In recent weeks, television crews have followed President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential candidate, into their respective houses of worship.
Meanwhile, the Catholic bona fides of Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the Republican vice-presidential candidate, have been the grist of editorials and talk-show debates, with partisans defending their candidate’s record as the fulfillment of the Gospel message.
Even as secularism increasingly pervades American culture, the images of our elected leaders attending religious services signal the electorate’s stubborn interest in their spiritual and moral lives.
We seek reassurance that our public servants adhere to perennial values that bolster and guard our democracy. If they humble themselves in God’s house, they surely will resist the corruption that tempts the powerful.
If they pray before the Creator, they surely will protect every human creature made in his image.
During difficult times, such images reassure us.
But the media’s often facile preoccupation with photo ops and campaign messaging can distract us from more substantive evaluations of the candidates’ personal history, political record and policy proposals.
Meanwhile, the editorial pages of leading U.S. newspapers alternately endorse or attack the U.S. Catholic bishops’ pronouncements, depending on how they square with the publication’s partisan ideology. People of conscience, however, must resist the temptation to allow party affiliation to blunt their moral judgment, even in today’s politically polarized world.
Catholics now comprise about one-quarter of the nation’s population, and while pundits opine that Catholic "swing" voters could decide the election, these co-religionists adopt diverse positions on social and fiscal issues and do not constitute a monolithic voting bloc.
Some attend Mass weekly; others maybe on Christmas and Easter. A Pew Research Center "American Values" study, conducted this April, found that "two-thirds of the public (67%) agree with each of a series of three religious statements, affirming that prayer is an important part of their daily life, that ‘we will all be called before God at the Judgment Day’ and that they never doubt the existence of God."
But that same study noted "partisan gaps in religious values. … Today, 92% of Republicans continue to say they never doubt God’s existence, but the numbers of Democrats and independents saying this have fallen (to 77% among Democrats and 76% among independents)."
There are many ways to interpret this data. But, at the very least, the numbers raise questions about whether party loyalty or faith-based moral precepts take precedence for cradle Catholics.
And if partisan commitments lead us to ignore inconvenient truths about, for example, the moral priority of defending human life from conception to natural death, what does that say about our religious commitments and where we see our true home?
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput addressed this question during his homily at the closing Mass for the Fortnight for Freedom at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
It’s important, he said, to ponder "the relationship of Caesar and God, religious faith and secular authority. … It helps us sort through our different duties as Christians and citizens. But on a deeper level, Caesar is a creature of this world, and Christ’s message is uncompromising: We should give Caesar nothing of ourselves."
This isn’t about the Church imposing its will on our elected officials or violating the proper boundary between church and state. It’s about the free exercise of a well-formed conscience that approaches the personal and the political, moral precepts and practical policies in an integrated manner.
When we dismiss a sharp contradiction between Catholic moral precepts and the platform of our chosen candidate, we compromise the integrity of our own conscience and our party.
In time, that pattern of obfuscation can become fixed, dooming well-intentioned efforts to create a better world.
And when young Americans watch us tolerate or misrepresent immoral policies, they may well conclude that the good and the true are luxuries we can’t afford in our personal lives and in the political realm.
For secular-minded Americans, including some cradle Catholics, this break from faith-inspired moral precepts represents a sign of progress and cultural maturity.
According to this view, if tension exists between one’s childhood faith and adult partisan loyalties, dumping the former is the proper and healthy response. Organized religion, not the state, poses the greatest threat to individual and political liberty.
The truth, according to the Church, is just the opposite: When we "give Caesar nothing of ourselves" and God everything, we receive, in turn, the grace that aids self-mastery, making us free to choose the common good. This truth also explains why images of our elected officials attending religious services are so deeply reassuring: They confirm that politics and the power of the state are not ultimate.
There is a greater moral authority that comes from God, and it must take priority. In turn, when government leaders approve policies that attack religious liberty, they are, in some way, asserting the state’s authority as ultimate.
Pope Benedict XVI offered St. John the Baptist as a powerful example of a man who understood that "nothing of ourselves" that truly matters belongs to Caesar.
During his Aug. 29 general audience on the liturgical memorial of the saint’s martyrdom, the Holy Father said, "The martyrdom of St. John the Baptist reminds us, Christians of our time, that we cannot stoop to compromises with the love of Christ, his word, the Truth. The truth is the truth, and there is no compromise."
Most of the martyrs of the early Church died because they were Christians, but this saint received a death sentence for speaking out against King Herod’s illicit marriage to Herodias, thus testifying to the truth of marriage. St. John "did not stoop to compromises with the powerful and was not afraid to use strong words with those who had lost the path of God," said the Pope, who noted that the saint’s conscience was nourished by an intense prayer life that formed a deep bond with God. "St. John the Baptist intercedes for us," he concluded, "so that we always maintain the primacy of God in our lives."