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What I Learned From Chadwick Boseman

“I never wanted to act in the first place . . . forget their stories. I can tell my own stories.”  That’s a line from Chadwick Boseman’s Howard University commencement speech in 2018.  Boseman portrayed some of the most impactful people in American History—Jackie Robinson (42), James Brown (Get On Up), and Thurgood Marshall (Marshall). But, his most popular portrayal was of the fictional character T’Challa from Black Panther. I am so thankful that he went on and told more stories, but the character that speaks the loudest now is his very own. Here are a few things that I learned watching his story unfold over these past few years.  Gifts are given to be received and then shared.  As a…

Canons & the Candidate

With the Democratic Party’s nomination of Joe Biden as its presidential candidate, some members of our Church have decided to make his Catholic faith an issue in the electoral campaign. This is quite a switch. In 1960, when John F. Kennedy ran for president as the Democratic candidate, it was prominent Protestant ministers like Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham who made an electoral issue out of Kennedy’s faith—not his fellow Catholics, most of whom were proud to have a co-religionist nominated for president after years of anti-Catholic prejudice.  

But in 2020, some of Joe Biden’s fellow Catholics are instead using his faith against him, apparently as a vote-getting tactic for his opponent. They are publicly disparaging Biden as somehow unworthy of full membership in our Church. They claim that he is not a very good Catholic and that he may not receive Holy Communion at Mass, presumably because of the “pro-choice” political views of the Democratic Party.  

Since these are Catholics dealing with the faith of another Catholic, the Church’s law governs their actions, and that law has a few things to say about this issue. Canon 220 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law says, “No one is permitted to harm illegitimately the good reputation which a person possesses nor to injure the right of any person to protect his or her own privacy.” Under canon law, every Catholic is guaranteed a right to their good name in the Church and a right to their privacy.

The condition of a fellow Catholic’s soul is a purely personal matter, not one for public debate. The injunction of Canon 220 would seem, in itself, to forbid Catholics from engaging in a public discussion of the tenor of Biden’s Catholicism and his ability to receive the Eucharist. These are private matters, not political ones.

Canon 220 is not the only canon law that affects the claims that Biden’s Catholic critics make against him. Canon 205 says that to be a good Catholic, in full communion with the Church, one must be baptized and joined to the Church by sharing the same faith, the same sacraments, and the same ecclesiastical governance. There is absolutely nothing in the public record to indicate that Biden is not baptized or that he does not accept the Church’s teachings, its sacraments, and its ecclesiastical governance. As he himself has said numerous times, his Catholic faith is part of his DNA. But, Biden’s Catholic detractors claim, he does not accept the Church’s teachings on the immorality of abortion. Check the public record. Biden has never said that, not once; and it is standard Catholic moral theology that there is a difference between the morality of an act and the morality of a law that allows an act.  

Another problem with Biden’s Catholic political opponents publicly declaring that he is not a good Catholic is that this is not their judgment to make. Jurisdiction in our Church is territorial. Under Canon 107, §1, a Catholic gets their proper pastor and bishop by virtue of where they live. If someone is to opine authoritatively on Biden’s status under Canon 205, these pastors are the only ones authorized by canon law to do so, and in Biden’s case, they have not. (Of course, the pope, who has universal jurisdiction under Canon 331, could do so as well, but he has not spoken on this subject either.)  

Then there is the assertion that Biden is not eligible to receive the Eucharist at Mass. This line of reasoning is based on an interpretation of Canon 915 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which says, “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”  Here, Biden’s critics are relying on the second clause, about those who obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin not being admitted to Communion.

The condition of a fellow Catholic’s soul is a purely personal matter, not one for public debate.

Since Christ’s faithful have a right to receive the sacraments (Canon 213) and since the Church’s ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who properly seek them (Canon 843, §1) and since Canon 915 is restrictive of these rights of the faithful, it must be given the most narrow reading possible (Canon 18). Note that there are four requirements in that second clause of Canon 915: (1) obstinately (2) perseveres (3) in manifest (4) grave sin. Giving these requirements the narrowest reading possible, what do those words mean?

“Obstinately” means not yielding to reason. It implies that the person making the negative judgment has tried to educate or convince the obstinate person. “Perseverance” means to pursue something persistently, without stopping. “Manifest” gets its meaning from the preceding canon to Canon 915 in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, Canon 855, which denied Communion to those who were “publicly unworthy.” The reliable Abbo-Hannan commentary on this canon gives, as examples of manifest sinners, such persons as prostitutes, usurers, persons living in concubinage, and blasphemers—people whose way of life is openly sinful. “Grave sin” is, of course, mortal sin. Historically, this canon was applied to Catholics who were divorced and remarried outside the Church. Under Canon 915, they could not be admitted to Communion because they were living a life of concubinage. Canon 915’s possible application to Catholic politicians who fail to publicly support the Church’s teaching only dates to 2004.

What impresses most about the Canon 915 checklist is that it is not the sort of judgment that is easily made, least of all by a priest looking down the aisle to see who is coming up to Communion. As a matter of fact, unless the priest has had a chance to talk to the communicant beforehand, it is hard to see how the “obstinate” requirement can be met. And remember, Canon 915 is restrictive of rights, so it does not get a broad interpretation; it gets the narrowest possible interpretation. This is just one of the problems with the application of Canon 915 to Catholic politicians. Another is that unless abortion rights are the only, or the most important, thing that a Catholic politician campaigns for (to the point where the politician becomes completely, publicly identified with that cause), it is difficult to see how the persistently and openly sinful requirements of Canon 915 are met.

Then there is the very serious question about the application of Canon 915 after Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris laetitia, in 2016. This papal document states in Note 336 that personal discernment can recognize that no grave fault exists “with regard to sacramental discipline.” It’s a reference to Canon 915 and its prohibition of divorced and remarried Catholics being admitted to Communion. This meaning was taken up by both the German and Argentinian bishops’ conferences in their responses to Amoris laetitia. The German bishops said that “For the question of the reception of the sacraments, the bishops do not see in Amoris Laetitia a general rule or an automatism, but rather they are convinced that discerned solutions which do justice to the individual case are required.” The Argentinian bishops said that “it is equally possible to undertake a journey of discernment.... Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the sacraments.” In his answer to the Argentinian bishops, Pope Francis said their response “explains precisely the meaning of...Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations.” That makes the Argentinian bishops’ response a part of the papal magisterium on Canon 915.

What effect does this have on the application of Canon 915 in general? Recall that, for most of its history, this canon was thought to prevent Catholics who were divorced and remarried outside the Church from receiving Communion. But now, after Amoris laetitia, a divorced and remarried Catholic’s ability to approach the Eucharist is based on the individual’s personal discernment of the state of their soul—a discernment guided by pastoral care, to be sure, but nonetheless their personal discernment. This same interpretation of Canon 915 would apply to Catholic politicians because, in the eyes of their Catholic critics, this is the canon that prevents them from receiving Communion. After Amoris laetitia, and assuming for argument’s sake that Canon 915 is even applicable to Catholic politicians to begin with, their ability to receive Communion must also be based on their individual personal discernment, their own prudential judgment, guided by pastoral care. This Franciscan reading of Canon 915 leaves no role for the Communion police; as Pope Francis himself says in Amoris laetitia, No. 37, “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”

In February of this year, the pro-choice president of Argentina, Alberto Fernández, visited the Vatican. In a Mass at St. Peter’s celebrated by Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, an Argentinian bishop who is chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, President Fernández was given Communion. Canonists have always relied on the praxis of the Roman Curia for the proper interpretation of law. If Canon 915 had the meaning that Joe Biden’s Catholic critics would give it, this is certainly proof of a contrary practice by the Roman Curia. Perhaps it simply reflects the changes in Canon 915 made by Amoris laetitia in 2016. Or perhaps it reflects long-standing curial practice. John Paul II gave Communion in 2001 to Francesco Rutelli, who was Rome’s avowedly pro-choice mayor. He also gave Communion in 2003 to Tony Blair, the pro-choice prime minister of Great Britain, who at the time was not even Catholic, although he did convert in 2007.

Our theology and our canon law should not be used as political weapons.

These are not the only serious problems with using Canon 915 to deny Communion to Catholic politicians whose positions are thought not to square with the Church’s teachings. Recall that jurisdiction in our Church is territorial. That Catholic politician will have, based on his domicile, a proper pastor and a proper bishop. If some remote priest or bishop wishes to deny Communion to the traveling politician, he must first consult that person’s proper pastors and discern whether it is their pastoral determination that the politician is disqualified under Canon 915 from receiving Communion. That is who appropriately makes that judgment: the politician’s proper pastors, not a distant priest or bishop whose only knowledge of the traveling politician is what they read in the press, which may or may not be distorted. That is why consulting with the politician’s proper pastors is so important. And, with the new papal interpretation of Canon 915, these are the people—the Catholic politician’s own proper pastors—with whom the politician would have done discernment that Amoris laetitia speaks of regarding the politician’s ability to receive Communion (again assuming that Canon 915 is even applicable to this situation).

When that distant priest or bishop denies Communion to the traveling Catholic politician, they are making a statement about the condition of the politician’s soul—namely that he is an obstinate, persistent, manifest grave sinner—and the priest or bishop is doing so in public, sometimes exacerbated by the fact that they feel compelled to defend their decision publicly or on social media. They are doing this based not on any personal knowledge of the politician, not on any conversations they have had with the politician or the politician’s proper pastor, not on their personal knowledge of the politician’s spiritual condition, but on their general impression of the politician and perhaps their own political views. This is exactly the type of conduct that Canon 220 is meant to protect against: the priest or bishop using his office to harm the Catholic politician’s good name, and doing so publicly.

While using Canon 915 to deny Communion to Catholic politicians is extremely dubious, for all of the reasons mentioned above, what is not doubtful is the application of Canon 220. And this action by the distant priest or bishop implicates another canon. Canon 1389, §2, says that “A person who through culpable negligence illegitimately places or omits an act of ecclesiastical power, ministry, or function with harm to another is to be punished with a just penalty.” If the distant priest or bishop, in denying Communion to the traveling politician, does not take all of the steps necessary to determine whether Canon 915, as it is currently understood in our Church after Amoris laetitia, actually applies, the person in violation of the Church’s law may not be the politician. It may be that priest or bishop. 

Catholics owe it to those who share our faith not to let our Church become a partisan political battleground. Our theology and our canon law should not be used as political weapons. The law is there to serve the theology, and the theology is there to get us to Heaven. Neither has any other valid use.

Leave It to the Laity

Deep into this highly valuable collection of essays, the moral theologian Martin Schlag notes the distinction drawn by Gustavo Gutiérrez between local churches that mirror their surrounding communities (iglesia-reflejo) and local churches that bring something new to the world (iglesia-fuente). For all its erudition, this collection reflects the ecclesial and political circumstances of its making. Call it scholarship-reflejo rather than fuente. But what a mirror! Not least among its virtues, it throws into stark relief the state of the Church in the United States and Europe.

Catholic social teaching (CST—where the “T” may also stand for thought or tradition) is often contrasted favorably with Catholic moral teaching, which has traditionally been focused on the permissibility of individual acts and is commonly identified with the magisterium’s condemnation of such practices as abortion, contraception, and euthanasia. The editors reject what E. Christian Brugger calls this “spurious conceptual bifurcation” and submit instead that the “exceptionless negative norms” of Catholic moral teaching and the positive principles of CST should be seen “as two sides...of the same moral concern” for integral human fulfillment. Gerard V. Bradley characterizes CST simply as “that part of the Good News that is about justice and genuine human flourishing in society.” Brugger and Bradley present their book, accordingly, as “a corrective to an ideologically lopsided body of literature” that dissents from Catholic moral teaching while celebrating CST as supposedly the best-kept secret of the Church.

Given the ideological impetus of their project, it is not surprising that some of the chapters are marred by swipes, barbs, and other irritable mental gestures directed toward Pope Francis, liberation theology, “Teilhardist” progressives, and lay ecclesial ministers, especially when they are women. There is some genuflecting toward Pope John Paul II as “the saintly pope”; by contrast, Daniel Mahoney’s chapter on Pope Francis’s social teaching is downright condescending. In a characteristic sentence, Mahoney reports that “I am troubled by Pope Francis’s increasing tendency to conflate Catholic wisdom with a left-leaning secular humanitarianism.”

On the whole, though, the essays are very impressive. (Mahoney’s, too, raises important questions about the role of markets in dealing with poverty and climate change.) The two chapters on the historical background of CST—one by John Finnis on Aquinas and the other by Thomas Behr on CST’s nineteenth-century context—are themselves nearly worth the book’s exorbitant price. They are followed by seven chapters of close readings of “the documentary tradition” from Leo XIII to Francis, eleven chapters investigating diverse themes of CST, and three chapters consisting of “evaluative and critical reflections.” The last of those chapters, “A Radical Critique of Catholic Social Teaching,” is also by Finnis, an Australian-born moral philosopher and legal scholar who now teaches at Notre Dame.

In his instructive chapter on CST and finance, Robert Kennedy notes that CST has been “shaped and elicited by challenges of the day,” with the result that it is “topical and not at all a systematic, comprehensive reflection on principles.” Building on the chapters devoted to close readings of major CST documents, the chapters on themes piece together oft-cited principles of CST like the common good; the so-called universal destination of the goods of creation (glossed by V. Bradley Lewis as “things are for people”); subsidiarity; and the preferential option for the poor. Catherine Ruth Pakaluk makes a compelling case that “socialism and communism are the founding heresies” of CST, to which it developed in reaction. Lewis underscores the classic conservative worry shaping early CST that “the reduction in the pluralism of institutions and communities in modern society...has left the individual face to face with the state.” Maria Catherine Cahill argues, along similar lines, that the main point of the principle of subsidiarity “is to say that associations exist independently of the state and prior to the state,” which should recognize a substantial measure of associational freedom “out of respect for [associations’] prior claims to self-government.” Martin Schlag’s chapter on the preferential option for the poor examines the influence of liberation theology and the closely related “theology of the people” on CST, leading, through the papacy of Paul VI, to Francis’s understanding of the poor as “teachers of what Christ wants the Church to know here and now.” Reflecting the classically conservative dimension of CST, Christopher Wolfe cautions that “the emphasis in modern CST on expanding powers of government to meet...obligations required by the common good has not been matched by a corresponding concern for institutional limits.”


Finnis and others in this volume are at pains to show that CST is not in fact the Democratic Party at prayer. Not even CST unites the faithful politically.

Two preoccupations that run through many of the essays mark the collection as a creature of its time and place: immigration and what Finnis calls “clerical overreach,” which undermines the right of lay people, not clergy, to determine the application of the principles of CST to the controversies of the day.

Kevin Flannery examines the philosophical basis of the tradition’s documents on immigration in the thought of Aquinas and the later Spanish scholastic Francisco de Vitoria. Against that background, Flannery argues that “a prudent authority of a sovereign polity would be obliged by natural law in the strongest manner—if not absolutely—to admit genuine refugees.” Likewise, he submits that justice calls for accepting a so-called economic immigrant (that is, an immigrant who finds a life of dignity is no longer available in her homeland), “provided it is likely that the person’s (or the family’s) acceptance will contribute to the good of the polity itself.” Flannery acknowledges that is a political judgment for secular authorities to make, but comments that it is likely the economic immigrant will benefit her new country, because it is natural for human beings “to find...their individual good” in the common good.

Other contributors, most vociferously Finnis in yet another contribution, favor a different prudential judgment. Writing on globalization, Finnis refers to “the bad side effects of multiethnicity and multiculturalism,” in particular the mixing of “politically opposing religions” (by which he seems to have in mind Islam with Christianity), and he has gentle words for “restrictive and ethnically selective policies such as those that culturally and economically stabilized the United States between 1924 and 1965.” On his reading, CST is compatible with and may even require

an immigration policy that, for the sake of the poorer and more vulnerable among the indigenous (national) population, restricts entry to persons of high and needed qualifications, and refuses entry to or deports those who have entered unlawfully (“without documentation”).

Finnis’s list of those who may be refused entry goes on—adherents of opposing religions appear again—but that quotation is enough to catch the whiff of MAGA, Brexit, and Orbánism in the air. Finnis and others in this volume are at pains to show that CST is not in fact the Democratic Party at prayer. Not even CST unites the faithful politically.

It is a familiar talking point that CST allows for divergent prudential judgments, whereas the “negative norms” of Catholic moral teaching permit no exceptions. Some of the essays simply repeat that point, but others dig deeper into its implications for the Church’s role in the modern world. Christopher Tollefsen’s chapter on the lay apostolate thoughtfully explores the relationship between the clergy and the laity, with an eye toward understanding why Vatican II’s charge that the lay apostolate “be broadened and intensified” has largely gone unheeded. Like Russell Shaw in a different chapter, Tollefsen points to the recent emphasis on lay ministry, as if serving as a lector or catechist substituted for working to ensure that “the divine law is inscribed into the life of the earthly city,” as Gaudium et spes enjoins.

Finnis’s “Radical Critique” of CST goes further in knocking clergy from positions of authority with respect to the “judgments about contingent facts, causalities, and probabilities” that must be made in applying the principles of CST to real social and political problems. According to him, “popes and other pastors should generally state only [the Church’s] timeless moral norms and general moral principles; if they teach anything beyond these as CST, it should always be in hypothetical form” (if the circumstances are such and such, then you should choose thus). The upshot is that much of “the praxis” of CST should be “remitted to the laity,” and popes should stop issuing such long—and sometimes poorly written and badly argued—documents that hardly anyone, other than scholars, reads in full.

Finnis has his axes to grind, and it is questionable whether, for example, the Diocese of Albany would have established its needle-exchange program for opioid addicts had its bishop not put his mind to CST. Also, it should be noted that there are often disputable judgments involved in the application of the Church’s negative moral norms. All that said, it is another sign of the times, and perhaps another effect of the clergy sex-abuse scandal, that even a very conservative Catholic like Finnis is done with clericalism.


Is There a Religious Left?

Years before the 2016 election, those who were paying attention noticed that faith-based activism was showing signs of a resurgence in the United States. Black churches were organizing against gun violence. The sanctuary movement, where churches take in immigrants to shield them from deportation, was being revived. The Moral Mondays protests, led by the Rev. William Barber, were starting to gain national prominence. But most of these stories were rarely mentioned in secular, mainstream news outlets. If you read about them at all, it most likely would have been in the coverage they received from left-leaning and religious media.

That changed post-Trump, when the Religious Left suddenly became part of the national conversation. The irony for those of us who had written about it for a long time was that the Religious Left had actually been there all along; Trump’s win just caused people to notice. Clergy standing with linked arms before white supremacists, hijab-wearing activists in the streets, Native water protectors at Standing Rock, Sikhs feeding Black Lives Matter protesters: it all formed a picture that many distressed and frightened Americans needed for a sense of consolation, even hope.

Jack Jenkins, author of the entertaining and informative recent book American Prophets, was there at Charlottesville, Standing Rock, and many other pivotal events. His dogged reporting for ThinkProgress and Religion News Service perfectly positioned him to write the narrative of how progressive, faith-based movements have grown, changed, and cohered (or not) over the past decade. Before Trump, the story of the Religious Left in America was mostly local and granular, rather than sweeping and national; Jenkins tries to bring the two approaches together, moving between the work of activists in far-flung towns and policy fights in Washington D.C. This newfound visibility and recognition means, of course, that pundits are scrambling to define the Religious Left—and therefore to have some ownership of it.

Take the example of an online spat in May, not long after Jenkins’s book was published, over whether the Religious Left actually existed, or had been willed into being by narrative-starved journalists. In the midst of these arguments, the New York Times’s Elizabeth Bruenig wrote (in a now deleted tweet) that “there’s no meaningfully religious left,” because the Religious Left is just “people on the internet.” I don’t mean to single her out from among the debate’s many participants, but what she expressed is worth mentioning because it’s a common sentiment. Bruenig made her observation in the context of comparing the Religious Left to the Religious Right. On those terms, she is correct. The Religious Left still doesn’t and probably never will exist on the same institutional scale as the Religious Right, and it certainly doesn’t have the Religious Right’s electoral heft.

The Religious Left had actually been there all along; Trump’s win just caused people to notice.

That is precisely the view that Jenkins takes aim at over and over again in American Prophets. In his telling, the Religious Left has never positioned itself as an alternate version of the Religious Right. Jenkins offered a snappy rejoinder to Bruenig on Twitter at the time, which serves as a decent summary of his approach: “there is nothing on the left that looks/operates like the Religious Right. The modern left is a coalition of coalitions & often disagrees with itself.” The Twitter debate seemed to prove as much. But it also demonstrated that as the progressives of faith profiled in Jenkins’s book rise to greater prominence—people like Rev. Barber, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Linda Sarsour, Valarie Kaur, Simran Singh, Rev. Traci Blackmon, Sr. Carol Keehan, and Sr. Simone Campbell—there will be a rush to claim and corral them, trying to fit them into the ready-at-hand categories so many commentators have learned to lean on. They might wonder why anyone should care about the Religious Left if it doesn’t walk, talk, sound like, and get people elected like the Religious Right, but that reduces the work of faith-based activists who have put their lives on the line to charts and polls. It also misses one of the Religious Left’s most important differences from the Religious Right: it does not belong to one faith or one political party.

That unruliness is partly why the Religious Left, according to Jenkins, is “amorphous and ever-changing,” hard to pin down and easily define. Jenkins’s time working for ThinkProgress meant that he had impressive access to the inside story of the Obama’s administration’s fight for the Affordable Care Act, which includes a jaw-dropping anecdote about the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. But the book’s real strength lies in the snapshots he provides of more grassroots, community-based movements like the Standing Rock occupation and Occupy Wall Street’s Protest Chaplains, along with mentions of Christian Socialist groups, anarchist leftist Quakers, and other smaller, local, off-the-radar faith-based movements. If the Religious Right’s heft “is measured in electoral might,” as Jenkins puts it, the Religious Left “builds power through a mixture of moral arguments, liberation theology, and the art of protest.”

It’s tempting to use any book review to talk about what a book gets wrong and what it should have done differently. I feel that tug especially in this case, because I not only know many of the people Jenkins profiled but also have shared meals, car rides, and worked soup lines with more than a few of them. But that seems to go against the spirit of Jenkins’s mostly excellent book. His account of the Religious Left is practically an invitation for those who understand it differently or have different stories to tell to write their own articles and books. Jenkins does weave in history, theology, and informed analysis throughout the book, but he’s a reporter, and his strength as a writer is found in the narratives he crafts. Storytelling, as he notes, is one of the Religious Left’s favorite tools. Stories give us frameworks of understanding and ballast for difficult times, which might be what makes this book especially useful right now. If people of faith are rising up against injustice, this collection of stories might help sustain us through the perils ahead.

When I returned to the Catholic Church as an adult, I struggled to understand how a person like myself—from a family with deep activist roots, and perpetually disappointed by the U.S. bishops’ failures to speak out on behalf of the oppressed—would ever find a place in it. My parish priest, the late Fr. Al Moser, listened to my complaints and reassured me I was far from alone. Go find your people, he said, and eventually, I did. Jenkins’s book and the work of all the reporters and writers pursuing the stories of the Religious Left are helping so many of us find our people. Because that’s what the Religious Left ultimately is: not a monumental movement or a faceless political mass, but a people in search of one another.

American Prophets
The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country

Jack Jenkins
$27.99 | 352 pp.


Will Anything Change This Time?

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, public protests across the United States and around the world have focused on racism, calling for a reckoning not only with his death but also with systemic injustice. There is a sense of déjà vu in what happened. Many recalled the death of Eric Garner or the beating of Rodney King and the outrage and protests these provoked, or remembered the upheavals of the 1960s. It’s not just about policing. A litany of offenses against Black people in America extends across history: from slavery to lynching and other murders; from redlining and Jim Crow to contempt and exclusion from the goods of society. After George Floyd’s death, anger has boiled over again. Will anything change?

This moment in time is perhaps a good one to revisit John Paul II’s teaching on social sin, both for the hope it inspires and for its frank acknowledgement of the challenges we face. To tell this story we need to start in the 1980s. The theme of the 1983 Synod of Bishops was “reconciliation,” and John Paul II wanted to talk about penance. However, the bishops—in particular the bishops from Third-World countries—had something else on their minds. They wanted to talk about social sin, structures of sin, and systemic forms of oppression that magnify and perpetuate sinful situations. Reconciliation is not only a matter of confessing personal faults and seeking forgiveness; conversion requires commitment to social change.

Ever the anti-Marxist, John Paul II resisted speaking about sin in supra-personal terms. Rather than leaning into the problem of structures, he instead turned to the theme of personal responsibility. He blunted the force of the concept of social sin by claiming that every sin is, in a certain way, social. A staunch defender of the practice of individual confession as essential to the sacrament of penance, he also effectively suppressed the communal rite of reconciliation with general absolution—one of the few reforms of the sacrament after Vatican II that was growing in popularity. One might conclude therefore that John Paul II successfully routed those who sought to develop the Church’s teaching on reconciliation to include social sin and communal responsibility.

To John Paul II, structures of evil are formidable expressions of the “mystery of sin”

But that was not the final outcome of the discussion. Pressed to explain what the bishops were talking about in the synod, John Paul II actually put social sin on the map for many Catholics in his post-synodal exhortation, Reconciliation and Penance. He defined social sin as “the accumulation of personal sins.” He acknowledged the existence of structures of sin—a subject to which he would return in later teachings—even as he insisted on personal responsibility. To John Paul II, structures of evil are formidable expressions of the “mystery of sin,” to which our faith provides a definitive and liberating response. 

In that exhortation he identified seven ways that people contribute to social sin—behaviors we see in many instances, from racism to abortion, from ecological degradation to sexual abuse. The first is to cause evil, the second to exploit it. Thus the sweatshop owner harms his workers, and those who make a profit by selling the cheap goods he produces exploit the availability of these goods. The third names “those who are in a position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit certain social evils but who fail to do so out of laziness, fear or the conspiracy of silence.” Think of the onlookers who did nothing to stop the killing of George Floyd, or the “blue wall of silence” that has cloaked lethal violence against Blacks. The fourth consists of secret complicity. One does not need to march in the streets chanting “Jews will not replace us” to traffic in conspiracy theories and support a politics of division. The fifth is indifference, captured so well by the logo on a jacket worn by Melania Trump when she traveled to the southern border during the height of the family-separation crisis: “I really don’t care, do u?” The sixth names “those who take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world,” turning cynicism into a comfort zone. The seventh identifies “those who sidestep the effort and sacrifice required, producing specious reasons of higher order.” One has only to recall the way Mark Zuckerberg invoked free speech when confronted with Facebook’s role in spreading misinformation to see an example. John Paul II was attempting to show that social sin is perpetuated by human acts. An awareness of social sin, for John Paul II, summons each of us to invest personally in the work of dismantling structures of sin in order to build a civilization of love.

One of the key characteristics of social sin is that it projects its own inevitability. There seems to be no way out. But the positive side of the teaching on social sin articulated by John Paul II is that there is a way out: solidarity. Solidarity, as he explained in 1987, “is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”

Individuals often feel powerless to change situations that give rise to ongoing societal evil. Yet we should never lose heart. John Paul II’s teaching reminds us that we can do something constructive together; we are not mere playthings of history, condemned to perpetual roles of oppressor and oppressed. As he argued in 1999, “Evil exerts a frightening power of attraction which causes many types of behavior to be judged ‘normal’ and ‘inevitable’.... So many people feel powerless and bewildered before an overwhelming situation from which there seems no escape. But the proclamation of Christ’s victory over evil gives us the certainty that even the strongest structures of evil can be overcome and replaced by ‘structures of good.’”


Precious Protector

In the not-too-distant future, the current Dalai Lama will pass away and a new one will be selected. Beijing has already made it clear that China will be heavily involved in the choice. No doubt this will be a sensational geopolitical and religious event full of palace intrigue, the resurfacing of ancient rites and customs, and the rueful remembrance of Chinese-Tibetan Cold War struggles that have led to the current unhappy situation: the Dalai Lama living in exile—in Dharamsala, India—hoping for the day when he or his successor might return to Tibet and assume his place on Lhasa’s Lion Throne.

Alexander Norman’s book is a must-read to prepare for this event and to understand current realities. Norman, a longtime student of Tibetan history and the author of a previous book on past Precious Protectors (one of the Dalai Lama’s many titles), recounts the remarkable odyssey of a boy (born Lhamo Dhondup) who grew up in an isolated Tibetan village; was identified in the late 1930s as the fourteenth reincarnation of Chenrezig, Bodhisattva of Compassion; and is now arguably the most recognized religious leader on the planet besides the pope. Norman adeptly places the Dalai Lama’s life in the context of twentieth-century political developments and events without losing sight of the fact that his office is fundamentally religious and cannot be understood apart from deep dives into Tibetan-Buddhist theology and practice.

The Precious Protector’s fraught relations with Mao Zedong are well-narrated, including the Dalai Lama’s dramatic escape into India in 1959—with the support of CIA agents—as China’s People’s Liberation Army “pacified” Tibet and despoiled its religious heritage. The situation only worsened during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, as Mao’s Red Guards indulged in an orgy of violence and destruction. “Religion is poison,” Mao told the young Dalai Lama to his face in the 1950s.

Since 1959, there have been two Tibets: the original and that of a large, diasporic community in India, with pockets throughout the world. Coming to terms with this new situation, the Dalai Lama has adroitly reconceived of his vocation, becoming in the process a mouthpiece for global Buddhism, a champion of compassion and “mindfulness,” a key player in interfaith dialogue, an advocate for the environment, a desired companion of leaders and dignitaries in many countries, and even the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Despite all this, Norman indicates that the “Free Tibet” movement has largely fizzled, confronted by the fact that most countries today, while paying lip service to the Tibetan issue as a cause célèbre, would rather maintain access to China’s vast markets than risk alienation. In China, it remains illegal to display pictures of the Dalai Lama.


Now in his eighties with little hope of returning to Tibet, the Dalai Lama and his fellow Tibetans appear to stand in the twilight of previous momentous events.

The politics are interesting and important, but Norman’s book is especially successful at narrating the spiritual dimensions of the Dalai Lama’s life and office. Insights into the Precious Protector’s contemplative activity, his appetite for learning, his desire to maintain tradition while dispensing with some rigidities, and his aim to serve as an “ecumenical” voice for various sub-traditions within Tibetan Buddhism are provided in illuminating detail. We learn that he spends an extraordinary amount of time in meditation every day. The casual onlooker might not know how central the Kalachakra or “Wheel of Time” tantra has been for the Dalai Lama’s public ministry. Performed thirty-four times now, this tantra involves the creation of an astonishingly intricate mandala, meditation on samsara (the endless birth and rebirth of all beings), and imagining oneself entering the body of Kalachakra, conceived as deity. Once inside Kalachakra, the practitioner regards himself as a single drop of bodhicitta (the aspiration to seek liberation into nirvana for all sentient beings) and descends through the deity’s body before exiting through his erect penis into the “lotus,” or vagina, of Kalachakra’s sexual consort, Vishvamata. Is it any wonder that Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation were drawn to Tibetan Buddhism in the 1960s?

Norman also tells us about the elaborate process for choosing a Dalai Lama, the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the role of monasteries, the intricacies of Tibetan Buddhist cosmology (with layers of hell that would make Dante envious), “precious pills” (made from the excrement of lamas and believed to hasten enlightenment), “demon traps” and how to make them, trance states and the role of mediums, the significance attached to dreams, and much else. The picture that emerges makes clear that the Precious Protector, while certainly an actor in the here-and-now, is above all a central circuit in a complex grid of supernatural realities and traditions, which are lost on many Western observers who know the Dalai Lama only through his avuncular, globe-trotting public persona.

To help the reader with the complexity of it all, Norman provides a glossary of terms, a map of Tibet, and a list of previous Dalai Lamas. While the glossary is extensive, I might quibble that it could include still more detail. A timeline of the Dalai Lama’s life and corresponding historical events would also have been helpful.


In April 2011, the Dalai Lama announced his full retirement from office as leader of the Tibetan government in exile. By this act, ending centuries of theocratic rule, the office would henceforth be headed by a democratically elected first minister. Thus, not unlike the pope after the collapse of the Papal States in the nineteenth century, the Dalai Lama now occupies a largely spiritual role, even if he still functions as a symbolic figurehead for his people.

And what of the future? Norman is too prudent a scholar to speculate promiscuously. But the image that emerges at the end of the book is one of pathos. Now in his eighties with little hope of returning to Tibet, the Dalai Lama and his fellow Tibetans appear to stand in the twilight of previous momentous events. Still largely cut off from the world until the mid-twentieth century, today both homegrown and diasporic Tibetans appear to “concern themselves more with this life than the next,” as the forces of modernity and global capitalism do their predictable work. The past desecration of religious life, the relocation of numerous Han Chinese into Tibet (facilitated by new high-speed trains), and Beijing’s Orwellian surveillance threaten to end the region’s special status and singularly numinous reputation in the world’s imagination. Higher education is not obtainable in the Tibetan language, so parents want their children to learn fluent Chinese—thus further diluting their cultural distinctiveness.

Nonetheless, protests against this seemingly inexorable decline appear from time to time, not least in acts of self-immolation by Tibetan monks and nuns, who want to remind the world of a situation they find intolerable. One hundred and fifty of these have taken place in recent decades, each recorded on a martyr’s memorial in Dharamsala. To China’s consternation, the Dalai Lama, although advising against self-immolation, does not condemn past instances of it.

The 2008 Olympics brought a flare-up of the Tibetan issue, and in recent years considerable scholarly attention has been devoted to understanding and preserving Tibet’s past. The internet is a place where the “two Tibets” can still gather, rueing the current situation and hoping for better days to come. Films, essays, and poems circulate widely online, including these lines about Tibetan identity from an anonymous poet:

I’m Tibetan

Tibetan: a name which is matched by a reality

Tibetan: standing on the earth, touching the heavens


Don’t ask me my surname

My surname is not Li, my surname is not Wong

If you insist on asking for my surname

I’ll tell you I am a follower of the Buddha

I am a strong nation blessed by the Tibetan gods

My left shoulder is a hawk

My right shoulder a yak

My body is a lamp under the statue of the Buddha, never extinguished.

Yes, the current Dalai Lama will eventually go the way of all flesh. But the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Chenrezig, has seen many lives now. One suspects that we haven’t seen the last of him, and that Tibet’s story remains unfinished.


The Dalai Lama: An Extraordinary Life
Alexander Norman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
$30 | 432 pp.


Who’s a ‘Fake’ Catholic?

The loudest voices on the right are again trying to define the Catholic political narrative leading into the election.

“The first time in a while that the Democratic ticket hasn’t had a Catholic on it,” Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island tweeted sarcastically. “Sad.” A South Carolina priest with a large following tweeted that Joe Biden is a “fake Catholic.” Lou Holtz, the former coach and folksy icon of the Notre Dame football team, called the former vice president a “Catholic in name only” during the Republican National Convention last week (the university disavowed his remarks). The convention also featured Sr. Deirdre Byrne, of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, who breathlessly hailed Donald Trump as “the most pro-life president this nation has ever had.” Standing at a podium that bore a “Trump 2020” sign and holding a rosary that she described as a “weapon,” Sr. Byrne called the Biden-Harris ticket “the most anti-life presidential ticket ever.” While claiming that Trump has been “defending life at all stages,” she also falsely stated that Biden supports “infanticide.”

These kinds of attacks aren’t particularly new, even if delivered in the extreme tone of the Trump era. Sen. John Kerry, the last Catholic Democrat to receive his party’s presidential nomination, faced similar blowback in 2004 over his support for reproductive rights. Nor are the efforts to delegitimize Biden’s faith sporadic or isolated. The professional Catholic right is made up of well-funded activist groups, anti-Francis bishops, and single-issue fundamentalists who have spent the past several decades organizing around the idea that Catholicism in public life can be reduced to opposing abortion. This is a useful, if grossly distorted, political theology for the conservative movement and the Republican Party, but it also has nothing to do with traditional Catholic moral theology.

Church teaching on political participation emphasizes prudence, the need to apply broad moral principles to specific situations and imperfect choices, and informed consciences

Church teaching on political participation emphasizes prudence, the need to apply broad moral principles to specific situations and imperfect choices, and informed consciences that can discern not only complex issues, but also the character and intentions of candidates. As longtime Church analyst Fr. Tom Reese noted in Religion News Service, the bishops’ guidance for Catholic voters weighing a candidate’s position on abortion is a lot more complicated than what we saw from a few handpicked Catholics at the Republican National Convention, or from vocal bishops firing away on Twitter. Here is what the bishops have to say in “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” a document released every presidential election year, which acknowledges that “Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote.”

A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.

Trump’s most vociferous Catholic cheerleaders never bring up the fact that bishops list “racist behavior” under actions that are “intrinsically evil.” Given that Trumpism is defined, in large part, by white nationalism and blatant appeals designed to intentionally stoke racial resentment, this silence is not surprising. But it is instructive. I also don’t hear any “pro-life” MAGA Catholics quoting Pope Francis, who after the police killing of George Floyd said that “we cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.” Even more, the pope’s insistence that the lives of the poor and “those already born” are as “equally sacred as life in the womb” clearly articulates consistent-ethic-of-life principles that you won’t find in GOP political advertising.

It’s legitimate for Church leaders and others to challenge Biden on his positions, including his support for abortion rights. When done with civility, and in context with the many interconnected social justice issues at play in the election, this is part of the healthy debate that’s required in a pluralistic society. But deliberately distorting Biden’s position as “pro-infanticide”—and challenging his right to call himself a Catholic as some bishops are doing—doesn’t serve this function. Questioning an individual’s deepest commitments to his faith is religious slander. The fact that pastors are engaged in such behavior makes it all the more disturbing. This is why it was so important that Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich addressed it during his homily on Sunday. “There should never be a time or a moment in which we judge others and their faith journey and say that a person is not Christian enough or Catholic enough,” the cardinal said. Without citing Biden or any of the bishops who have made exactly that claim, the cardinal led by example and put down an important marker.

Many of the same people who claim Biden is “Catholic in name only”—the same epithet hurled at Catholic progressives for many years—are happy to pick and choose from their own “cafeteria Catholic” menu. Conveniently ignoring or downplaying Church teachings on racism, the dignity of immigrants, and economic inequality, these Catholics indulge in the same selective theology they call out in others. And self-appointed guardians of the faith who are so quick to accuse people of being “anti-Catholic” go quiet or join the parade when a fellow Catholic in public life has his personal faith attacked. Those who have the audacity to judge Biden’s commitment to his faith, and even the state of his soul, are themselves willing to engage in a form of “anti-Catholicism” if it suits their ideological or political purpose. There is nothing authentically Catholic about that hypocrisy.

Madonnas in Gas Masks

Last November, la Parroquia de la Asunción in Santiago was sacked during protests against the government of Chile. Protesters pulled out the wooden pews as fuel for burning barricades against the police. Statues were thrown into the street. A statue of Mary was carried away above a protestor’s head while a bystander commented, “The Virgin is going to war.” In the midst of this chaotic scene was a procession, no longer religious, but still reliant upon the symbols of Chilean Catholic culture.

During the estallido social, which began last October, the Plaza Italia was the site of violent confrontations between Los Carabineros, the national police, and la Primera Línea, those who envision themselves as the “Front Line” that protects the people from the state. Nearby, one wall of the enormous Centro Gabriela Mistral (GAM) has become the site of memorials to those who have died or been injured in the protests. Built during the Allende era, and used by Pinochet for government offices, Centro GAM is now a cultural center for music and the performing arts. It is also the site of some of Chile’s most spectacular protest art and graffiti. Images depict blood running from the eyes of famous political and historical figures, suggesting both the police violence that has caused so many eye injuries and the blindness of the upper class and government to the desperation of the people. The art at Centro GAM has changed daily. When the government ripped down and painted over the memorial, it was recreated the next day.

Some protest art has an openly anti-religious message. Graffiti marking the exterior of churches—“Dios no existe” (God doesn’t exist) and satanic symbols—is particularly unnerving to Chilean Christians, many of whom are sympathetic to the protests. Yet it is hard to attribute a consistently secular ideology to the movement as a whole. Some of the protest art appropriates religious iconography. One frequent image is of a black dog with a red bandana and a halo (see page 24). Another portrays Jesus, surrounded by dogs, with the face of Keanu Reeves, a reference to the John Wick film series in which the main character (played by Reeves) goes on a rampage of retribution after his dog is killed. These images are often ironic, playfully sending up the conventions of Catholic hagiography.

Yet the wall of Centro GAM also includes memorials and tributes to fallen protesters next to unironic images of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The memorial links these casualties to the deaths of earlier heroes—like the indigenous leader “Lonko” Juan Collihuín Catril and Víctor Jara, a musician who was tortured and killed by the Pinochet regime. A painting of Mauricio Fredes, who died running away from the Carabineros, links him to a long history of struggle. In a representation of a tree—titled “The Sacred Tree of Chile”—the trunk and branches contain the names of the martyrs who constitute that history.

Some of the protest art playfully appropriates religious iconography; a dog with a halo is a frequent image.

Some protest art directly appeals to Christian themes and figures. A painting of Mary with a gas mask and a halo of barbed wire (see above) is inscribed with the words, “Reza Por Lxs Que Luchan” (Pray for those who fight). There is an image of Jesus flanked by two Carabineros. He holds a sign that reads “No Los Perdones, Saben Perfecto Lo Que Hacen” (Do Not Forgive Them, They Know Exactly What They Are Doing). In another, Our Lady of Guadalupe is presented with a bandana covering her face and a slingshot in her hand. It reads “Patrona de las Barricadas, Protégenos de Todo Mal Gobierno” (Patroness of the Barricades, Protect Us from All Evil Governments). Intentionally or not, the religious dimension of such images can’t help but suggest the transcendent roots of human dignity. In addition to the expressions of anger toward religious institutions, especially the Catholic Church, there are also appeals to religious practitioners to join the struggle for justice.

Although the Church has appeared largely neutral during these protests, many Catholics have participated. In a March 3 letter addressed to “Hermanos Curas” (Brother Priests), Mariano Puga, a diocesan priest and longtime advocate for the working poor, pleads with the leadership of the Church to find its moral strength in the Eucharistic body of Christ. In the 1970s, due to his association with the Chilean Left, Puga was captured and detained by the Pinochet government at Villa Grimaldi, an infamous detention center where political prisoners were tortured. His letter asks his brother priests to recognize the body of Christ in the “the murdered, the political prisoners, the blinded, the silent, and imprisoned.” Explaining that many families of victims do not feel close to the Church, he writes, “During these months we have tried to commune with the body of Christ, shot, damaged, mutilated, murdered.” Lamenting that only two priests were present for the Mass celebrated on February 19 for the families of the detained, he ends his letter abruptly, “With which Christ do we commune?” On Saturday, March 14, eleven days after his letter appeared, Puga passed away from cancer.


Religion & Presidential Politics


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Sen. Eugene McCarthy, one of the few theologically sophisticated men ever to seek either party’s presidential nomination, liked to say that only two kinds of religion are tolerated along the Potomac: “strong beliefs vaguely expressed and vague beliefs strongly affirmed.” McCarthy had two particular presidents in mind: Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. But he could have been describing most of the men who have occupied the White House. Franklin D. Roosevelt would have understood what McCarthy meant. When he decided to run for president in 1932, his press secretary asked him what he should tell the press about his religious convictions. Roosevelt could have justly claimed that he was a warden of his Episcopal parish, prayed often, and regularly attended Sunday services. But all he said was: “Tell them I am a Christian and a Democrat, and that is all they need to know.” And it was. And so, with rare exceptions, it has always been in presidential elections.

Having written about religion and its relationship to American culture and politics for more than half a century, I am not inclined to minimize the effects of religious belief, behavior, and belonging on American public life. But I think it’s abundantly clear that religion has rarely been a significant factor in our presidential politics, and isn’t likely to be in the upcoming election. On the contrary, to treat religious identity as an independent variable, as many journalists, academics, and pollsters do, inflates the influence of religion on our politics and masks the ways in which politics has come to shape American religion, rather than the reverse. Still, after the returns are in next November, the media will carry stories about how Catholics, liberal Protestants, and Evangelicals—especially “non-Hispanic white” Evangelicals—voted. Why do we insist on connecting presidential choices with religious identity?

One reason has to do with the way we have come to imagine our national story. Because of the powerful role the Puritans and Plymouth Rock have played in how we tell that story, many Americans have imagined that our country is inherently Christian in its origins. Certainly Christianity, mostly of a Protestant sort, was in the nation’s founding cultural mix. But there weren’t a lot of churches in the thirteen original colonies, and not a lot of clergy either. Like continental Europe, colonial America was officially religious—ten of the thirteen colonies had state churches—but in the piquant phrase of Church historian Franklin H. Littell, the religion practiced by most colonists is better described as “baptized heathenism.” Writing in 1962, Littell estimated that, at the nation’s birth in 1776, no more than 5 percent of Americans were “churched.” That estimate is probably too low. More recently, sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke have put the number at 17 percent, extrapolating from data that wasn’t available to Littell. But that still leaves 83 percent of the country “unchurched.”

The Founding Fathers were not particularly religious either. Only a handful could be described as orthodox Christians in any sense. George Washington, for example, attended church with some regularity but rarely mentions Jesus Christ in his personal or public writings. He preferred to talk about Providence, “the Great Ruler of Events,” and other deistic abstractions. This was, after all, the era of the American Enlightenment, and what the framers of the Constitution—agnostic, Deist, and Christian alike—wanted to avoid were the religious conflicts that plagued Europe. They did so by separating the realm of the minister from that of the magistrate, which had been joined at the hip in Puritan New England.

In the Founders’ view, religion’s value lay mainly in its positive social function: Washington saw religion as a necessary moral prop of democracy; John Adams believed that religion helped mold the kind of conscientious citizens that the U.S. Constitution required; and Madison thought that citizens of the new republic ought first to see themselves as “subjects of the Governour of the Universe.” In 1848, the visiting French Catholic aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at how the American republic had devised an arrangement in which a multiplicity of old and new religious “sects” could flourish without intervening institutionally in government. In this way, he wrote, religion served as “the first of the [Americans’] political institutions”—what we call today “civil society.”

Can it be shown that any policy, foreign or domestic, of any president, bore a direct relationship to that president’s religious beliefs and commitments, or lack of the same?

Fueled by the energies of the first and second Great Awakenings, most Americans eventually did embrace some form of Christianity, including new religious movements of their own devising like the Disciples of Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Latter-day Saints. But they still did not demand of presidential candidates proof of church membership.

Can it be shown that any policy, foreign or domestic, of any president, bore a direct relationship to that president’s religious beliefs and commitments, or lack of the same? In his two large volumes on the religious lives of the U.S. presidents before Donald Trump, historian Gary Scott Smith finds that exactly half of the first forty-four were sufficiently religious to merit detailed examination of how their faith impacted their lives—and their policies. In his meaty second volume, Religion in the Oval Office, which seems to record every time a president responded to a cough with “God bless you,” Smith cites a number of presidential policies that he believes derive from the influence of religious faith on the character or “worldview” of the president himself. This approach allows for many degrees of causal separation between religious conviction and public policy. For instance, one could argue that the streak of moral perfectionism in the Scottish Calvinism of Woodrow Wilson—as evidenced by his insistence that only those “with clean hands and a pure heart” should participate in democratic politics—helps explain why he refused to tolerate any compromises in the Treaty of Versailles. But not every Calvinist is as unyielding as Wilson was.

In any case, nowhere does Smith demonstrate that religious faith alone was responsible for a presidential policy. Indeed, in every example he mentions I find that there are better, mostly political explanations, and that religion, in the form of moral rhetoric, is almost always invoked to sell or justify a decision determined by realpolitik. For example, Smith cites various reasons why, after the United States defeated the Spanish fleet in the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898, President William McKinley chose to annex the Philippine Islands. There were commercial, military, and geopolitical reasons, but in selling annexation to the American public, McKinley advanced a religious rationale: “After much prayer,” he declared, almighty God had led him to see that the United States was called to “educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ died.” Never mind that the Filipinos had been Catholic for more than three hundred years.


There have been only three presidential elections where a candidate’s religion was a consequential factor, all of them in the twentieth century. Two of them occurred when a Roman Catholic headed the Democratic ticket.

The first to do so was Al Smith in 1928. A major issue that year was Prohibition and Smith was a “wet.” The Methodist Church was so fearful that a Democratic victory would lead to the repeal of Prohibition that four years earlier the church moved its Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morals from Topeka, Kansas, to a newly constructed Methodist headquarters in Washington D.C.—still the only non-governmental building on Capitol Hill. Not only was Smith a wet from New York, he was also a Catholic. And so the Methodist building was designed to house the Washington offices of other Protestant denominations as well—thus forming a kind of Maginot Line against the rising political influence of American Catholics.

On the other hand, voters in 1928 felt no qualms in electing a Quaker, Herbert Hoover, as commander-in-chief. Hoover was an accomplished and popular public servant. The pacifism inherent in his religious tradition was simply not an issue. It was enough that he was a Protestant.

Like the assumption that the nation was Christian at its founding, so too the idea that God had deliberately set the American continent aside as a place where Protestants could create a righteous nation has deep historical roots. FDR himself alluded to this tradition when, on one occasion, he sharply reminded his close Jewish friend and cabinet officer, Henry Morgenthau, and a Catholic appointee, Leo Crowley: “You know this is a Protestant country, and the Jews and Catholics are here under sufferance.”

Under Roosevelt, Jews and Catholics became constituencies to be courted. During the Cold War they gained parity with Protestants as religious partners in the nation’s struggle against godless Communism. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who saw no need to join a church until he decided to run for president, assumed a kind of priestly role once he was in the White House. Not even the Democrats complained when the Republican National Committee declared in 1955 that Eisenhower “in every sense of the word, is not only the political leader, but the spiritual leader of our times.”

Five years later, the possibility that a Roman Catholic might be elected as the political—never mind spiritual—leader of the country was still so threatening to Evangelical Christians that evangelist Billy Graham secretly tried to organize Protestant clergy to oppose John F. Kennedy from the pulpit. The plot is worth recalling because if it hadn’t been discovered, it’s very likely that Kennedy would not have been elected President.

In the summer before the election, Graham told his friend Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s running mate, that although Graham was going to vote for his even closer friend Richard Nixon, he would remain publicly neutral in the race—in fact, he would sit out the campaign in Switzerland. Privately, however, Graham urged Nixon to play the religion card because Catholics were likely to turn out in huge numbers to support one of their own. When Nixon refused, Graham decided to do it himself. In Switzerland, he convened a meeting of conservative Evangelical leaders, including those from the National Association of Evangelicals, Protestants, and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the editor of his own magazine, Christianity Today. The plan, to which Graham alerted Nixon, was to brief 150 other Protestant leaders at a closed conference in Washington D.C. and then announce to the press the creation of an organization called, ironically, “Citizens for Religious Freedom.” Graham remained in Europe, as he had promised, and asked the popular preacher Norman Vincent Peale to front the initiative.

A pair of reporters who managed to observe the closed-door session from a projection booth heard several speakers compare Catholicism to Communism and Peale warn that “the future of American culture is at stake.” Peale, the champion of positive thinking, subsequently took such a drubbing in the press that he went into a deep depression and offered to resign from his position as pastor at New York’s Marble Collegiate Church, from the editorship of his magazine, Guideposts, and even from the New York Rotary Club. But he never revealed that Graham was the organizer of the group, nor did Graham ever acknowledge his pivotal role in it.

After reading the story in the Washington Post, Kennedy decided to accept an invitation he had received to address the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Without that powerful and historic speech, it is unlikely that he would have won the election. Even then, his margin over Nixon in the popular vote was less than 2 percent.

What Graham and Protestants like him feared, irrationally but honestly, was that, through Kennedy, the pope in Rome would take control of this democratic society that Protestants, with God’s help, had created. What they failed to understand is that whatever influence Catholics had on U.S. politics was no longer exercised by the hierarchy—that era had died decades earlier. The way American Catholics influenced politics was now chiefly through two mediating structures: the labor movement and the Democratic Party, in both of which Catholics came to play a dominant role.


But the tight bonds between Catholics and the Democratic Party did not survive the raucous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where the same Mayor Daley who had helped secure Kennedy’s election became the televised face of police brutality and political oppression. Over the next four years the Democrats’ commission on party structure and delegate selection, headed by George McGovern, thwarted input from union leaders, a great many of whom were Catholic pillars of the party. In opting for the caucus system, the commission stripped the power of selection from big-city and state party leaders, many of whom were also Catholics.

The goal was to attract younger, better educated, and more secular voters from the suburbs to what McGovern, as the party’s 1972 presidential candidate, called a “coalition of conscience.” Thus, many of the people who protested outside the 1968 convention hall were seated inside at the 1972 convention, while Mayor Daley and leaders of white working-class Democrats like him were at home watching on television.

Without the traditional support of white working-class voters, McGovern lost every state but Massachusetts. But the long-term effects have been far more consequential. One was to transform Catholics into the largest swing vote in the country—one that in 2004 failed to support the only other Catholic to run for president, John Kerry. In other words, religious identity is no longer a determinative factor in how American Catholics vote, much less an independent variable. Another long-term consequence is that the Democratic Party eventually lost its white working-class base, which today belongs to Donald Trump.

The transformation of the Democratic Party under McGovern ushered in what, in my book Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Ascent of Trump, I call the party’s “Methodist Moment.” McGovern’s father was a Methodist minister, and like him, George studied for the Methodist ministry and taught at his alma mater, a Methodist college, before turning to politics. On the hustings, McGovern came across as an earnest, upright prairie preacher—which he was. But it was the party platform McGovern ran on that best reflected Methodism’s ethos of high-minded moralism. Months before the Democratic convention, the United Methodist Church held its quadrennial General Conference, where delegates from left to right spent weeks fighting over resolutions on a wide range of social and economic issues that would guide the church’s agencies and congregations until the next General Conference. Significantly, when the Democrats later published their 1972 platform, it mirrored closely—in some places word for word—the Methodists’ 1972 Book of Resolutions. When I interviewed Hillary Clinton at the White House in 1994, she told me she still kept a copy of this book in her private quarters.

The Religious Right represented the deliberate politicization of a previously apolitical segment of the population

This is the background for understanding the campaign of 1976—the next and last presidential election in which a candidate’s religion had a significant impact. Jimmy Carter’s Baptist faith was of the South and it bore an important modifier: born again. In the five previous presidential elections, no Democrat had won a majority of what we today call “the white Evangelical” vote. Carter knew that, which is why he wanted it known across the South that as a born-again Christian, he was one of them.

Talking about his born-again faith up North was something else. Carter placed supporters at his press conferences to ask questions about his religious faith that would allow him to affirm it without coming off as the pious Sunday School teacher that he was. “Why, everyone in Plains is Born Again,” he liked to say, “even the Methodists.” (His wife Roselynn is a Methodist.) He even allowed in his famous Playboy interview that, as a good Navy man, he had often “lusted in my heart”—a Biblical phrase most of the magazine’s readers had probably never heard before.

Ironically, identifying as a born-again Christian turned out to be a boon for Carter in the North as well as the South. About the time he won the Democratic nomination, former Nixon aide and convicted Watergate felon Chuck Colson published his spiritual autobiography, Born Again, which went on to sell more than a million copies. Suddenly, the media was full of celebrity conversion stories like Colson’s, from former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver to stripper Candi Barr. Carter’s mother, brother, and evangelist sister all appeared on the cover of Newsweek, and that September I wrote a long piece on Evangelicals. The words “Born Again!” were emblazoned on the cover of that issue, and the magazine proclaimed 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical.” To judge by the letters to the editor, Colson wasn’t the only Evangelical who believed that the Newsweek cover story was God’s own answer to Time’s iconic “Is God Dead?” cover story, published ten years earlier.

Paradoxically, Carter’s awakening of the white Evangelical vote soon gave rise to the Religious Right. Until his campaign, most Protestant fundamentalists and conservative Evangelicals—especially those belonging to independent and non-denominational churches—voted in presidential elections but abjured party politics as too worldly. Journalists and political commentators often lose sight of the fact that the Religious Right was not the creation of Evangelical Christians themselves. It was essentially the work of two Catholics and a Jew: the direct-mail wiz Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, and Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus. Seeing how a born-again Democratic governor from the South had energized fundamentalists and conservative Evangelicals, this trio of conservative political operatives determined to win them over to the GOP. They interviewed likely movement leaders, then picked Jerry Falwell to lead an organization they named “The Moral Majority.”

In short, the Religious Right represented the deliberate politicization of a previously apolitical segment of the population, and when they finally entered the political arena, they did it with cleats on. Lacking mediating secular institutions like those the Catholics had, the Evangelicals put to political use the only institutions they knew: their own churches, schools, radio stations, television programs, and evangelistic associations.


The emergence of the Evangelical vote—or at least the white portion of it—would appear to contradict my contention that religion is no longer a significant factor in presidential politics. After all, exit polls taken in November 2016 showed that four out of five white Evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump—and did so despite his long history of philandering, his manifest lack of character, and his equally manifest disinterest in religion. As more than one newspaper editorial asked: Does this vote not demonstrate the moral hypocrisy of white Evangelical voters?

Not necessarily. As any political scientist will tell you, exit polls are notoriously crude instruments—crude both in the questions they ask and in the hiring of those who ask the questions.

To begin with, white Evangelicals are the most religiously diverse group in this country. They include not only your standard-brand, born-again Baptists and most non-denominational Protestants, but also many Methodists, southern Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Quakers, and a whole lot of Pentecostals—plus a hefty chunk of Catholics who self-identify as Evangelical or Born Again when pollsters ask. (Political scientist Corwin Smidt of Calvin University puts them at 20 percent of those who answer to the “born again” label.) Once a movement and for a time a subculture, Evangelism today is better understood as an imagined community of post-denominational Christians in which almost anyone who chooses to can claim membership. For example, I suspect that most of the 42,000 members Joel Osteen claims for his mega-church would identify as Evangelicals, even though the self-improvement and prosperity gospel Osteen preaches is not easily reconciled with Christian beliefs and practices.

More to the point, although exit polls can give us an early snapshot of how many who identify broadly as this or that voted for a candidate, they do not tell us why. A category like “the Evangelical vote” is misleading precisely because it presumes that being Evangelical is why a citizen voted the way she did. But there are several plausible non-religious reasons why a white Evangelical might vote for Donald Trump. As social scientists like to say, their vote was overdetermined.

One of those reasons is habit. Beginning with the transformation of the Democratic Party in 1972, and especially since the rise of the Religious Right four years later, conservative white Evangelicals have grown accustomed to pulling the Republican lever—just as from FDR to McGovern, most Catholics were mortised into the Democrats’ New Deal coalition. And the Republican Party has returned the favor: if not exactly giving white Evangelicals a place at the table, the GOP has at least allowed them to say the blessing. Conversely, it’s not as if the Democratic Party has put out the welcome mat for white Evangelicals—or, for that matter, for pro-life Catholics.

Geography and demography also play a role. White Evangelical voters skew older than most Democrats, and most of them live in red states. One does not expect white Evangelicals in Alabama or Arkansas to vote for a Democrat for president any more than one expects Irish Catholics in Boston to vote for a Republican.

Even more relevant is the economic factor. As I wrote in Commonweal in May 2018 (“How Religion Got Trump”), a third of white Evangelicals earned less than $30,000 a year in 2016—at a time when the poverty line was $24,250 a year for a couple with two children. And more than half (57 percent) earned less than $50,000 a year. Like most blue-collar workers, they hadn’t seen a real-wage increase since the 1970s. When Trump promised to “Make America Great Again,” a large number of white working-class voters—especially in Rust Belt states—heard more jobs and better pay.

This view is supported by a survey of white Evangelicals conducted by LifeWay Research, an Evangelical organization, in November 2016. Asked what one issue they considered paramount in the election, nearly half of respondents named the economy or national security. A similar poll by Pew found that the paramount concerns of most white Evangelicals were terrorism, the economy, and immigration. By contrast, the issues most important to the white Evangelical pastors polled by LifeWay were the personal character of the nominee and Supreme Court appointments. In sum, most white Evangelicals voted their pocketbooks, and the difference between their concerns and those of their pastors says a good deal about how unimportant church pulpits can be in presidential politics. When a significant segment of the working-class population feels that they can’t provide their children with the kind of future they see other people’s children enjoying, a candidate can muster a politics of resentment—which is exactly what the Trump campaign did.

At the same time, of course, some portion of the white Evangelical community heard Trump promising to make America white again. But why limit the race card to Evangelicals? A majority of white mainline Protestants also voted for Trump, though not by nearly as wide a margin; and among Catholics, non-Hispanic white voters chose Trump over Clinton by a whopping 56 to 37 percent.

Yet another factor to account for is social class. In an essay on elitism in the Democratic Party published last January in the New Republic, Democratic labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan reminds us that we are a nation of high-school graduates, not college graduates, and that close personal ties across the educational gulf separating one class from another are as rare for Democrats as they are for Republicans. As Geoghegan notes, only 30 percent of Americans aged twenty-five and over have degrees from a four-year college, even though 70 percent of high-school graduates enroll in one sort of college or another. Whatever a student may actually learn in four years of college, a diploma still determines one’s economic prospects. The lack of a college diploma also defines what one is likely to suffer. Among the not-so-hidden injuries of social class are early deaths from suicide, alcoholism, and drug use—what economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton call the “deaths of despair” that now characterize the lives of so many in the white working class.


If white Evangelicals had reasons other than religion to vote for Trump in 2016, how should we reckon with “the religion factor” in this year’s race for the White House?

If, as I have argued, white Evangelicals had reasons other than religion to vote for Trump in 2016, how should we reckon with “the religion factor” in this year’s race for the White House? Beginning in the 1980s, John Green, Corwin Smidt, and two other social scientists from Evangelical backgrounds began refining the data on Americans who identify as Christians, distinguishing, for example, Southern Presbyterians, who are typically conservative in both their beliefs and their politics, from their more liberal fellow Presbyterians in the North. Green and his colleagues also established a useful spectrum of religious commitment—from the totally uncommitted, through the 50 percent of Americans whose commitment ranges from somewhat relaxed to vaporous, to the religiously committed. In a similar fashion, the folks at Pew have been experimenting with fresh categories like “the Diversely Devout” and “the Relaxed Religious,” to capture the various modalities of what the British scholar of religion Paul Gifford calls the “hollowed-out” nature of American Christianity.

Green estimates that no more than 17 percent of adult Americans now qualify as “religiously committed.” We’re not talking about Mother Theresas here. We’re talking about Christians and Jews and Muslims who place religious belief, behavior, and belonging at or near the center of their lives. By contrast, Green estimates that roughly 20 percent of adult Americans identify as Nones—meaning they claim no religious affiliation or identity. Although many of these say they are “spiritual,” and some say that they believe in God, it is unclear what sort of god they are talking about or what being spiritual means. In any case, it is not clear how, for example, following a spiritual regimen of morning meditation and afternoon yoga correlates with—much less inspires or explains—political preferences.

If it’s true that only about 17 percent of adult Americans are religiously committed, then we find ourselves, two decades into the twenty-first century, about where we were at the end of the eighteenth. Obviously, there are important religious differences between that era and ours. But the similarity should alert us to the peril of assuming that religion can be politically significant in a society that isn’t all that religious in the first place.

Religion, like politics, is inherently institutional because it is inherently social, and for the one to influence the other requires the kind of social networks that institutions provide. But the Moral Majority of Jerry Falwell disappeared decades ago, and so did Pat Robertson’s political network. Among Trump’s better-known Evangelical supporters, Billy Graham’s son Franklin has neither his father’s charisma nor his following, while Jerry Falwell Jr. recently resigned in disgrace from his position at Liberty University. As a force in politics, the Religious Right now exists mainly as a bogey for fundraising letters from NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and Emily’s List.

And the churches? A plurality, perhaps even a majority, of white Evangelical congregations are non-denominational and thus lack the sort of institutional structure—like the United Methodists’ quadrennial conference—that can hammer out a common stand on social and economic issues. More to the point, a great many Evangelical pastors tend to be individualistic religious entrepreneurs, building up church membership the way salesmen build a customer base. This gives them a professional affinity with free-enterprise capitalism, and therefore with classic Republican principles. But for that very reason they are wary of preaching politics: they do not want to divide their congregations.

Even if religion is not a determinative factor in presidential politics, politics plays a determinative role in how American religion finds expression in our public life. Well before Donald Trump entered the White House, social scientists began studying the causes of our increasing political polarization, which is now overflowing its proper institutional channels and flooding other sectors of our life.

In a 1967 study at Stanford University, respondents were asked to rate a number of characteristics that might displease them in the person their son or daughter chose to marry—including things like religion, race, level of education, and income potential. Only 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said they would be displeased if a child married someone from the other major political party. In 2008, a similarly worded study found that 27 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats would object to their child’s marrying a supporter of the other party. And by 2010 the percentages had leapt to 40 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats.

What is going on? According to the political scientist Alan Abramowitz, part of the answer is an increase in “affective polarization,” meaning that how we feel about the opposite party is more salient than any actual ideological or policy-based differences. A related phenomenon is “negative partisanship,” which means, as Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institute explained in the fall 2019 issue of National Affairs, “it’s not so much that we love our own party as we detest the other.” And what we detest we fear. Here’s how the political scientist Lilliana Mason explains this phenomenon in her 2018 book, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity:

The American political parties are growing socially polarized. Religion and race, as well as class, geography, and culture, are dividing the parties in such a way that the effect of party identity is magnified. The competition is no longer between only Democrats and Republicans. A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preference—as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.

In short, partisan politics now melds our other identities into what Mason calls a “mega-identity,” which defines our own sense of self in contrast to the mega-identity we ascribe to those of the opposite political persuasion. From this perspective, “white Evangelical” is a synecdoche rather than a political category to be reckoned with on its own terms. And so is its polar opposite: the collection of agnostics, atheists, and the religiously non-affiliated that pollsters identify as “Nones”—which helps explain why they are the largest single constituency in the Democratic Party.

The 2020 presidential election provides a welcome opportunity to reexamine received assumptions about the relationship between religion and American politics—and to discern how political polarization distorts whatever influence American religion has on our public life. To do this, we need to jettison references  to “the white Evangelical vote” and other usages that aim, as George Orwell warned, to “do the thinking for us.”


Mike Pence’s Idolatrous RNC Speech

On September 24, 1789, the Conference Committee of the United States Congress, chaired by James Madison, concluded that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Just nine days later, President George Washington’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation recommended and assigned to the people “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer…to Almighty God,” so that “the great Lord and Ruler of Nations” might “promote the knowledge and practice of true religion.”

This tension between the Constitution, which resolutely avoids entanglements with religion, and the civil religion of political speeches has been with us from the founding of the country. But are these vague, anodyne, somewhat but not specifically Christian references that we call “civil religion” appropriate for a pluralistic democracy? It’s all in the details: the choice of theological vocabulary, the occasion, the social context.

Most Americans are comfortable with—and comforted by—eloquent, understated, and timely expressions of religious sentiment on the lips of political leaders. These happen regularly in small or medium-sized gatherings: campaign stops at houses of worship, prayer breakfasts, smaller acts of Congress. And sometimes civil religion has taken center stage, usually during times of national thanksgiving, preparation for war, or consolation after a tragedy.

At its best, civil religion appeals to the better angels of our nature. It inspires hope in a universal providence that transcends us all. It foregrounds compassion and helps to forge the hard-won unum out of our factionalized pluribus.

Lincoln charted the course in his Second Inaugural Address by his humility before God’s will: “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” Roosevelt’s D-Day prayer was as explicitly religious as any presidential speech in our history, but it suited the occasion and offered a necessary balm to existential fears. He spoke of faith, sacrifice, the struggle for liberation, and the strength “to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies.” Like Lincoln before him, he concluded with submission to God’s will.

In response to national tragedies, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush invoked Scripture to console the American people. After the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton drew from the Psalms to remind us of the mystery that “the God of comfort is also the God of righteousness.” In a gripping speech shortly after 9/11, Bush summoned Paul’s letter to the Romans to reassure us that no power on earth or beyond “can separate us from God’s love.”

American civil religion has been traditionally rooted in humility and submission to God’s will, the sense that God is not aligned with any party or faction in this passing world. Speechwriters alluded to texts of near universal resonance, with special fondness for themes of liberation. Both the descendants of voluntary immigrants and the descendants of former slaves could read themselves into the story of Exodus and make it their own. Our greatest civil-rights leader had himself “been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land” on April 3, 1968.

In Pence’s rhapsody of Christian nationalism, Jesus himself becomes Old Glory.

In more recent years, attempts to appeal to Evangelical and other biblically-literate voters through “dog whistles” became more common, increasing especially during the George W. Bush administration. The eloquence of speechwriter (and Wheaton College grad) Michael Gerson with biblical allusions in political speeches remains unmatched. A classic dog whistle came during the “compassionate conservative” section of Bush’s 2003 State of the Union, when he was drumming up support for a new Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. After empathizing with the socially destitute, Bush intoned, “yet there is power—wonder-working power—in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.” Unless you know the old Gospel hymn “Power in the Blood,” you’d have no clue that “power, power, wonder-working power” is the repeated line of that hymn. Bush had evidently been coached to emphasize the phrase, because he paused to articulate it clearly. That way, a large segment of his target audience is sure to hear the reference, and nobody else hears anything. This kind of thing is innocent enough.

By contrast, Vice President Mike Pence’s speech at the Republican National Convention transgressed the norms of civil religion. His peroration teemed with Christian biblical allusions and implied a belief in Christian nationalism. What’s worse, his scriptural references sinned against Christian theology by replacing Jesus with the American flag.

Drawing from his location at Fort McHenry, where the lyrics of the Star-Spangled Banner were penned, Pence created a pastiche of Hebrews 12:1–2 and 2 Corinthians 3:17:

So let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. And let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and our freedom and never forget that where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. That means freedom always wins.

In the New International Version translation, Hebrews reads: “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Other translations have “author and perfecter,” as in Pence’s speech. And the 2 Corinthians quotation is exactly the same in many versions. Since both of these texts are frequently cited, and Pence did not signal that he was quoting scripture, he thought he was sounding a dog whistle. A harmless wink to the Christian Right, the voting bloc whom he was brought on board to lure.

But nothing is subtle in the pulpit of Trump, and Pence’s attempted whistle was really a foghorn of idolatry. In this rhapsody of Christian nationalism, Jesus himself becomes Old Glory, a verbal version of one of those cross-shaped lapel pins with the stars and stripes enameled inside. The worship of the American flag then seamlessly shifts to praise of the conquering military, in contrast with the praise of suffering martyrs that had inspired the author of Hebrews. And the freedom in the Spirit of the Lord that Paul preached was precisely not one that “always wins.” Later in that same letter, the Lord reveals to Paul that “power is made perfect in weakness.” Pence’s attempt at civil religion lacked humility, unification, and consolation.

Let’s return to President Bush and his first-term speechwriters for an example of how it ought to be done. The peroration of his first inaugural captures all the best of civil religion. He returns to the founding fathers and the Exodus narrative, quoting a letter to President Jefferson: “We know the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong. Do you not think an angel rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm?” He brings the story of the liberating angel forward through “our nation’s grand story of courage and its simple dream of dignity,” but he does so with humility before the divine will. “We are not this story’s author.” We are not ruling in power; rather, “our duty is fulfilled in service to one another…to make our country more just and generous.”

The speech’s final line is far from a triumphalist expression, the opposite of an offensive Jesus flag that always wins. Rather, it reminds us that the work of affirming human dignity is never finished. But as a nation under divine providence, we are not alone: “an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm.” With such humility and a spirit of service—those better angels of our nature—civil religion need not lead to Christian nationalism.