I had a curious discussion the other day about church and state. In recent years, it seems a tendency to demand very narrow definitions has become more prevalent, with the result that you start wondering where people have been that they are unfamiliar with the common context of words and phrases. In this case, the discussion had to do with church and state, and the assertion that there is still some crossover taking place. A person of faith wondered what century an associate was living in, so I gave a twenty-first century example of the Bush administration appointing a woman named Pam Stenzel to a task force within the Department of Health and Human Services to promote and implement guidelines for an abstinence education program.

The thing is that abstinence education doesn’t work, and Stenzel knows it. According to Michelle Goldberg, Stenzel addressed the 2003 Reclaiming America for Christ conference, and told them a story about a man she met on an airplane, who asked about how well the program works:

At Reclaiming America for Christ, Stenzel told her audience about a conversation she’d had with a skeptical businessman on an airplane. The man had asked about abstinence education’s success rate, a question she regarded as risible.

“What he’s asking,” she said, “is ‘does it work?’ You know what? Doesn’t matter. ‘Cause guess what? My job is not to keep teenagers from having sex. The public school’s job should not be to keep teens from having sex.”

Then her voice rose and turned angry as she shouted, “Our job should be to tell kids the truth!” And I should say that up ’til then, I agreed with her. But here’s what she means by the truth:

“People of God,” she cried, “can I beg you to commit yourself to truth? Not what works, to truth! I don’t care if it works, because at the end of the day, I’m not answering to you. I’m answering to God.

“Let me tell you something, People of God, that is radical, and I can only say it here,” she said. “AIDS is not the enemy. HPV and a hysterectomy at twenty is not the enemy. An unplanned pregnancy is not the enemy. My child believing that they can shake their fist in the face of a holy God and sin without consequence, and my child spending eternity separated from God, is the enemy! I will not teach my child that they can sin safely!”

My associate asked what church that was promoting. The answer, obviously, is Christianity in general. But he wanted something more specific.

These aren’t the old days of the Maryland colony; indeed, if you look at the First Amendment and the judicial history thereof, everything pertains to religion as opposed to sects or denominations. The idea of one promoting specifically a Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, or other such agenda always comes back to the root faith: Christianity. It’s not simply about denominations, branches, or sects, but also—and perhaps fundamentally—the broader religious paradigm. One need not be a constitutional scholar to recognize this; the legal layman can certainly do something like examine judicial decisions and compile a list; Torcaso v. Watkins, for instance, pertained not to sects or even religions, but a question of theism and atheism—the state cannot compel a person to swear belief in God as a prerequisite for holding public office.

Questions of church and state in the twenty-first century have a slightly more subtle context, and this isn’t really anything new. In the twentieth century, we still fought over whether to adopt a faith-based definition (life begins at conception), faith-based “science” (creationism/intelligent design), faith-based civil rights (homosexuality), and so on. The Oregon Citizens’ Alliance and its decade-long crusade against gays wasn’t a sectarian issue, but rather a Christian-values issue.

One of the great challenges of faith is maintenance. Religious faith is not supposed to be easy, yet the faithful are human beings, too, and prone to all the frailties that involves.

Such as the story out of Rhode Island, where once again Catholic clergy are standing off against politicians in order to sway their votes on the abortion issue. Ian Urbina reports, for The New York Times:

Widening a growing rift, Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat, said on Sunday that the Roman Catholic bishop of Providence had instructed him to refrain from receiving communion because of the congressman’s stance on abortion.

Rep. Kennedy said that Bishop Thomas J. Tobin “instructed me not to take communion and said that he has instructed the diocesan priests not to give me communion,” according to The Providence Journal, which first reported the article.

But Michael K Guilfoyle a spokesman for the diocese, said Sunday that the Bishop has “never addressed matters relative to public officials receiving Holy Communion with pastors of the Diocese of Providence.”

The Bishop added that his instructions to Rep. Kennedy came more than two years ago in a letter on February 21, 2007, he sent to the congressman privately and pastorally.

“In light of the Church’s clear teaching, and your consistent actions,” the letter said, “I believe it is inappropriate for you to be receiving Holy Communion and I now ask respectfully that you refrain from doing so.”

It always seems strange to me when clergy take God’s authority so nakedly into their own hands. Rep. Kennedy’s beliefs and actions will be judged by God, as I understand Christian faith, so it seems problematic that a priest should usurp that authority as a political tool.

The allegation by Rep. Kennedy, a Democrat in his eighth term, is the most recent escalation in a bitter and unusually personal dispute between the men that began after the lawmaker criticized the nation’s Catholic bishops for threatening to oppose an overhaul of the health care system unless it tightened restrictions on publicly financed abortion ….

…. In an interview with Cybercast News Service on Oct. 21, Mr. Kennedy said he could not understand “how the Catholic Church could be against the biggest social justice issue of our time,” a reference to expanding health insurance, adding that its stance was fanning “flames of dissent and discord.”

In response, Bishop Tobin rebuked Mr. Kennedy, accusing him of “false advertising” for describing himself as a Catholic.

“If you freely choose to be a Catholic, it means you believe certain things, you do certain things,” Bishop Tobin said at the time. “If you cannot do all that in conscience, then you should perhaps feel free to go somewhere else.”

Far be it for me to tell Bishop Tobin what he can or cannot do, but I would propose that he disagrees with Christ (see Matthew 25.31-ff):

“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.

Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’

And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’

Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Nobody should pretend that the situation is easy, but if the Church cast out all the sinners, there would be no flock.

Abortion is a particularly sensitive issue with many religious people, but just because one does not get their way politically does not mean one should usurp God’s authority and undertake such judgment. And if Rep. Kennedy is sick and in a prison of sin, how can one minister to he who has been turned out into the wilderness?

None of this is important, it seems, to the bishop. The way back into the flock depends on political outcomes. This sort of drama has carried on for centuries, back to the times when the church blessed kings and emperors, and could bring them down.

Where is the Church to deny communion to those who work for insurance companies that hold domestic violence, or rape, as pre-existing conditions for exclusion? How is it that the Church might excommunicate two doctors and a mother for saving a child’s life, but not the rapist who seeded twins in the belly of his nine year-old daughter?

If what the doctors and mother have done is such an offense to God, they will answer to God. If Rep. Kennedy’s stances on health care and abortion are so offensive to God, he will answer to God.

But this isn’t enough for the Catholic Church, it seems. The bishops wish to execute God’s vengeance now, in this lifetime. Apparently, they don’t trust God to do what is right. They have no faith in His justice.

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