2010 offers voters the opportunity to make a New Election Year’s Resolution to fire the politicians who legislated their churches’ beliefs instead of constitutional principles. Among the top ten church-state stories of 2009 was the U.S. Catholic bishops’ successful interference in health care reform. The bishops lobbied energetically to limit insurance coverage for abortion, and, citing the bishops, House Democrats voted for restrictive legislation. The bishops then criticized the Senate for not going far enough to limit abortion funding. Rhode Island Bishop Thomas Tobin asked Representative Patrick Kennedy to stop taking communion because he did not vote as the church requested.
The politicians who obeyed the church’s directives should reconsider their obligations. Patrick’s uncle, President Kennedy, famously expressed his belief “in an America where ... no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, ... where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.”
John Kennedy’s words eloquently captured the Constitution’s ideal that Americans are ruled by law, not religion. The reasoning behind that standard is simple: Americans do not share Catholicism or any other religion. They must be governed by common law. It is wrong to impose the Catholic or any other faith on American citizens through force of law.
On the subject of abortion, the conflict between religious and legal values is especially clear. The Catholic Church does not support women's equality. The U.S. Constitution does. President Kennedy promised to resign if faced with a similar conflict between his faith and his oath of office. He knew it was unacceptable to impose his faith on the nation. Politicians must reclaim the Kennedy ideal and resign if they feel they must follow their faith. If they do not resign, voters should rise up and toss out of office politicians who obey their churches’ orders instead of their oath to the Constitution. America is not a place where public officials should either request or accept instructions on public policy from the pope and bishops.