the instruments of cultural production
and thus set the terms of public debatethat have lost
faith in the values" of the American experiment. In their
self-reliance and overconfidence, our "thinking classes
have seceded not just from the common world around them
but from reality itself."
has very tough results both at home and abroad. As I said
earlier, most people at most times in history have drawn
their moral guidelines from their religious beliefs. That
makes sense, because religion is about the meaning of our
lives. It's about purpose and last things and our final
destination. If we begin with God's love and the goal of
heaven in mind, then we order our behavior in this life
accordingly. We don't steal, we don't lie, we don't commit
adultery; we help the poor, we comfort the sick, we shelter
secular view of the world, by its nature, can't deal with
questions of larger meaning. And by refusing to engage the
questions that really matter in life, secularism robs us
of the foundation for our dignity and our moral vocabulary.
It robs our politics of the ideals that make us a nation
and a people, rather than just a mob of individuals.
results is a loss of any sense of a common futurea
loss of active hopeand when that happens you get the
kind of demographic collapse we see today in Europe. Population
replacement requires 2.1 births per woman. Overall European
rates are already lower than 1.6. In rejecting its Christian
identity, Europe has basically erased its own memory. In
a hundred years Europe will be a radically different continentand
quite possibly Muslim, because Muslims continue to bear
children, and in having children, they claim the future.
also fails in its understanding of the outside world. I
have the privilege of serving on the U.S. Commission for
International Religious Freedom. It's sobering work sometimes
because so many nations around the world simply ignore the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and religious freedom
often seems like a low priority even for U.S. foreign policy.
all across the southern hemisphere, Christianity and Islam
are growing very rapidly in numbers. We live in a religious
age. Religion has always been, and it continues to be, the
most powerful cultureforming force in history. Hostility
to religion in our domestic public life makes Americans
unable to think clearly overseas.
is a fatal weakness. The idea that we can have a dialogue
with the emerging world in purely secular language is ignorant
and foolish. We only need to look at our problems in Iraq.
The assumptions we made about creating a secular, democratic
Iraq, and the realities we're now dealing with, are completely
out of sync. If American policymakers refuse to understand
and respect the power of religious faith in the world, we're
headed for more of the same problems at enormous cost.
can't give what we don't have. Americans are a religious
people. We deny that at our peril. The more we drive religion
out of our public life, the poorer we become and the less
we have to offer in our engagement with the world.
are more than simply "one nation under God." In the case
of the United Statesin the light of our history and
the founding ideas and documents that shaped us as a peoplewe
are one nation because of our belief in God.
is no more loyal form of citizenship than to protect that
religious heritage for the generations who will follow us.