In his excellent new book, "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics," Ross Douthat describes how the heresy of nationalism — idolizing the nation — has rendered American religious groups captive to partisan politics.
"If you don't want to vote for George W. Bush because of the Iraq War then you're playing into the hands of Christianity's left-wing enemies. If you can't vote for Barack Obama because of abortion, then you're an accomplice to the shredding of the Constitution. You simply cannot be a social Democrat and an orthodox Catholic, or a conservative Christian who's also genuinely antiwar," he writes.
This polarization became evident again when the Catholic Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, agreed to give the concluding benediction at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. On the left, Sarah Posner blogged at Salon.com that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, of which Dolan is president, "has unequivocally attached itself at the hip to the Republican Party." Republicans, trying to fan anti-Democratic flames among Catholics, were gleeful that such an outspoken Catholic leader would make an appearance.
Two problems became apparent with the complaints on the left and the rejoicing on the right. One was that Dolan proved to be an equal-opportunity man of prayer. No sooner had he agreed to pray at the Republican Convention than it was announced that he would pray at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this week. Dolan will have the distinction of being the only person to immediately follow each party's nominee — Mitt Romney and Barack Obama — after their acceptance speeches.
The second problem was that nobody had yet heard Dolan's prayer. It was a model of civil religion, quoting the Declaration of Independence and "America the Beautiful" more than the Bible.
Here's part of what he said: "(We) ask your guidance for those who govern us, and on those who would govern us: the president and vice president, the Congress, the Supreme Court, and on all those who seek to serve the common good by seeking public office, especially Gov. Romney and Congressman Ryan. Make them all worthy to serve you by serving our country."
That's a noble sentiment that neatly managed to pray for Obama and Romney in one sentence. It's true that Dolan made brief references to two issues more aligned with Republicans — abortion and religious freedom — but he also twice asked blessings for immigrants, an issue more favorable to Democrats.
In short, Dolan pulled off what Catholics have been doing for centuries now, and which politically active conservative Protestants have not yet gotten the hang of. He spoke of truths that transcend the politics of the moment, which both sides need to hear.
To be sure, Dolan is not completely above suspicion of partisanship. The Conference of Catholic Bishops' fight with the Obama administration about contraceptive provisions in the Affordable Care Act under the guise of "religious liberty" seems disingenuous. And abortion remains the issue without parallel or compromise for Catholic leaders.
Still, as Douthat says, "One need not agree with the exact balance they've struck to admire the consistency with which the Catholic bishops have defied easy partisan categorization over the years …" He is correct that what we need is faith that addresses the work of governing, without being partisan.
Republicans and Democrats who seek to use Dolan for their own ends will be disappointed, and that is an entirely good thing.