One of the more alarming dimensions of contemporary culture in these United States is the profound hypocrisy of people who claim to embrace certain faith traditions even as they promote and encourage the cruelest, most inhumane and destructive policies and governmental actions against suffering, oppressed, vulnerable human beings who are begging for some modest relief in the world’s richest and most powerful nation in world history. It is almighty hypocrisy to claim impeccable “pro-life” credentials while applauding the caging of children at the border, the shameful and cruel separation of children from parents, the imprisonment of refugees in inhumane conditions, the imposition of the death penalty and other official actions that compromise, degrade, wreck and extinguish human life every day.
In an essay this week in the Washington Post, Historian Matthew Avery Sutton explains that this is not the first time in American history that religion has been pressed into the service of a political agenda. “Explaining the bond between Trump and white evangelicals” explores the tragic history of the anti-immigrant agenda of fundamentalist Christians immediately after World War I as this voting bloc lined-up behind the notoriously corrupt Warren G. Harding for president after Woodrow Wilson. “The need to curb immigration remained at the forefront of fundamentalist thinking and helped bind religious voters to Harding,” writes Sutton, explaining that fundamentalists often choose to look past the individual moral failings of a political leader to support someone who, they believe, will enact laws and policies they favor. Hence, the overwhelming contemporary support of white Evangelical Protestants for President Trump despite his tawdry personal behavior.
Writing last month in the Washington Post, Columnist Michael Gerson, a Republican and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush who identifies as a white Evangelical Christian, put the issue even more bluntly:
“Consider the matter of immigration. Republicans who are WEPs [white Evangelical Christians] are the most likely group to say that immigrants are invading America and changing its culture. More than 90 percent of WEPs favor more restrictive immigration policies. They support the policy of family separation at the border more strongly than other religious groups and more strongly than Americans as a whole. How have we come to the point that American evangelicals are significantly crueler in their attitude toward migrant children than the national norm? The answer is simple enough. Rather than shaping President Trump’s agenda in Christian ways, they have been reshaped into the image of Trump himself.” (Michael Gerson, The Washington Post, October 28, 2019)
The problem is not just the WEPs of Gerson’s column. Many Catholics, too, are virulently anti-immigrant despite our own long history of being victims of religious and ethnic discrimination. Some of the most notable Catholics in public positions proclaim their “pro-life” credentials on the day of the March for Life while enacting policies throughout the year that are deeply harmful to children and families, to persons of color and those who are living each day with poverty and violence. These same political operatives have also applauded the scaling-back of environmental protections to enrich corporate interests, ignoring the fact that protecting the environment is also a specific part of Catholic social teaching.
I recently sat with some of our students who have DACA, the status of “deferred action for childhood arrivals” that the Obama administration enacted but later the Trump administration rescinded; the Supreme Court last week heard oral arguments on whether to uphold the Trump administration recission. I know the scores of students who are Dreamers here at Trinity, and I also know that they are representative of the hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients who are in colleges across the country, or now in professions as teachers and nurses and doctors. I listened to our young women describe the horrific episodes they and their families have endured at the hands of government officials who have little respect for human life and no regard for their immense potential. I thought of the people in the current administration who are most responsible for the current horrific oppression of refugees and immigrants, and many of them are Catholics who think nothing of saying they are “pro-life” even as they are working overtime to ruin the bright and hopeful lives of our students. The hatred of immigrants is a sickness that should have no place in our nation, which was truly built by immigrant people.
Contrary to the claims of some on the Christian right that the United States was founded as a “Christian” nation, the Founders made it very clear that religion should not be part of government, one way or the other. The principle of separation of Church and State was very important to the founding generation since they knew quite well the deep harm that could come from political use of religion to oppress those who did not share the same beliefs. The corrupt use of religious principles to divide and oppress others — whether the “other” is Muslim or Mexican, Black or Asian or Latina, gay or trans, or different from those in power in other ways — is the antithesis of America’s founding principles.
Can we give witness to faith in our political choices and public life? Of course, but that witness should never weaponize religious belief to attack other people or undermine the coherence of a remarkably diverse human community. Faith should only and always be used to lift up our brothers and sisters on this journey through life. True faith principles across the full range of denominations start with respecting human life and dignity including the differences among us that make the United States a strong and resilient nation. Catholics do not have a corner on the tenets of social justice; many if not most religious denominations share the moral tenets of respect for human dignity, care for persons in need and in poverty, solidarity with those on the margins and who are oppressed. Faith, itself, is not oppressive — but faith used as a political weapon is a tyrannical machine used immorally to wipe out opposition.
Hitler co-opted Christians in Germany in his quest to obliterate the Jews. Courageous people of faith like Dietrich Bonhoeffer confronted the Nazi regime and paid dearly with their lives. Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
We are in a moment where people of faith must act — act to insist that faith not be weaponized to suit the political agenda of those in power. We must act to insist that human beings be treated with dignity and respect, that children must never be torn from their parents, that families must be kept together, that detention if necessary at all be done with respect for the fundamental humanity and basic human needs of those detained. We must act to insist that the most powerful and wealthiest nation in human history use its wealth and power for good, to enhance and lift up human life and potential, and never simply to reinforce the power and privilege of only a few who have both. As a moral purpose, not a political motive, we cannot remain silent in the face of the evil that actively harms too many lives each day in pursuit of political power. To remain silent becomes part of the almighty hypocrisy we aim to expose.
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