Truth in Advertising

As many, perhaps most, of you know, the UK had a rather consequential election last Thursday.  Theresa May and her Conservative Party got a pretty good kicking, as the Brits would say, especially in light of the fact that when she called the election on April 18th the consensus opinion was she was going to win in a landslide.  [As an aside, I cannot possibly express how jealous I am of my UK and Canadian friends that a "long election season" is something like 10 weeks, as compared to the 18 month Bataan Death March that is US elections].  Anyway, May and the Conservatives fell short of a majority in Parliament, and so in order to form a government, she had to look around for coalition partners.  And it appears she found them, in the form of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.

Now, it is very likely that forming a coalition with the DUP will have severe negative consequences for peace in Northern Ireland, and at the end of the day that is the most important thing about this development.  But let's bracket the question of Northern Ireland itself, and talk about the DUP and its political program more generally, especially in light of this article that my friend Maureen Clarke brought to my attention.  In the piece, Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, a Catholic priest, weighs in on how Catholics in the UK should react to the fact that the DUP is being placed into a position in which they hold all the cards.

No problem, says Fr. Lucie-Smith.  Sure, the founder of the DUP, the Rev. Ian Paisley, was "someone who contributed greatly to the atmosphere of sectarian hatred" and "made the lives of many Catholics a misery."  But the current leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, is a far more moderate figure, says Fr. Lucie-Smith.  Why, she has not ruled out meeting with the Pope if he were to come to Belfast!  She went to the funeral of perhaps the most significant politician in Northern Ireland in the 20th Century!  One is reminded of the memorable phrase "the soft bigotry of low expectations," coined by former President George W. Bush; on the flip side, when one remembers that the "national treasure," ol' grampa Paisley once heckled Pope John Paul II from the floor of the European Parliament, any outcome save Foster spitting on Pope Francis perhaps should be seen as a breakthrough.

But all of this is warm-up for the real reason why Fr. Lucie-Smith thinks Catholics should cheer the ascendancy of the DUP--they are zealously anti-abortion and anti-LGBT rights.  Indeed, the DUP has developed quite the track-record advancing socially conservative causes, one that would be familiar to those who follow the Religious Right here in the US.  One of its MPs believe climate change is a "con";  another wants to teach Creationism in schools as an "alternative" to evolution; a third is a proud member of the militantly anti-Catholic Orange Order.  Mike Huckabee and Franklin Graham and the Jerry Falwell, Jr. and the rest of that lot would be very much at home in the DUP.

All of this leads my question.  For the hardcore pro-life and anti-LGBT folks (of which I think it is safe to count Fr. Lucie-Smith among), is there any set of policy positions a pro-life and anti-LGBT candidate could have that would be disqualifying to you?  Clearly a party that has a history of supporting sectarian violence against your own people is not disqualifying for Fr. Lucie-Smith, but I would like to know if there is something that would be bad enough for you to waive off.  And, to make this a clean discussion, let's stipulate that our hypothetical pro-life and anti-LGBT coalition has both the means and the desire to actually implement policies consistent with that vision--as opposed to people who talk about those things as a way to convince the suckers to support the rest of their agenda (*cough* Donald Trump *cough*).  No, our cadre is ready and willing to do the work of banning abortion and preventing LGBT folks from marrying and having rights and whatnot.

What would it be?  Advocating for American South/South African-style racial apartheid?  A full-on security state?  [Silly me--we know how much traditionalist Catholics lionize Franco's Spain and Salazar's Portugal, among others].  Concentration camps for LGBT people? Even, at risk of invoking Godwin's Law, a full-on Final Solution to some set of "undesirable" people?

The reason this conversation is worth having, and not an exercise in trolling, is that there is a non-crazy argument derived from authoritative Catholic texts that the answer to this question is "only things that involve killing people"--so, Hitler is out, but everything else is fine.  Consider "Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding The Participation of Catholics in Political Life" from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2002.  And please note that I am citing to Catholic documents because Catholics have lots of documents that clearly set forth their positions, but the same basic framework and dynamic exists in other parts of conservative Christianity, especially in the evangelical world--this is not just a Catholic thing.  In any event, here's what it says:

In this context, it must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. . . .

When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation, the Catholic commitment becomes more evident and laden with responsibility. In the face of fundamental and inalienable ethical demands, Christians must recognize that what is at stake is the essence of the moral law, which concerns the integral good of the human person. This is the case with laws concerning abortion and euthanasia (not to be confused with the decision to forgo extraordinary treatments, which is morally legitimate). Such laws must defend the basic right to life from conception to natural death. In the same way, it is necessary to recall the duty to respect and protect the rights of the human embryo. Analogously, the family needs to be safeguarded and promoted, based on monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, and protected in its unity and stability in the face of modern laws on divorce: in no way can other forms of cohabitation be placed on the same level as marriage, nor can they receive legal recognition as such.  (Paragraph 4).

If one is to read that literally, then the only way one could legitimately reject a candidate with a demonstrated willingness to ban abortion or ban LGBT marriage was if that candidate openly advocated killing some other group of folks.  Anything else, and your fundamental obligation to vote pro-life trumps any other consideration.

Now, many folks, including me, read this once upon a time and thought to themselves, "yeah, sure, it says that, but it can't really mean that.  Surely there are other considerations; surely other things matter beside abortion and anti-LGBT programs."  But I think those who were operating under that assumption need to take these statements at their word--because the pro-life, anti-LGBT movements among conservative Catholics and others certainly do.  Fr. Lucie-Smith is just following what the CDF is telling him to do--bear any burden, pay any price to ensure that abortion is illegal and gay folks can't marry.  And if it means that Catholics in Northern Ireland have to suffer in the process, well, it's all for the greater good, just as the US bishops looked the other way when Trump called for the deportation of large swaths of their congregations in order to get a conservative Supreme Court justice.  All of that is negotiable, while abortion is not.

Now, I think this is absolute, unqualified madness (and unrecognizable from the vision of Jesus in the Gospels, for what it is worth).  But it is important to locate the source of the madness.  The madness is not found in the first instance in people like Fr. Lucie-Smith--the madness is to be found in that 2002 CDF document and similar doctrinal statements or positions in other denominations.  So long as that document is "on the books," people like Fr. Lucie-Smith are going to be entirely justified in taking the line he took (particularly where, as here, he personally won't have to deal with the consequences, as he is safely ensconced in England and won't have to deal with the direct fallout of DUP power in Northern Ireland).  This is the core lesson I learned at a Philadelphia baptism a year-and-a-half ago--talk of not "obsessing" over abortion or LGBT issues is empty if the "laws on the books" are not changed.

In a way, I have more respect for people like Fr. Lucie-Smith than I do for some progressive Catholics and evangelicals that stay "in the tribe."  Fr. Lucie-Smith is practicing truth in advertising--in political life, the Catholic Church and the evangelical bodies teach (as opposed to talk about or muse on) that only anti-abortion and anti-LGBT really matter, and everything else is secondary.  And unless or until that changes in terms of the official teaching, all of the rest of the talk about other priorities is just that, talk.  If you can't deliver a political vision that allows for other, competing considerations beyond the "big two," then don't promise such a vision.  Be honest about what you are about.


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