Peter Finley Dunne, an Irish immigrant to the United States, was the author of a popular, nationally syndicated column that satirized, through the lips of his fictional Mr. Dooley, the rich and powerful and denounced, among other things, racism, the Spanish-American war and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mr. Dooley once said, “Religion is a quare thing. Be itself it’s all right. … Alone it prepares a man f’r a better life. Combined with pollyticks it hurries him to it.”
Dunne’s sentiments are probably shared by millions of Americans. Millions of others, such as evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics, would not share Mr. Dooley’s point of view or his sense of humor, of which they seem to have precious little.
They insist that people of faith have as much right to participate in the political process as any other citizens. If they think that their moral values, based solely on their own understanding of God’s will, ought to be embodied in law or public policy, they have every right to try to make that case.
But they are no more correct than a Catholic bishop who might decide to run for the U.S. Senate. There would be no constitutional prohibition against such a candidacy. The question, however, is whether it would be prudent.
James Madison, a Founding Father and our fourth president, warned against factionalism as the great enemy of the public peace. He defined a faction as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” (Federalist Paper, No. 10).
He specifically included religious groups. The antidote to religious factionalism, he wrote, is the multiplicity of religious groups within a (lower-case) republican form of government.
Applying Madison’s view to this year’s election, the exercise of political muscle by evangelical Protestants would most effectively be countered, not by a political party, but by other religious groups, particularly other Christian churches.
“Faith” is not the private preserve of Christians, nor is Christianity the private preserve of evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal Protestants. They are as different from Lutheranism, Methodism, Presbyterianism and New England Congregationalism as Mel Gibson’s form of Catholicism is from the mainstream Catholicism of Vatican II.
Religious groups can best support republican government by distinguishing between moral values grounded in their own confessional understanding of revelation, contained in the Bible and/or teachings of the church, and moral values whose validity can be established by reasoning and arguments unrelated to sacred texts and doctrines.
In the public forum, the only arguments that should bear on the framing of laws and governmental policies are those which are intelligible and persuasive even to citizens who have no sacred texts and doctrines. In a pluralistic society, laws and constitutional amendments that would regulate the conduct of minorities — be they religious, racial, ethnic or sexual — should only be approved if society judges them to be truly conducive to the common good.
God should have nothing explicitly to do with the process. A Christian group’s convictions about the divine will can be judged by another Christian group as a form of heresy or fanaticism.
In the end, who speaks for Christian values and for Christianity itself?
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.