Theology’s place in politics

May 23, 2012 

My email box is full of reaction to last week’s column, in which I explained that I voted for the Marriage Amendment, which defines the institution as between one man and one woman, based on the teachings of my Roman Catholic faith.

Once I waded through the venom, I found common themes running through most of the responses. Primary among them was that since my vote was deeply influenced by my bishop, it represented a violation of the separation of church and state doctrine.

I’m thankful Dr. Martin Luther King, and so many other clergy, didn’t subscribe to this thinking. Citations of American religious figures – including Catholics – whose faith moved them to get involved in the political process are so numerous that some academics have devoted their careers to this field of study.

Dr. King based his political activism on the teachings of Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch, credited with developing the Social Gospel movement. This is how King described the theology to Martin Agronsky in a 1957 interview. “And of course the emphasis there is that the Christian religion must not only be concerned about saving the individual soul, but also dealing with the social evils that corrupt the soul.” King added, “And this caused me to become concerned about finding a method whereby social evils could be removed from society.”

Of course that method, as historians will tell us, was political action. But perhaps my column’s critics knew that given their dearth of criticism toward progressive clergy such as the Rev. William Barber, who has done a remarkable job reviving the effective political activism of North Carolina’s NAACP chapter. So it boils down to this: liberal political theology is to be shouted from every mountaintop. Socially conservative theology, however, is a violation of church and state.

Many of my critics also interpreted my vote as an attempt by American bishops to impose Catholic beliefs on one and all. People said I was part of an American Taliban. That’s rather humorous, given that the bishops can’t even get all Catholics to ascribe to Catholic teaching, much less the American electorate.

The truth is, my faith was an intellectual reference point for my vote. And thankfully, the First Amendment allows me to use religion, political party, ideology, advertising, ethnicity, history, college allegiance or any other factor I choose as a basis for how I vote.

Religion aside, many critics cited the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to argue that gay marriage is constitutionally justified. I think that’s incorrect as a matter of law and practice. Statutory law of nearly every state puts forth definitions and qualifications required of those wanting to enter into a marriage contract. Most states’ laws, as well as a federal statute, require the two persons entering into a marriage contract to be of the opposite sex. Even states that grant marital legal rights to people who have lived together without a marriage contract (common-law marriage) require the couple to be of the opposite sex.

Is it discriminatory to deny two people of the same sex legal marriage? Yes. But the law often discriminates, particularly when it comes to marriage. Under existing law, marriage is denied to people of the opposite sex who are related. Siblings cannot marry, even if they are sterile or agree to become so. Minors cannot marry (with a few exceptions) regardless of their maturity and capacity to bear children. And so it goes – and that’s why same-sex marriage requires a fundamental redefinition of the institution.

The problem for same-sex marriage advocates is that, thus far, the overwhelming majority of American voters don’t want a redefinition, be it for religious, social or other reasons.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez ( is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and

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