Religious institutions are poor vessels for piety, especially in politics

For the Monitor
Published: 1/3/2021 11:00:51 AM

I’ve long argued that institutions are remarkably poor vessels for piety, in part because it is in the nature of institutions to preserve themselves. It’s very difficult, after all, to kill an institution. At best, the institution becomes so bloated or dysfunctional or even corrupt that someone comes along to demand reform.

In the West, monastic movements emerged following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312 C.E.; many Christians believed that the church became too friendly with temporal powers and needed reform. Martin Luther’s agenda for change in the sixteenth century led to a wholesale reshaping of Western Christendom by means of the Protestant Reformation.

But it is also the case that institutions are run by individuals, who bear at least some responsibility. As we approach the end of the Trump presidency, I can think of a couple of religious organizations than might merit some attention and remediation. (I’m bracketing perhaps the most dysfunctional institution of our day, the U.S. Senate, because it is not, at least ostensibly, a religious institution.)

Let’s start with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, based outside of Atlanta. The India-born Zacharias migrated to North America in 1966 and fashioned an entire career out of preaching and publishing books defending the truth claims of Christianity. (Full disclosure: I recently learned that Zacharias and I were students on the same campus early in the 1970s, though I did not know him.)

Since Zacharias’s death last May at the age of 74 (Mike Pence spoke at his funeral), several women have come forward to accuse Zacharias of sexual misconduct. Commendably, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries looked into the matter, and the organization has verified the accusations. The real question is: What took so long? Evangelicalism is especially susceptible to the cult of personality, but I find it difficult to believe that the organization was unaware of the founder’s behavior.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops probably deserves its own column. The bishops rushed to congratulate Donald Trump after his victory in 2016, even before the results were certified. This year, however, at least one member of the conference, Joseph Strickland, of Tyler, Texas, has refused to acknowledge Joseph Biden’s victory, even though Pope Francis offered his congratulations. Strickland has echoed Trump’s discredited claims of election fraud.

You would think that the election of only the second Roman Catholic to the presidency would be an occasion for celebration. John F. Kennedy, the first, had to run the gauntlet of Protestant opposition in 1960, including surreptitious efforts by Billy Graham to deny Kennedy’s election. Not all Catholics voted for Biden, of course, but he received about half of the Catholic vote. Now, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, José Gomez, archbishop of Los Angeles, has declared that Biden’s support for abortion rights presents the church with a “difficult and complex situation.”

Some reports suggest that the bishops want to deny Biden access to Holy Communion, much the way that some bishops sought to deny John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, during the 2004 campaign. Fortunately, Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington, D.C., and a newly minted cardinal, said that he would not bar the president-elect from the altar rail.

By what perverse moral calculus does Donald Trump (who is not Catholic) merit a pass from the bishops, while Biden, a devout Catholic, is susceptible to censure? The outgoing president, twice divorced and a self-confessed sexual predator, routinely demeans racial and ethnic minorities, while encouraging white supremacists. He has issued more than 22,000 false or misleading statements during his presidency, and his border policies have separated more than 500 children from their parents.

So much for “family values.”

But our focus here is not on Trump, mendacious as he is. Our focus is on the Conference of Catholic Bishops, some of whom apparently believe there is something akin to moral parity between Trump and Biden, and at least one of whom thinks that the moral balance tilts in favor of Trump. Biden believes, like a majority of Americans and a majority of Catholics, that the painful choice to terminate a pregnancy should be determined by the mother herself and not by the state. The bishops nevertheless feel obliged to call him to account.

I would have fewer objections if the bishops had a bit more credibility themselves. The scandalous (mis)handling of the pedophilia crisis extended from parishes to dioceses to the highest levels of the church. Repeatedly during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI the Vatican assured the faithful that the church could handle these matters internally, without involving law enforcement. How did that work out?

The Conference of Catholic Bishops nevertheless feels obligated to censure Joe Biden for his views on abortion. Biden’s position, Gomez said, is “against some fundamental values we hold dear as Catholics.”

Fair enough. But capital punishment also violates church teaching. When was the last time the bishops censured Catholic politicians who support the death penalty? Religious institutions, I believe, are remarkably poor vessels for piety – or morality, for that matter, as the Zacharias case demonstrates. At least arguably, however, institutions are necessary evils. Perhaps it’s time for a bit of housecleaning.

(Randall Balmer teaches at Dartmouth College. His latest book, “Solemn Reverence: The Separation of Church and State in American Life,” will be released in February.)

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