by Dr. Ken Massey, pastor of First Baptist Church of Greensboro, NC
As a Baptist desirous of defending church state separation and religious liberty, I am troubled by a growing practice among Catholic leaders.
I’m referring to the practice of withholding communion from elected representatives who vote in ways that are not consistent with Catholic teaching. Catholic clergy across the country have either refused to give or have asked officials like Rep. Patrick Kennedy to abstain from communion because their votes are contrary to Catholic dogma. Should any religion use ultimate spiritual leverage to get a vote from our representatives who happen to be adherents of that religion? When does political pressure from religion turn into extortion?
Regardless of the issue or the religion involved, what we are seeing from the Catholic Church is a dangerous precedent that crosses the line into church-state entanglement. We have entered a minefield when ecclesiastical leaders use spiritual coercion on politicians so they vote according to sectarian doctrine.
I am not protesting Catholic discipline in general, only that which is directed at our representatives for the explicit purpose of making their votes line up with Church teaching. And I’m not suggesting that religious groups should not lobby for their causes. Rather, I’m arguing that severing a Catholic politician from their primary means of grace (Communion), leaps far beyond the typical political pressures of money and support. A Catholic should, if they believe the Church’s teaching, consider their immortal souls in danger if they cannot receive communion. A Baptist would just join another church, but for a Catholic politician it might feel like a spiritual gun is being held to their head.
When religious rulers step in between public servants and their sworn ultimate duty to uphold the Constitution, it seems to me that they have crossed a line. Threatening House and Senate members so that they vote with the Church is an unconstitutional goal that effectively creates congressional seats for the Holy See.
The U.S. has avoided the religious wars that entangled the Imperial Roman Church over the centuries. We did this not because we refused to elect religious people, but because we refused to elect men and women as representatives of their religion. Our congressional leaders represent ALL persons of ALL beliefs in their congressional districts. Our founders knew the tragic history of religious politics and rejected it.
This spiritual strong arm on elected officials is bad for the Church because it will create backlash. Many will refuse to elect otherwise capable Catholics if they think these politicians will be obligated or pressured to vote as directed by The Church. The same would be true if Muslim members of Congress were obligated to “vote the Koran” or if Methodist Senators had to check in with their bishop before they voted.
This practice is also a step down the wrong road for a country that values religious liberty. If you think political warfare between secular political factions is hurting our country, just wait for an injection of sectarian religion. There’s nothing quite like a mandate from God to kill compromise and justify any and all means necessary to achieve a goal. We don’t need religious exclusionists taking the mainstream hostage as we see in other countries.
Our country does not need Baptist or Catholic representatives. We need U.S. representatives that vote for the good of the country—a country that has refused to give preference to any religion but instead liberty to all.