[Roger] Williams described the true church as a magnificent garden, unsullied and pure, resonant of Eden. The world he described as “the Wilderness,” a word with personal resonance for him. Then he used for the first time a phrase he would use again, a phrase that although not commonly attributed to him has echoed through American history. “[W]hen they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world,” he warned, “God hathe ever broke down the wall it selfe, removed the Candlestick, &c. and made his Garden a Wildernesse.”

He was saying that mixing church and state corrupted the church, that when one mixes religion and politics, one gets politics. … — John M. Berry, “God, Government and Roger Williams’ Big Idea,” Smithsonian, Jan. 2012.

Scarcely more than a week before the most divisive election in living memory, the “culture wars” are back in the headlines with the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. And it’s a reminder, as if any were needed, that hot-button political wedge issues are, well, just as divisive as they’re intended to be.

And if the culture warriors divide the church with wedge issues, well, I guess it’s like the bumper sticker says … stuff happens. (I’m paraphrasing here.) It’s a reminder of what Roger Williams (or his biographer) said, when you mix religion and politics, what you get is politics.

It’s also a reminder I’m not immune to it myself.

Two newspaper items in the last week brought the issue into focus for me. One was a local newspaper story about the Catholic bishop of Springfield’s tacit endorsement of the Republican Party ticket. He does this every four years. It’s always more-or-less tacit, always conveyed in dog whistles, and it’s always divisive.

The other was an editorial in the National Catholic Reporter arguing that Coney Barrett’s “bad faith in discussing the law” at her U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearing should have disqualified her from serving on the court. In an aside, the editors noted that “five of the six conservative justices [are] Catholic,” and went on to worry about “what that says about our church.”

It’s impossible to predict the future, of course. Perhaps Barrett will respect the dignity of the court and uphold the rule of law. Certainly she ought to be given the opportunity to prove her critics wrong.

But all of the bad faith and politicking over her appointment call to mind exactly what Roger Williams said 375 years ago when he spoke of a “hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world.” Breach that wall, he warned, and “God hathe ever broke down the wall it selfe … and made his Garden a Wildernesse.”

John M. Berry, author of a recent biography of Williams, boils down what he meant — “that mixing church and state corrupted the church, that when one mixes religion and politics, one gets politics.”

So the editors of National Catholic Review have good reason to be worried. But just because this week’s headlines happen to be about Catholics, we shouldn’t assume the danger of self-righteousness is limited to Catholics.

For example, I can’t help but get a little whiff of self-righteousness when John Pavlovitz, a progressive mainline Protestant pastor who is probably best known as a prolific blogger, posts an item to his blog under the headline, “No, I Won’t Agree To Disagree About This President. You’re Just Wrong.” In it he cites President Trump’s demonstrated hostility to immigrants, Black Lives Matter, facts and scientific evidence. I can’t argue with that. But then he goes on to tell a hypothetical Trump supporter (at least I hope the supporter is hypothetical): “I now can see how pliable your morality is, the kinds of compromises you’re willing to make, the ever-descending bottom you’re following into, in order to feel victorious in a war you don’t even know why you’re fighting.”

I probably agree with Pavlovitz on most public policy issues, but he gives me the blue willies. Not because I have a soft spot in my heart for President Trump. But I already pay too much attention the speck in my neighbor’s eye, and guys like Pavlovitz tempt me to ignore the log in my own eye. That doesn’t strike me as a good idea.

So I don’t like to read guys like Pavlovitz. It’s as simple as that.

In their editorial on Amy Coney Barrett, the editors of National Catholic Reporter made it clear they opposed her nomination on legal grounds, and her lack of candor with the Judiciary Committee, not because of her religious views:

We are glad that most commentators and virtually every question in the formal hearing avoided discussing Barrett’s religion, even if her membership in a patriarchal covenanted community raises some legitimate concerns.

We at NCR do not like the prospect of five of the six conservative justices being Catholic and worry what that says about our church. In America, however, there are no religious tests for office and no senator should oppose Barrett on account of her religion.

It is her bad faith in discussing the law that warrants disqualifying her. About the evils of climate change, access to health care and voter intimidation, Americans deserve better than a relativist dressed in originalist drag. The Senate should vote no on the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett.

Another pre-election example of the intersection of politics and religion came in Springfield, where the bishop of Springfield’s Catholic diocese, Thomas Paprocki, was quoted in the State Journal-Register as saying abortion is “it’s the most important issue” in this year’s elections. The headline (which got it right): “Paprocki ignites debate — again — when religion and politics collide.” This is a hardy perennial — or quadrennial, since Paprocki’s politicking seems to come up in presidential election years. Here, as quoted by the J-R, is this year’s talking point:

Catholic voters should also go through a discernment process, Paprocki said, and examine how their consciences are formed and what criteria they use to make decisions about who to vote for.

The information, laid out by Paprocki in two columns which appeared in the Sept. 20 and Oct. 18 issues of the diocesan newspaper, Catholic Times, doesn’t make an endorsement of either President Donald Trump or challenger former Vice President Joe Biden, but it does lay out Republican and Democrat platforms around life issues.

The writings have stirred debate among some local Catholics about the intersection of religion and politics and whether a single issue —abortion — should determine their candidate choice.

Dr. Bruce Shevlin, a Catholic lay person of Springfield, was also quoted in the J-R’s article, by Steve Spearie:

Shevlin said Paprocki, despite his assertion that he wasn’t playing politics, did just that.

“He basically tells people it’s a sin to vote for Democrats,” Shevlin said. “When he says he is just giving pastoral advice answering people’s questions, I think it’s a sham. I think he is basically telling them what he wants to tell them.”

This is not the first time Paprocki, who came to Springfield in 2010, has weighed in on an election.

In 2016, Paprocki said that voters “may also legitimately conclude in conscience that they cannot vote for either (Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump).”

Prior to the 2012 presidential election, Paprocki warned that voting for a candidate from either party who promotes actions or behaviors that are “intrinsically evil and gravely sinful,” like abortion and same-sex marriage, makes that voter “morally complicit,” placing his or her soul “in serious jeopardy.”

Not mentioned in the Journal-Register’s story: Amy Coney Barrett, or the U.S. Supreme Court, for that matter. But they didn’t have to.

Works Cited

John M. Berry, “God, Government and Roger Williams’ Big Idea,” Smithsonian, Jan. 2012. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/god-government-and-roger-williams-big-idea-6291280/.

“Editorial: Barrett’s Moral Relativism is Cause for Rejection from the Bench,” National Catholic Reporter, Oct. 21, 2020 https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/editorial-barretts-moral-relativism-cause-rejection-bench.

John Pavlovitz, “No, I Won’t Agree To Disagree About This President. You’re Just Wrong,” Stuff That Needs to Be Said, Oct. 18, 2020 https://johnpavlovitz.com/2020/10/18/no-i-wont-agree-to-disagree-youre-just-wrong/.

Steven Spearie, “Paprocki Ignites Debate — Again — When Religion and Politics Collide,” State Journal-Register, Springfield, Ill., Oct. 24, 2020 https://www.sj-r.com/news/20201024/paprocki-ignites-debate-mdash-again-mdash-when-religion-and-politics-collide.

[Revised and published, April 2, 2022]

One thought on “Yet another reminder Roger Williams had it right: When we mix religion and politics, we get politics

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