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Mark Shields: Iron Rule of Religion and Politics

There is one iron rule regarding religion in American politics, and here it is: With only one exception, ministers, priests, rabbis and imams — men and women of the cloth — should stay out of American politics. The one exception? When the minister, priest, rabbi or imam in a political fight supports my side or my candidate.

That this rule has not been fully grasped by the White House is obvious from the Obama administration’s tone-deaf decision to pick a fight with an order of nuns, still faithful today to their noble mission to care for the impoverished elderly and dying in some 31 countries, over the federal mandate to provide coverage without copays for contraceptives. There are a few U.S. Supreme Court cases that echo through the centuries — Marbury v. Madison, Dred Scott v. Sandford, Brown v. Board of Education. It’s doubtful admirers of this president would want his era remembered by President Barack Obama v. Little Sisters of the Poor.

Religion and politics have been in the spotlight with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican who vetoed a bill passed by the state’s GOP-controlled Legislature, which, according to its supporters, was intended to give legal protection from lawsuits to business owners who assert their religious beliefs in refusing to provide service to gays or others. The bill sparked a national argument over discrimination, gay rights and religious liberty while exposing Arizona to criticism and thinly veiled threats from influential corporations and employers.

American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Marriott hotels, the National Football League (possible loss for Arizona of an already-scheduled Super Bowl), Major League Baseball, Apple Inc. and AT&T, in effect, lobbied Brewer to veto the bill. So, too, did former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, among others. Brewer’s veto, it’s fair to say, pleased civil rights group and the Arizona business community.

But mostly missing from this national dispute has been any appreciation of the enormously positive influence American religion has had upon American politics and America. This country’s original sin — slavery — was defeated not by an enlightened business community or high-minded academic community. Nor was that noble crusade organized, or even supported, by the princes of banking and commerce.

In the front ranks of the struggle to abolish slavery, against most of the national establishment, were the Quakers, the Religious Society of Friends who believed that all were truly “equal in the sight of God.” Quakers were later joined by the founder of the Methodists, John Wesley, Congregationalists and evangelicals. It was religious inspiration that changed the national debate over slavery from an economic question to a moral one, and eventually doomed the brutally dehumanizing practice.

A century after the Civil War, organized religion was in the front ranks of the 20th-century campaign to end legally sanctioned racial segregation. At the point of the spear stood the courageous Southern Christian Leadership, an organization founded in 1957 by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to secure civil rights through nonviolent means. Shoulder to shoulder with King, often risking bodily injury and social ostracism, were Jewish rabbis, Protestant ministers, Catholic nuns and priests, and lay people of all faiths. A few years later, the tragedy of the U.S. invasion of Vietnam was opposed by an anti-war movement, which included many churchwomen and churchmen.

I, for one, will always be grateful that America did not heed those loud voices that insisted people motivated by their religious principles ought to stay within their congregations, convents or seminaries, and not rally the American conscience to abolish slavery, end segregation and stop a war. I am grateful that American religion has, at critical times, stirred and ignited American politics.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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