Monday, March 27, 2006

The Difference Between a Priest and a Politician

In the letters column of today's Times, Donald M. Sullivan of Edina, Minnesota, takes aim against a Catholic leader who has criticized the harsh anti-immigration bill sponsored by House Republicans with what he apparently feels is a telling riposte:

Wow! Cardinal Roger Mahoney puts the separation of church and state issue right out there by stating, "Denying aid to a fellow human being violates a law with higher authority than Congress--the law of God."

Evidently he wants a line-item veto for his God.

Gee, I guess those liberals who criticize Republican politicos for their quasi-theocratic impulses are total hypocrites, eh?

Er, not exactly. Cardinal Mahoney is a priest. When a priest cites religious doctrine in support of a particular social policy, it doesn't violate church/state separation because a priest is part of the church. He speaks for the church, works for the church, and even gets paid by the church. So when he stands up for church teaching and tries to persuade others of its correctness, he is simply doing his job.

The rest of us, of course, are free to decide for ourselves whether or not we agree. And when a Catholic priest (for example) takes a position I think is ridiculous, I'm free to ignore him--especially since I'm not a Catholic.

By contrast, a president, governor, or senator is supposed to represent all the people. (He certainly gets paid by all of them.) So when he cites religious doctrine in support of a particular policy, he is straddling the church/state divide, positioning himself not just as "President of the United States" or "Governor of Texas" but as "the Baptist President" or "the evangelical Governor."

Which leaves the rest of us without representation. And since he's the governor or the president, I can't just ignore him. The bills he signs and the executive orders he issues apply to me, whether I'm Jewish or Muslim or an atheist. So there better be some serious non-religious justification for them. If there isn't, we might just as well order all the Jews, Muslims, and atheists to color Easter eggs and eat pork and take holy communion, and stop pretending they have equal status to other citizens.

Contrary to what some confused conservatives like Donald M. Sullivan seem to think, the liberal defense of church/state separation isn't about silencing priests (or ministers, rabbis, or imams) when they talk about social issues. It's about reminding politicians that we hired them to be politicians. Not priests.

Hey, don't bother to thank me, Donald. Just glad I could clear that up.

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