American Conservatives and the Religious/Secular Divide

Recently announced Presidential candidate Jeb(!) Bush made headlines today after criticizing Pope Francis’ views on climate change, as expressed in the pontiff’s unreleased encyclical on ecologyLaudato Si, set to appear sometime tomorrow (June 18).  While campaigning in New Hampshire, Bush stated: “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope,” arguing that religion “ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.” Santorum-Pope Bush joins a host of other right-wing politicos in leveling criticism at Francis, including most recently Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and a renowned climate change denier, who remarked that “The Pope ought to stay with his job, and we’ll stay with ours.” Earlier this month, Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum also made headlines with his gaffe regarding the Pope’s credibility to speak on matters of international politics and environmental justice. In a statement saturated with irony, Santorum (who apparently did not realize that Francis studied chemistry and briefly worked as a chemist before entering seminary), argued that the Pope should “leave science to the scientists.” Santorum went on to say:

“The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think that we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality…When we get involved with political and controversial scientific theories, I think the church is not as forceful and credible.”

These criticisms are nothing new; in May 2014 I wrote an editorial for Review & Expositor which centered on statements against the Pope made by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News pundit Stuart Varney. In a segment entitled “My Take,” Varney disapprovingly castigated Francis for his economic policy. “I personally do not want my spiritual life mixed up with my political life,” Varney said, “I go to church to save my soul; it’s got nothing to do with my vote.”

The enthusiasm with which American conservatives have come to dismiss papal (and general religious) authority to speak on political matters is rooted in the philosophy of John Locke, who was among the first Western Enlightenment political philosophers to draw a clear line between the sacred and the secular. Where in the premodern age there was no well-defined distinction between matters of faith and those related to the nation-state, Locke suggests that “The care…of every man’s [sic] soul belongs unto himself and is to be left unto himself,” and that “the principle and chief care of everyone ought to be of his [sic] own soul first, and, in the next place, of the public peace.” Religion, according to Locke, is for the saving of the soul while political matters are best left to the civil government. Sound familiar?

Somewhat ironically, the mindset which gives birth to such asinine ideas as Leave the science to the scientists and the politicking to the politicians finds a home within the theological liberalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who also emphasized personal salvation as the primary task of the Church. One wonders if conservative American political pundits would be quite as vocal about the Church’s authority to speak on matters pertinent to legislation if they pertained to their own ideological base—for example, abortion. I have a hard time imagining Bush, Inhofe, Santorum, et al. publicly demanding the Pope butt-out of discussions involving Roe v. Wade.

Such a picture of the ongoing mission of the Body of Christ in the world is ignorantly tunnel-visioned at best and downright sinful at worst. If the post-Holocaust, post-9/11 world has taught us anything, it is that the lines between the sacred and the profane are not as clear as we in the West would like, and that human communities quite frequently blur the lines between faith, belief, morality, and the business of the polis to suit our own biases.

In any case, as a priest and proclaimer of the Gospel of Jesus Christ which intends to liberate a groaning creation, Pope Francis is ultimately far more qualified to speak about climate change than the snowball-weilding Jim Inhofe.


One thought on “American Conservatives and the Religious/Secular Divide

  1. Kudos and “preach it, brother!”, to blur that secular/sacred line a little myself.

    Very well put. I love your pointing out the selective approval of Popes’ (or others’) statements depending on the subject and where the person stands.

    Anyway, important points you make! I agree throughout but do have one small caveat: I don’t know a lot about Schleiermacher but he was 1) German, and 2) teaching/writing around 200 years ago in the early-development period of higher criticism and liberal theology, which he of course influenced heavily. I haven’t studied the German situation and perspective on the relation of theology and government in his day, but people should realize the big difference of time and place (unless they are German, re. place). For more than the last 100 years most theological liberals have advocated a more conscious and broad integration of politics and spiritually-driven social and economic principles than have conservatives… to be recognized even if one disagrees with some or all of the positions.

    But I emphasize that the minor Schleiermacher issue should not take anything away from your critical points.

    Somewhat related: not long ago I read the 98-year-old “A Theology For the Social Gospel” by Rauschenbusch and reviewed it on my blog…. What an insightful classic – highly recommended as still relevant and historically important!


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