Editor's note

When Church and State Collide: The Supreme Court Goes to Mass

By | October 4, 2012

(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Any reader of U.S. history knows that religion and politics have mixed in a multitude of ways from the time of the nation’s founding. Motivated by the two-sided hope of protecting the state from religious incursions and religion from state regulation, our founders crafted documents that nonetheless acknowledged a modicum of inevitable exchange and mutual influence. Since then, the limits of religious influence on political governance have been debated countless times in legislative bodies and courts of law. Neither the American populace nor our leaders can ever expect consensus on these profoundly contested questions; even today, we live amid a jumble of contradictions and compromising positions.

Last Sunday, September 30, witnessed one of the most vivid and, to many, disturbing examples of this religion/politics paradox. On the day prior to the opening of the new term of the U.S. Supreme Court, six out of the nine current Supreme Court justices, along with members of President Obama’s cabinet, members of Congress, and members of the law profession attended the 60th annual Red Mass, a Catholic worship service held at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl acted as principal celebrant, alongside several other Catholic leaders. In his address to the crowd, Timothy P. Broglio, archbishop for the U.S. military, called for people to become “instruments of a new evangelization” and stated, “The faith we hold in our hearts must motivate the decisions, the words, and the commitment of our everyday existence.” In these times, as Catholic leaders have increased their public speech on any number of political issues, from contraceptive coverage and abortion to gay marriage, these words are anything but impartial. This year, the subject of gay marriage will be particularly important as the Court considers the Defense of Marriage Act. Catholic bishops are currently spending money to fight same-sex marriage. Timothy Dolan, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has been an outspoken critic of legalizing same-sex marriage, saying it’s not about gay rights, and concluding in a press release, “You don’t redefine marriage—a given—just to accommodate people’s lifestyle.”

Elena Kagan’s presence at Sunday’s Red Mass, her first appearance, may seem the most surprising. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a fellow Jewish member of the court who holds a similar stance on questions such as abortion, has been openly critical of the Red Mass, citing one sermon she heard there as “outrageously anti-abortion.” As she wrote later, “Even the Scalia’s—although they’re much of that persuasion—were embarrassed for me.” Perhaps one day we will learn what Justice Kagan thought of Broglio’s message of living one’s Christianity in every part of one’s life. “We are instruments in the hands of the Lord, and so we pray to be ever open to his presence.” As Barry Lynn, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, noted, “There is one purpose to have this. It is to make clear … just what the church hierarchy feels about some of the very issues that are to come before the court.” Those issues, of course, are the very ones on which some in the Catholic hierarchy have vociferously advocated.

At Religion & Politics, we welcome all viewpoints, on the conviction that ‘tis better to air strong arguments openly and civilly than to foster likeminded cliques that echo and leave unchallenged one another’s biases. Challenge me, do, but I must register deep discomfort with the cozy government-church embrace represented by the Red Mass in Washington D.C. However well intentioned, the attendance of 2/3 of the U.S. Supreme Court at a holy service that explicitly promotes the Catholic faith sends a bewildering message to citizens who hold other religious beliefs, and those with no religion at all. Perhaps the real question to ask is why some Supreme Court justices who clearly disagree with current Catholic pronouncements on political matters that divide the court—or who disagree with any perceived religious interference whatsoever, despite their own beliefs—nonetheless, apparently, feel the need to attend the Red Mass. Why?

In case it needs noting—and these days, who knows—let me note that it is not anti-Catholic to ask these kinds of questions. As President John F. Kennedy stated, “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.” In other words, if any religious body—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or you-name-it—imposes upon political leaders some supposed necessity to attend its own worship service in order to be considered legitimate, beware. 

Marie Griffith is editor of Religion & Politics.

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