In the 1960 presidential election, Richard Nixon’s Republican base warned the nation that if John F. Kennedy were to be elected the Pope would run the country. It was thought that because Kennedy was Catholic his first allegiance would be to the Pope. Oh how times have changed. Now the Republicans are invoking Catholic social teachings as the basis for their policy choices. Just recently Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) commented that his budget proposal was based upon the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. Of course, there are several problems with Mr. Ryan’s use of subsidiarity the two most prominent being that he misunderstands subsidiarity and he has violated the separation between church and state.
Mr. Ryan is correct in suggesting that subsidiarity serves the basis of federalism, but wrong when he said that government is not supposed to help the poor because it conflicts with subsidiarity. To understand subsidiarity it would be helpful to quote encyclical letter Quadragesimo Anno par. 79 (1931) from Pope Pius XI. “[I]t is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.” The principle of subsidiarity, then, allows the government to step in when other associations have failed to provide sufficient help to the members of the body social. When individuals and voluntary organizations fail to provide a proper order, the government may step in, but not before. Mr. Ryan’s position seems to be that the government can never step in. That is in direct contradiction to what Pope Pius XI wrote in 1931.
But this is one of the reasons why we have a separation between church and state; to prevent politicians from using religion for their political ends and distorting religious teachings for political gain. When politicians act as theologians we risk blurring the line between religion and politics. When church and state become one, dissent can be silenced through the power of the state and the state decides what is an acceptable religious view and what is not. Those who object to a particular policy can be silenced on the grounds that their policy preferences are blasphemous.
And we don’t need to look back 52 years to 1960 to see Republicans proclaim the importance of the separation of church and state. During the debate over whether religious organizations should be excluded from having to cover birth control for their employees it was the Republicans, with Mr. Ryan outfront, who argued against such a measure as it violated the separation of church and state.
What this seems to suggest is that Republicans, at least those like Mr. Ryan, think the government should not interfere with religion but religion can interfere with government. But this formulation misconstrues the separation doctrine. There cannot be separation if one is allowed to meddle in the affairs of the other while the other is not. Keeping the two separate is what is required which means neither should meddle in the affairs of the other. James Madison, architect of the constitution and author and steward of the Bill of Rights, was a proponent of religious liberty and understood that once the government began using its power to interpret and propagate religious doctrine danger was close at hand. It was not only his books that taught him this but his experience as a youth seeing Baptist ministers imprisoned in Culpepper County, VA for publishing their religious views. At the time the Anglican Church was the legally established church in Virginia and objected to Baptist teachings. The power of the state was employed against the ministers at the urging of Anglicans. Madison would never forget the sight of the imprisoned Baptist ministers and would therefore never lose sight of what would happen if religion and politics were allowed to mingle.
There is no doubt that many people’s political views are informed by their religion. Not only would it be impossible to legislate against people bringing those views to bear on policy debates it would be undesirable to do so. People’s moral compass should guide their politics. The separation between church and state is violated when politicians begin using the government as a vehicle for their religious views or when the government uses its power of coercion to shape the policies of religious institutions.