People of salt and light
This election season I had a number of conversations about faith and the secular arena — what it means to be people of God as well as citizens of this nation. For those of us who see ourselves as people of God, this is our identity. This is our daily walk of faith. We are also citizens of this country and members of this American society. Unfortunately, this culture seems to be moving in a less God-conscious direction. While at one point in the middle 20th century religious affiliation and practice were considered a standard part of being a good person, today many people see a lack of personal religious identity as completely acceptable if not preferable.
The establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was intended to prohibit government from acting to establish a religion, or interfering with its free practice. However it is often misapplied to discourage individuals from acting on their faith in the public sector. As the US Conference of Catholic Bishops stated, "Secular society will allow believers to have whatever moral convictions they please — as long as they keep them on the private preserves of their consciences, in their homes and churches, and out of the public arena." ("Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics," USCCB)
But the public arena is precisely where the gospel message says we must live our faith. This seems to be the primary message when Matthew encourages us to be "people of salt and light" who affect the world around us (Matt 5:13-16). This is one important way in which we discharge our responsibility to be good stewards of our faith in the public sector. I'm not suggesting that we codify faith beliefs within our laws and institutions. But we have the right to be people of faith as we participate as citizens. Living our faith is both a freedom and a responsibility.
We exemplify the principles of Christ by how we live in the world, what we say in the public forum and most certainly how we vote. The bishops' pastoral letter, "Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord," says this role in the secular arena is one that is particularly suited for the laity. We are the ones who are especially called to minister to this world from within it. But we must be in this world without becoming of this world. This has been the challenge to followers of Christ since the time of the early Church — to live in the world without becoming conformed to it — to instead make a difference in our culture and society by our very presence. Again, the bishops warn that, "American Catholics have long sought to [be] assimilate[d] into U.S. cultural life. But in [being] assimilate[ed], we have too often been digested. We have been changed by our culture too much, and we have changed it not enough." (Living the Gospel of Life.)
There is no shortage of current social issues that have direct applications within Catholic social justice teachings and/or Catholic moral theology. Among them are: abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, immigration, gay and lesbian marriage, the wealth gap, affordable healthcare, the fairness of the Citizens United court decision and U.S. drone strikes. With each of these issues the moral character of our society is at stake, and as people of God we have a responsibility to know what the Church teaches and proclaim that truth. The bishops remind us, for all its virtues, [d]emocracy is not a substitute for morality, nor a panacea for immorality. Its value stands — or falls — with the values which it embodies and promotes. Only tireless promotion of the truth about the human person can infuse democracy with the right values." (Living the Gospel of Life.)
As Christian stewards we have a responsibility to shine the light of Christ and bring the truth of God's word to the discussion — whether public or private. Our baptism demands it as does the health of our democracy.
(Walt Sears is a lay ecclesial minister in the Diocese of Oakland.)