A couple weeks ago, right after the inauguration of our new president, I was a guest on the enjoyable weekly radio show, “The Rabbi and the Rev,” with my friends Rabbi Joseph Potasnik and the evangelical pastor Dr. A. R. Bernard.
We were in a deep conversation about the political division and vitriol which seems to have festered in our country these recent years. What, we wondered, could faith and religion contribute to calming these fierce sentiments and converting them to spiritual values of reconciliation and unity?
Before long, we settled on the exhortation of the psalmist, “Put not your trust in princes!”
“Princes”...the term the Bible uses for political leaders.
The point we three spiritual leaders were trying to make is that absolute trust can only be given to the Lord. Yes, we respect and pay heed to our politicians; we pray for them and work with them; we take our civic duties seriously and try to exercise our faithful citizenship. But— trust and dominion over us? That belongs alone to the Lord!
Perhaps, the rabbi, reverend, and the cardinal concluded, that’s our problem: we give our politicians the dominion over us that only God deserves.
“I am the Lord thy God! Thou shalt not have strange gods before me!” thunders the Lord in number one of the ten commandments.
“Princes,” politicians, are not gods.
When I was ten years old, I was excited about the 1960 presidential election between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. No surprise, I was enthusiastic about JFK, the Democratic candidate, and an Irish Catholic at that. Nobody in our family seemed to support Nixon...except my uncle Doug. When I asked Dad how that could be, he smiled and replied, “Uncle Doug is a Republican!”
That’s strange, I observed. I thought he was a Catholic! (He was a good one, by the way!)
My friends in Boston tell me people there are baptized Democrats! That’s strange, I say. I thought we were baptized Catholic!
Politics is not a creed, a faith, or a religion. Our deepest convictions and most normative allegiances come from the Lord, from our faith, not from politics. True enough, our religion inspires us to political responsibility, but no party or earthly leader can claim the dominion over us that God alone deserves. We do not fashion an idol out of our political leaders.
If our politics bring out the worst in us, they are occasions of sin. I’m afraid that’s what has happened.
I’m enough of an historian to realize this is hardly new. Recently I finished reading Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of our first president. Even that noble man of virtue, integrity, valor, and moderation was the victim of the most vile and stinging slurs.
So the courageous president of our bishops’ conference, the Archbishop of Los Angeles, Jose Gomez, a gentle and soft-spoken pastor, is maligned by those who accuse him of writing of areas where we look forward to working with our new president, while the other side blasts him for pointing out areas where we will not agree with him.
I thought we were Catholics, then Democrats or Republicans?
When I led the prayer at the convention that nominated Barack Obama and Joseph Biden, I was overwhelmed with hate mail. When I did the same for the convention last summer that nominated Donald Trump and Michael Pence, the venom arrived again.
Of course, I was praying for and with those candidates, all four of whom admitted they sure needed it, not to them. They are not gods. Their platforms should inspire interest and a reasoned vote, not incite hatred.
When Pope Francis sent President Biden a gracious message offering him congratulations and promising prayers, the complaints were sharp.
Four years ago, when he did the same for Donald Trump, they were equally barbed.
The Holy Father often reminds us that nationalism is a vice. That’s when we make our nation a false god. Patriotism is a virtue; nationalism is not.
We are conscientious citizens. We believe the genius of America, enshrined in our founding charters, is that citizens can bring their religious, moral convictions into the public square.
No politician is perfect. Usually we can support some of their initiatives while opposing others.
Only God is perfect. Only the Lord, our Dominus, as Latin has it, can completely dominate us.
A good parish priest was telling me of a meeting of his parish council (by zoom, of course!) last October. He asked for their help in getting people back to Mass, caring for neighbors housebound by Covid-19, and providing religious education to our kids. He tells me the conversation was boring, with a lot of yawning.
Then one of the parish council members chided him for failing to instruct the people not to vote for one of the two presidential candidates (I won’t say which one.) All of sudden, raw emotion erupted, with the folks on the zoom yelling and criticizing!
Where was such passion for the faith, he wisely asked them?
Get my point?
Thus do we place our absolute trust only in God...not in princes!
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