By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published October 2, 2008
“Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life” by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. Doubleday (New York, 2008). 258 pp. $21.95.
Many people get nervous when the words “religion” and “politics” show up in the same sentence. They think the two domains must be kept entirely separate.
“Render Unto Caesar,” a vibrant and provocative book, shows otherwise.
In fact, author Charles J. Chaput, the archbishop of Denver, eloquently proves that democracy requires citizens to fight for their religious beliefs in the public square in a legal, ethical and nonviolent way.
There is a proper and healthy separation of the two domains, which he acknowledges. We wouldn’t want one religion forced on all citizens by the state, nor would we want the state dictating what a religion teaches.
However, he asserts that if we truly believe in God, then “excluding God from our public life—whether we do it explicitly through Supreme Court action or implicitly by our silence as citizens—cannot serve the common good.”
Some folks use “tolerance” of others’ points of view as an excuse for not trying to change laws conflicting with their values. But Archbishop Chaput shows that “tolerating or excusing grave evil in society is itself a grave evil.”
The example of Hitler chillingly proves there can be evil leaders and abhorrent policies, and we are certainly not called to tolerance in such cases.
The grave evil that this book underscores is abortion, which the Catholic Church teaches is wrong because it denies the inherent dignity of the human being. And as the author notes, “Deliberately killing innocent human life, or standing by and allowing it, dwarfs all other social issues.”
Archbishop Chaput says his book is not endorsing any political party, and he is true to his word. He never mentions the stances on abortion held by the current presidential candidates, nor does he tell readers how to vote.
However, the book couldn’t be timelier. It vividly shows there is a war underway in our country today. Those who claim they are trying to keep religion out of politics actually are fighting for a specifically anti-Christian agenda. In fact, this agenda is rooted in the vicious attitude of anti-Catholicism that characterized the 19th century.
Writing about U.S. history, Archbishop Chaput reminds us that our country was founded as a Christian nation and never imagined as a “secular state.” As he poetically puts it, a “truly secularized United States would be a country without a soul; a nation with a hole in its chest.”
The book will be a wake-up call not just for Catholics but other Christians as well. It shows that if we really believe what the Gospel teaches, we will be stronger in our public witness: “Good manners are not an excuse for political cowardice.”
A beautiful example of courageous witness concerns the late Joseph Rummel. As archbishop of New Orleans in the 1950s, he oversaw the largest Catholic population in the South, including many thousands of black Catholics.
Archbishop Rummel took his Catholic faith seriously when he began desegregating local churches, which led to bitter public protests and letter-writing campaigns to stop him. He held his ground, and even went so far as excommunicating three prominent Catholics for publicly defying the teachings of their church.
In 2004, another archbishop, Raymond Burke of St. Louis, also witnessed to his faith’s teachings. He singled out three Catholic politicians who had supported a move to force Catholic hospitals to provide abortions, asking them to refrain from taking holy Communion.
As Archbishop Chaput notes, “Publicly opposing racism and publicly opposing abortion flow from the same Catholic beliefs about the dignity of the human person.” As for Catholics today who support abortion while continuing to receive holy Communion, the author describes them as “engaging in a lie.”
The book covers a lot of ground. One chapter looks at the Christian role in the founding of our nation, while another challenges Catholics to transform ourselves and the world around us.
Archbishop Chaput also details significant moments in the history of the Catholic Church in America, with much emphasis on examining the role of Vatican II in changing Catholic ideas about personal conscience and religious liberty. He also tackles Christian attitudes toward the state in Scripture, especially the famous quote about rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. He skillfully argues that the passage has been misinterpreted.
The author makes his case forcefully and skillfully with the bottom line being this: To expect Catholics to keep their faith out of public affairs is like asking them “to be barren; to behave as if they were neutered.”
Archbishop Chaput reminds us that Jesus doesn’t call his followers to a comfortable acceptance of the status quo. Instead, Jesus calls us to change the world.
A contributor to the Georgia Bulletin and other publications, Lorraine V. Murray has written several books, most recently “Confessions of an Ex-Feminist” (Ignatius Press).