On Monday evening, theology students and faculty across the Christian spectrum descended upon the 1823 Café at Virginia Theological Seminary to discuss faith and the presidential election. “Faith Reflections on Presidential Politics” was sponsored by the Washington Theological Consortium Student Board as part of the “Theology on Tap” series in the DC area. A former adviser to President Obama focused on hard data and policy while a Catholic political theorist worried about the wider nature of the American social landscape.
Wesley Theological Seminary professor of Christian Ethics and former Barack Obama adviser Shaun Casey outlined the more practical figures in the election itself. “Obama did much worse with religious groups than he did last election,” he announced, noting that the President did receive increased votes from the “other faiths,” Hispanic Christian, and black Christian categories. Obama performed worse with the growing “nones” category. Evangelicals and Catholics as a whole are about 50% of the national vote. Casey intoned, “My hope is that both those constituencies will reach across both sides of the aisle” to achieve “pragmatic progress.” The seminarian especially looked to “make some major steps with social justice issues.” Friendly relations with politically opposed Christians could help with “political reconciliation.”
Catholic University of America’s systematic theology professor Chad Pecknold shared more political theory than policy and political science. He referred to the recent lecture by noted philosopher Alasdair McIntyre at a Notre Dame conference entitled “Catholic Instead of What?” “What does it mean to be a Christian in a liberal democratic society?” Pecknold inquired. He advised, “If we’re going to think well about politics as Christians, there are many other things we need to think well about as well.” This past election offered “a signal of some kind of cultural confusion…[We’re in an environment] demanding Christians to be Republican or Democrat.” Pecknold was especially troubled by the statistics indicating that the Catholic vote was split 50/50, which was “no distortion of liberal democracy, but a distortion of Catholic Christianity.” (Granted, these numbers lack the all-important delineation of regular practicing, Mass-attending Catholics and lapsed ones). Regardless, the Conference of Bishops had called upon Catholics to vote for protection of unborn life, traditional marriage, and religious freedom—all of which are explicitly opposed by the Obama administration. After all these instructions, many lax lay Catholics did not oppose the executive’s Health and Human Services mandate for contraceptives and abortifacients, even though “the bishops were right in their fight.”
“We are beyond the Churchillian ‘least bad option’ at this point,” Pecknold asserted. He worried about an “over-politicalization” of American Christians. “I think this is the result of a politics that has forgotten natural limits,” he surmised, with Americans failing to “recognize those things that are not politics.” “During elections, Christians need to be asking questions of metaphysics, theology, and nature,” he furthered, “Reflective Christians may be feeling political homelessness right now.” The theologian declared, “Christians have to be formed in the true faith or else they get formed by the truth of CNN.”
Casey and Pecknold then debated each other on the nature of political discourse. The latter complained, “All presidential debates seem vacuous to me…That comes with liberal democracy…[We as Americans] cannot have a substantial discussion on nature as such.” Such a deprecating thought terrified the activist and vote-mobilizer Casey: “There’s more information directly available today than we have ever seen before.” The two also sparred over the HHS mandate. Casey proclaimed, “At least 50% of the blame goes on the Obama administration” for the HHS debacle. Pecknold believed that the Roman Catholic leadership was truly exemplary on the issue and that the executive endangers the Church’s teachings. Unfortunately, the Catholic laity did not take the bishops’ concerns seriously enough. On the other hand, Casey argued that several bishops really did not sympathize with the religious freedom pronouncements. “Some of the Council of Bishops don’t feel that way,” he stated. Pecknold responded, “Let’s get this straight first: the Council of Bishops doesn’t have feelings. It’s the gathering of the American Church’s leadership and makes pronouncements regarding Catholic social teaching.” Casey’s continued defense of the Obama administration’s actions fell on deaf ears for at least the CUA professor and nearly half of the audience, who were brothers from the Dominican House of Studies. No doubt many worried that Casey’s appeal to “getting along” may portend “going along” with the Democratic Party’s agenda.
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