Recently, I received an email pointing me to "an incredible ad by the Catholic Church." Curious I went to the link and found a political ad produced by some group, the members of which may indeed by Catholics, but who are not - and therefore do not speak as or for - "The Catholic Church."
Of course, Catholics are citizens and have every right to express their political preferences. And, if they base those political preferences on their Catholic beliefs - or on some historic Catholic identity - then they also have every right to say that. For example, Congressman Paul Ryan recently alleged that his policy proposals were inspired by his Catholic faith. In resposne, some others, who also identify as Catholics, took issue with his interpretation of the faith.
That's all well and good. But it becomes a problem when the political preferences of this or that Catholic or group of Catholics are automatically identified with "The Catholic Church" - as if the Church were a primarily political institution (or perhaps some sort of PAC), as if one would expect the Church as a normal practice to participate in the political process.
I empahsize "as a normal practice," because obviously crises can and do occur in human affairs when the Church's direct involvement in politics cannot be avoided. Overt persecution is one obvious example. The soon to be released film about the Mexican Cristeros and their resistance against the Mexico's revolutionary government may be a timely reminder of the ever-present possiblity of persecution and of the reality of authentic martyrdom in our modern world. Operating through the peaceful and legal channels of a democratic society, the American Catholic hierarchy's longstanding opposition to judicially created abortion "rights" and their active support for measures (e.g. the "Hyde Amendment") which, while inevitably limited in effect, actually accomplished something beneficial in terms of making aboriton less accessible are certainly sound examples of direct Church involvement that is both necessary and appropriate. (And surely the persistence of Catholics and other Christians in keeping this issue in the political arena has contributed in some degree to the changing climate of opinion in our society in which younger people are increasingly more pro-life). The current conflict regarding religious liberty, unnecessarily and gratuitously provoked by the government, likewise certainly requires a robust public response, not just by Catholics but by all Churches concerned for their freedom to prusue their mission in society.
In recent decades, however, there seems to have been a subtle change in the role of religion in American society. We have always been a religious country, and religion has always played a part in public life. But the increasingly remarked upon relationship between religious observance and political partisanship is new - or at least certainly much more intense than in the past. This is reflected in the transformation of the political parties themselves, which have increasingly defined their differences from each other in terms of cultural and moral fault lines. (It was just 32 years ago, after all, in 1980, that the Democratic Party first identified itself in its party platform as "pro-choice," and the Republican Party in its platform for the first time endorsed an anti-abortion constitutional amendment).
Political parties used to be bread-based coalitions with members all over the place politically. As parties have narrowed, so seemingly has religion. My sense is that people who care deeply about moral and cultural issues have gotten so used to voting one way or the other, for one party or the other, that they have increasingly bought into each party's narrowed political, social, and economic agenda. There is, for example, no obvious link whatever between being pro-life and wanting lower taxes or smaller government. If, however, a polarized political process makes all those things inseparably part of a single package, then perhaps over time people will tend to accept the whole package as their own set of political values.
As partisanship has become more religious, it seems that some Americans may actually be making religious choices based on their politics, that politics actually drives some people's choice of their religion. (On this, see, for example, Putnam and Campbell, American Grace: How Relgiion Unites and Divides Us, 2010). I is uncertain where all of this is eventually leading us. But it seems prudent to worry whether religion can count on being the ultimate beneficiary of such progressive politicization.