On Monday evening, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver delivered a talk at Houston Baptist University, in which he criticized President John F. Kennedy's historic campaign speech on his faith impacting his possible presidency as “sincere, compelling, articulate – and wrong.” The archbishop called on his audience to get involved in the Christian “vocation” of being engaged in public service, at a time when religion is being increasingly ignored in the political sphere.
Archbishop Chaput gave his address, “The Vocation of Christians in American Public Life,” on the evening of March 1 at the Houston Baptist University's Morris Cultural Art center. The lecture was presented in coordination with the Pope John Paul II Forum for the Church in the Modern World at the University of St. Thomas.
After offering caveats about his remarks, Archbishop Chaput emphasized the need for ecumenism and dialogue based on truth as opposed to superficial niceties. He then remarked, “We also urgently owe each other solidarity and support in dealing with a culture that increasingly derides religious faith in general and the Christian faith in particular.”
During his talk, the archbishop noted that there are currently “more Catholics in national public office” than there ever have been in American history.
“But,” he continued, “I wonder if we’ve ever had fewer of them who can coherently explain how their faith informs their work, or who even feel obligated to try. The life of our country is no more 'Catholic' or 'Christian' than it was 100 years ago. In fact it's arguably less so.”
One of the reasons why this problem exists, he explained, is that too many Christian individuals, Protestant and Catholic alike, live their faith as if it were “private idiosyncrasy” which they try to prevent from becoming a “public nuisance.”
“And too many just don't really believe,” he added.
Recounting the historical context that led to the current state of affairs, Archbishop Chaput referred to a speech that the late John F. Kennedy made while running for president in 1960 which greatly affected the modern relationship between religion and American politics. At his speech almost fifty years ago, President Kennedy had the arduous task of convincing 300 uneasy Protestant ministers in a Houston address that his Catholic faith would not impede his ability to lead the country. Successful in his attempt, “Kennedy convinced the country, if not the ministers, and went on to be elected,” he recalled.
“And his speech left a lasting mark on American politics,” the prelate added.
“It was sincere, compelling, articulate – and wrong. Not wrong about the patriotism of Catholics, but wrong about American history and very wrong about the role of religious faith in our nation’s life.”
“And he wasn’t merely 'wrong,'” the archbishop continued. “His Houston remarks profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America’s public life and political conversation. Today, half a century later, we’re paying for the damage.”
“To his credit,” he noted, “Kennedy said that if his duties as President should 'ever require me to violate my conscience or violate the national interest, I would resign the office.' He also warned that he would not 'disavow my views or my church in order to win this election.'”
“But in its effect, the Houston speech did exactly that. It began the project of walling religion away from the process of governance in a new and aggressive way. It also divided a person’s private beliefs from his or her public duties. And it set 'the national interest' over and against 'outside religious pressures or dictates.'”
Archbishop Chaput then clarified that although “John Kennedy didn’t create the trends in American life that I’ve described,” his speech “clearly fed them.”
In light of this separation of religion from the public sphere, “What would a proper Christian approach to politics look like?” the archbishop queried.
Drawing on St. Augustine and several theologians, Archbishop Chaput answered, “Christianity is not mainly – or even significantly – about politics. It's about living and sharing the love of God. And Christian political engagement, when it happens, is never mainly the task of the clergy.”
“That work belongs to lay believers who live most intensely in the world,” he asserted.
“Christian faith is not a set of ethics or doctrines. It's not a group of theories about social and economic justice. All these things have their place. All of them can be important. But a Christian life begins in a relationship with Jesus Christ; and it bears fruit in the justice, mercy and love we show to others because of that relationship.” This fundamental relationship then informs how we involve ourselves in public life, he explained.
“As I was preparing these comments for tonight,” he added, “I listed all the urgent issues that demand our attention as believers: abortion; immigration; our obligations to the poor, the elderly and the disabled; questions of war and peace; our national confusion about sexual identity and human nature, and the attacks on marriage and family life that flow from this confusion; the growing disconnection of our science and technology from real moral reflection; the erosion of freedom of conscience in our national health-care debates; the content and quality of the schools that form our children.”
Because of the immensity of these issues, the Denver archbishop stressed that Christians need to united in their societal involvement. “The vocation of Christians in American public life does not have a Baptist or Catholic or Greek Orthodox or any other brand-specific label. Our job is to love God, preach Jesus Christ, serve and defend God’s people, and sanctify the world as his agents. To do that work, we need to be one. Not 'one' in pious words or good intentions, but really one, perfectly one, in mind and heart and action, as Christ intended,” he said.
Archbishop Chaput concluded his remarks by saying that “We live in a country that was once – despite its sins and flaws – deeply shaped by Christian faith. It can be so again. But we will do that together, or we won’t do it at all.”
“We need to remember the words of St. Hilary from so long ago: Unum sunt, qui invicem sunt. 'They are one, who are wholly for each other.' May God grant us the grace to love each other, support each other and live wholly for each other in Jesus Christ – so that we might work together in renewing the nation that has served human freedom so well.”
The full text of Archbishop Chaput's speech can be read at http://www.archden.org/index.cfm/ID/3489.