Mark Shields: Politics, religion: An uneasy coexistence

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

Regular readers may remember the “Shields rule,” about the tension between organized religion and politics. It goes like this: With but one exception, ministers, priests, rabbis and imams — men and women of the cloth — should stay out of all partisan American politics. The one exception, of course, is any major political fight in which the minister, priest, rabbi or imam courageously dares to support my candidate or to join my side.

Liberals, in whose ranks I am found, are generally secular and almost always on the state side in any church-state dispute. Conservative politicians mostly testify publicly about their own Christian fidelity while also courting the observant to support their campaign.

The fact, which liberals are somehow reluctant to acknowledge, is that American religion and religious people have had a profoundly positive impact on American public life. The long battle to atone for America’s original sin, by repealing slavery, was led and eventually won not by the academic or intellectual elite or by enlightened captains of commerce or industry. Inspiring and leading the long, difficult struggle for abolition were the Quakers, the Religious Society of Friends, joined by the Methodists (inspired by their founder, John Wesley), along with Congregationalists and evangelicals.

A century later, as elders of our community can recall, institutional racism, in the form of legally sanctioned segregation, was ended by the civil rights movement, which was organized and led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Standing shoulder to shoulder with King, while often risking physical harm, were Jewish rabbis, Protestant ministers and Catholic nuns and priests, as well as lay members of their faith groups.

The killing of six women and three men between the ages of 26 and 87 — who were together on a Wednesday night studying the Bible at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina — solely because their skin was black enabled us to see firsthand the reality of religious faith. Addressing the accused murderer of Ethel Lance, her 70-year-old mother, Nadine Collier said: “You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you.”

G.K. Chesterton once wrote: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” To those who agree with Chesterton, I say: Come to Charleston and Emanuel AME Church. As a Catholic who attends Mass weekly, I am humbled and awed by the power of forgiveness shown by the families of those executed in their beloved sanctuary. As someone who has occasionally been guilty of “Irish Alzheimer’s” — when you forget everything except your grudges — I am inspired by the example of these grieving survivors. Where else in our national community do we see this strength of forgiveness? Not in Washington or on Wall Street or in university or faculty clubs or in pressrooms, let me tell you.

One discordant note: The lowering and stowing of the Confederate flag is a positive step, but it ignores the fact that we Americans have more guns — 310 million — and more deaths by firearms, 33,636 in 2013, than any major nation in the world. We kill, per capita, 20 times as many of our citizens by guns as Australia does. Japan, which has the fewest number of guns, also has the fewest number of deaths by guns. If more guns made you safer, the U.S. would be less violent. And even after Charleston, we are silent.
But let us now pause to honor our fellow Americans who, by living their own faith, teach America how to forgive.


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