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From the October, 2004 issue of Touchstone


Unimposing Kerry by David Mills

Unimposing Kerry

A certain sort of politician is most annoying when he stands up straight, squares his shoulders, looks out into the distance, and starts lecturing his critics on the separation of church and state and declaring, with the tone of a man giving up a fortune to keep his integrity, that he cannot and will not Impose His Values Upon Others. He is far less a defender of American pluralism than he is a man profoundly ignorant of his calling as a legislator, and a man promoting an intellectual confusion destructive of our common life.

“I don’t tell church officials what to do, and church officials shouldn’t tell American politicians what to do in the context of our public life,” John Kerry told Time magazine earlier this year. Of course, one notes with a sigh, Mr. Kerry was in that very statement telling church officials what to do: specifically, to stay out of politics, to treat religion as a private matter with no place and no value in public affairs. One does not hear him telling the unions to stay out of politics, or the newspapers, or the American Civil Liberties Union, or the activist groups, or, for that matter, the Catholic bishops when they support social welfare legislation.

Only the church, and in fact only the church when it speaks against the laws and policies required by sexual liberationism, is denied the right to speak for its principles in our political life, for reasons Kerry has never explained. Behind his assertion is, as far as one can tell, no coherent idea of the nature of principle in public affairs.

And as a matter of fact he does seem comfortable with politicians and judges telling the churches what to do. At least, he has not been heard defending the churches’ rights to provide for their workers only such medical coverage as is consistent with their teaching. He has not insisted on the separation of church and state when the state tells his church to pay for its workers’ contraception, which is to say, when the state tells the church to pay for their committing what the church believes is a mortal sin.

Most Pressing Question

But the most pressing church-state question this year is whether the churches should “tell American politicians what to do in the context of our public life.” Put another way, not Kerry’s, but I think more to the point, the most pressing question is, from what sources are Americans allowed to take the principles that govern our life together and on what grounds are religious principles allowed or excluded? The incoherence of Kerry and company’s arbitrary exclusion of religious principles from public affairs promotes the confusion so destructive of our common life.

One thing should be made clear before we go on. In the matters at issue in our public life, the churches assert no sectarian doctrine and demand of their politician members nothing resting upon their authority alone. They only say aloud what is taught by natural law—in other words, they tell their members to support what everyone knows, but many have forgotten or have refused to see.

Killing the unborn, the aged, and the sick is wrong, and no politician should need the church to tell him so. So with the nature of marriage, and so with embryonic experimentation, and so with cloning. Of course, sexual liberals will deny this, and there is no neutral authority to which we can appeal to show them that such beliefs are indeed true. But the sexual liberals’ denial of reality is no excuse for the Catholic politician’s doing so.

Kerry—now the poster boy for the secular and unconstitutional definition of “the wall of separation between church and state”—represents all those politicians who profess allegiance to churches that expect their members to represent their teachings in their individual callings, but who refuse to do so. Most of them are Catholic, but some are Orthodox and some even (at least in the last administration) Southern Baptist. Most are Democrats, but the Republicans have a goodly number as well.

Here I will take the Catholic politicians as the example, because one of them wants to be President of the United States and because the Catholic Church has spoken most clearly on this matter, most recently in the Vatican’s doctrinal note on “The Participation of Catholics in Political Life” and the American bishops’ “Catholics in Political Life.” As Joseph Bottum of The Weekly Standard put it:

The Doctrinal Note marks at least the beginning of the end of the Vatican’s toleration of what the pope’s biographer George Weigel has called “Cuomoism” in the American Church: the effort to finesse abortion by declaring oneself personally opposed but politically supportive of laws allowing abortion. Catholics have a “duty to be morally coherent,” the Doctrinal Note declares, and the Catholic fight on the life issues—abortion, euthanasia, and cloning—is not some merely prudential question, to be decided by political give and take. The Catholic Church doesn’t take political positions—except when politics intrudes into something, like the right to life, that ought to be beyond the power of politicians.

Having It Both Ways

There are two problems with the politician who reduces his religious faith to Values He Cannot Impose On Others.

First, as legislators who vote on all sorts of legislation covering almost every aspect of human life, they vote to impose their values (or principles) every time they vote. A vote for or against a tax break is a vote for a particular principle about the nature of government and the citizen’s rights, in particular how much money a government may take and how much a citizen may expect to keep. A vote for a new welfare benefit is a vote for a particular principle about the nature of the collective responsibility for the people served (or disserved).

We vote for our representatives precisely because we want them to impose their values, and we prefer the values of the man we vote for to those of the man he’s running against. The man who tells us by what principles he works is a man whose future actions we can—in a fallen world, always only to some extent—predict, and therefore know whether we want him in office. So, as I said at the beginning, the legislator who refuses to Impose His Own Values is ignorant of his proper calling, which is worrisome in itself. This means he will spend his time in office trying to impose his values without telling his constituents what values he would impose.

Second, these politicians do not have to be Catholics if they do not hold Catholic principles. If they fear imposing Catholic values on others, they can stop being Catholics and live openly by the principles they actually hold. One of the most important of which is that those matters the Catholic Church teaches are matters of natural law (that is, known to and binding upon everyone) are not so. This is a defensible principle, but an Imposed Value nevertheless, imposed not least upon the unborn whose right to live this Imposed Principle, imposed by men-who-don’t-impose-their-principles, is denied.

One would think better of such a politician if he chose either to live by the principles of the faith he professes and let the voters decide whether they want to be represented by a faithful Catholic, or to live by the principles of the faith he holds and let the voters decide whether they want to be represented by an ex-Catholic. (He may, of course, not know clearly what his actual faith is, which ignorance of principle gives his political life a certain useful flexibility. I think the church threatens such politicians not only because it expects them to believe what they do not want to believe, but because it expects them to speak of fundamental matters they would prefer to leave unknown, even to themselves.)

Their Own Terms

These politicians seem to proceed from two assumptions: “I must be in office” and “I must be a Catholic.” Their application of these assumptions seems to be governed by two other assumptions: “The rules for the first are binding” and “The rules for the second are not.”

I say this because they abandon Catholic teaching when it conflicts with central commitments of the Democratic party, but they do not abandon pro-choice doctrine when it conflicts with central commitments of the Catholic faith, and they react with indignation to any suggestion that as Catholics they should not vote as they do, or that if they vote as they do they should not be Catholics. They can only say this with any logic if they hold the assumptions I’ve listed.

Kerry and his comrades are not doing anything many other American Catholics do not do. Some people who are in no way forced to participate in or agree with a particular church but want to stay members anyway, insist on calling any reminder that their membership requires of them certain beliefs and actions “tyrannical,” etc., and insist on invoking their personal freedom to take what they like from it and reject the rest. This abuse of the faith is called “cafeteria Catholicism.”

They insist on treating as a matter of personal freedom something that the church to which they belong does not give them freedom to treat freely. To someone more respectful of personal commitments than they, they seem like a murderer on the witness stand invoking his personal freedom to kill his neighbors. The man is free, in the sense that he can do it, but he is not free in the sense that the society of which he is a willing member lets him do it.

Catholic politicians like Kerry speak as if they had a right both to be Catholics on their own terms and to hold public office (on their party’s terms). They do not tell their party that they have a right to its endorsement on their own terms, which difference suggests that they fear the loss of office in this world more than they fear the loss of Heaven. Or that Democratic leaders are better at keeping order than Catholic bishops.

When publicly challenged by a bishop for promoting something the church understands as inhuman—killing the unborn, killing the aged or sick, experimenting on embryonic human beings, manufacturing new people from the genes of the old—they always say something like “The bishop is interfering in the political process and trying to force his values on others. I was elected to represent the views of all my constituents and I will continue. . . .” You know how it goes.

The first problem with this is that they do not in fact represent the views of all their constituents, not least those who voted for their opponent. The second problem with this is that they are always free to represent the views of their constituents. No Catholic bishop has ever suggested otherwise. We are not suggesting otherwise.

What they are not free to do is promote certain acts like legal abortion and remain Catholics in good standing. The church expects them to accept the Christian moral teaching, to present themselves to the voters as accepting it, and to act upon it in office.

Constitutional Answer

The Constitution provides a simple answer to the pressing question with which we began: From what sources are Americans allowed to take the principles that govern our life together, and on what grounds are religious principles allowed or excluded? It provides a simple solution for the problem of imposing religious principles—or indeed any principles—in public life. This answer, this solution, is called elections.

The voters can vote for politicians who are honestly Catholic, or not, as they wish. The politician need not fear imposing his values upon others if he tells them what he believes and what he will do if elected. Thus are democracy and pluralism preserved and faith and conscience respected. Thus are the individual politician’s commitments kept consistent. Thus is he an integrated man, a man of integrity. But not thus, perhaps, is he kept in office.

David Mills, for the editors

For the Doctrinal Note, see

David Mills , former editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream and columnist for several Catholic publications. His last book is Discovering Mary. He and his family attend St. Joseph's Church in Corapolis, PA.

“Unimposing Kerry” first appeared in the October 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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