Theological Politics

WHEN CLERGYYMEN and other professional religious people move into the vigorous debates of American politics — as, in fact, they are doing more and more — they bring with them the concepts and terminology of theology. To the religious-minded this transference might appear unobjectionable, but I contend that religious concepts are likely to do more harm than good to our political discourse.

Take the Biblical notions of witness and prophecy as examples. These ideas are the common coin of homilies, catechisms, theological tracts. One witnesses to one’s faith, perhaps by public worship; one may find the words of a fine sermon to be prophetic — nothing could be more fitting. Surely the faithful are called to testify to their beliefs, that is, to witness; and just as surely through the Judeo-Christian tradition runs a strong current of prophecy, that is, a speaking-out, through divine inspiration, of what is to come.

In order to inspect the use of these two ideas in contemporary politics, we might look briefly at two Catholic clergymen much in the day’s news: the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., and Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of the diocese of Seattle.

Some time ago Fr. Berrigan and several companions performed what he understands to be a public act of witness against U.S. nuclear-weapons policy by entering a General Electric munitions plant with hammers in order to beat a nuclear missile nose cone into a plowshare. Their language was Biblical, their motives political, their hearts religious, their action illegal. Bcrrigan would argue that the act was a response to a divine mandate and therefore justifiable. Berrigan’s confidence extends to his words as well as his actions. It is the confidence of a man of faith, witnessing to the truths of faith. But his topics are political policies, not Gospel truths. How does Berrigan respond to people who don’t agree with his moral analysis of nuclear weapons? In a recent speech I heard him deliver, he ruled out any reasonable disagreement with his view Some of his opponents arc “spiritually numb,” he said; about others, he wondered how they can sleep at night or how they can look a child in the face.

The problem here is not Berrigan’s views. Radical or blunt or over-confident opinions are standard political fare. The problem is the importation into political discourse of the theological idea of witness, an idea that does not admit of rational opposition. Political discourse does not need witness but rathet reasoned argument; it does not need rigid confidence but rather a mutual exchange of ideas; it does not need to put its disagreements into moral-religious categories but rather into true political terms. Daniel Berrigan is faithful to his religious calling but in politics he is confused.

Seattle’s Archbishop Hunthausen is referred to by some as a prophet. The public political statement that have earned him this high compliment are couched, like manv ol Fr. Berrigan’s statements, in religious language. Last year Hunthausen called the Trident submarine base in his city “the Auschwitz of Puget Sound.” This year he said that “our nuclear weapons are the final crucifixion of Jesus.” Hunthausen’s admirers say that he must not be held to ordinary standards tor such outrageous remarks; that he is, like the prophets of the Old Testament, denouncing the great evils ot our society; that he is reminding us all of the wrath of God that awaits those who would prepare a new Auschwitz or once again crucify Christ. And when Hunthausen says, as he did last spring, “we can choose a world of peace and justice,” they say he is again prophetic for he is announcing the good news of the gospel.

I would he willing to argue that Hunthausen is repeatedly wrong in his political positions — factually wrong, logically misleading, off the mark in the intentions he attributes to public policies, and wrong in other ways as well. But how does one argue against a prophet? When Hunthausen says — as he has — “I hear Jesus speaking …,” how does one oppose his politics? When he urges us to “pray and to fast, to study, and discuss” can we say in response, “I prayed and I fasted but I’m against you?” Such language is hardly the language of American politics. And such language will not improve our political discourse.

Raymond Hunthausen and Daniel Berrigan are not as strange in today’s politics as they might seem. We are evidently in the throes of a religious revival being conducted not in churches and prayer meetings but in caucuses and conventions. In my judgment, this harms our politics. It also harms our religion.

From Vol. 1, No. 1 of the original “Catholicism in Crisis”, published November 1982.


  • Robert Spaeth

    Robert L. Spaeth came to Saint John’s University, Minnesota, as a visiting professor in Liberal Studies and director of Freshman Colloquium in 1977. He was appointed dean in 1979 and held that post for nine years. He resigned in 1988 to return to teaching. He died in 1994.

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