A Public Duty

As a Christian and a Catholic, I believe that there is a major difference between the separation of Church and State on the one hand, and religion and politics on the other. Church and State are establishments; religion and politics are systems of thought and practice.   To expect people with religious beliefs to somehow keep them “out of politics” is the equivalent of expecting them not to participate in politics at all – something that the radical fringes of the atheist/agnostic movement would probably affirm. In their view the religious are too stupid or irrational to deserve a vote.

Throughout history there have been Christians who choose to opt out of politics and even mainstream society altogether for a more religiously pure life. From the desert ascetics and hermits that completely isolated themselves from society, to the monastic orders that lived more secluded lives, to the Amish who built separate communities and resisted modernization, there have always been Christian “separatists”, for lack of a better word. To these groups I have always said, “God bless you.” I fully understand the impulse and desire to remove one’s self, and one’s family, away from the mess that mainstream society can easily become.

But if one chooses to remain within society, there can simply be no excuse for politically opting out, even if one chooses to reject, as I and many others do, a permanent party affiliation. As Christians we cannot remain silent on the great moral challenges and atrocities of our time, not in the name of “keeping religion out of politics” or for any other reason. As individuals our responsibility to vote our consciences is great enough, but when we step up to become leaders especially, that responsibility grows in proportion to the size of our influence.

Last night I watched one such individual, a Christian leader, Pastor Joel Osteen, completely fail to live up to this responsibility in an interview with Campbell Brown on CNN. For those of you who don’t know, Pastor Osteen is perhaps the most influential Christian in America.  Brown introduced him as

…a man millions turn to for inspiration every week. Pastor Joel Osteen leads the largest congregation in America at his Lakewood Church, but his reach goes way beyond that. His sermons are broadcast around the world. His books are instant bestsellers.

Some will undoubtedly argue that Osteen’s popularity is directly related to his refusal to take strong positions on political issues. In the interview he declares that his main reason for steering clear of politics is that it just isn’t what he is called to do – he leaves it to other pastors who presumably know more. Fair enough; no one is called to be exclusively political. But it is another matter when one remains silent when given an opportunity to speak to millions about one of the great moral issues of our time. Here is the part of the interview I am referring to:

BROWN: What do you think about President Obama and how he’s doing since he took office?

OSTEEN: Well, I’m an eternal optimist, and I’m a big believer in loyalty and supporting our president. So I like President Obama. You know, I’ve voted both Democrat and Republican before, but you know what? I think he’s — he’s doing his best. I think it’s a tough job. I mean, I think we all know that. But, you know, I believe that, you know, he’s doing his best, and he’s got the best people he feels like around him.

BROWN: Do you see the first family as good role models for people in this country?

OSTEEN: I do. I think they’re — you know, I see joy. I see camaraderie. I see respect. And I like that. I don’t even — I’ve never met them personally, but I see their kids are beautiful and so I’m all for them. And we try to cheer them on. And you know what? I’ve got, you know, all kinds of different people in my congregation, all different sides. But we believe in supporting the president.

There isn’t a single word here about abortion, not in general, not with respect to impending health care legislation, nothing. It isn’t that I think Osteen agrees with the president, but it is almost as if he doesn’t care. It isn’t that I expect him to go into an angry rant against the president – I would have been fine with the sort of skeptical support that I once held.

Early on in Obama’s presidency, for instance, I thought he was serious when he spoke of finding common ground on life issues. He listed three areas he thought pro-life and pro-choice might work together on – financial support for pregnant women, making adoption easier, and sex education. While I wouldn’t necessarily trust his views on sex education, the first two points seemed plausible to me.

Now we are over a year into his presidency, and we are on the verge of having taxpayer-funded abortion foisted on us, after a series of anti-life measures and appointments to key posts in his administration. In spite of all this, one could still choose to be diplomatic while saying something. For instance, it would have been nice if the transcript read:

OSTEEN: While I believe Americans ought to support the president, as a Christian I must say that I disagree with the direction this administration has gone with respect to life issues. Christian taxpayers should not have to fund abortion, a procedure that we believe is the destruction of an innocent human life and an affront to a loving and merciful God. We will continue to hope and pray that the president changes his heart on this matter.

Would that have been so terrible, so difficult? I don’t think so.

This is not the first time Osteen has disappointed Evangelicals; one can find plenty of blogs complaining about his appearance on Larry King Live in which he completely avoided Larry’s question about abortion and gay marriage, stating that he “doesn’t go there.” Where does he go, exactly? I’ve often heard that he preaches the “Prosperity Gospel” but in his interview with Campbell Brown he explained that it really didn’t have much to do with wealth. At the same time I have never seen him associated with the liberal, or sadly now, nearly pagan philosophy emanating from some of the mainline Protestant sects. He seems to fall broadly within the Evangelical camp. As a Catholic usually wrapped up in Catholic intrigues my Evangelical IQ isn’t what it should be.

That said, Catholics and Evangelicals share a deep common interest in sanctity of life issues, and abortion above all. Therefore I feel I have not stepped out of bounds by criticizing Pastor Osteen, as a pro-life Christian. It would be one thing if the man were openly pro-choice, and we knew it, and we expected it. As it is, however, what I think we are looking at is “the most influential Christian in America”, who is more than likely pro-life in his personal outlook, refusing to engage the issue publicly. And to me that is not only tragic but shameful. Perhaps there is some good reason I am not aware of that prevents Pastor Osteen from even providing a token pro-life statement, and if there is, perhaps someone can fill me in.

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