I took a vacation in January. I was trying to think of the last time I took a “relaxation” vacation. I can’t remember. It’s not really my thing. And this one in January was poised to be a relaxation vacation because it was set in a tropical beach locale. Again, not really my thing. So, what do you do when the only option is to sit on the beach? You catch up on your reading list.
About 7 years ago I bought book that was recommended by a friend. I read the first couple of chapters and it was heavy slogging, so it sat on my coffee table for a couple of months. After that it went on the bookshelf. My “beach vacation of 2012” presented the opportunity to finish it. The book is called “Claiming the City: Faith, Politics and the Power of Place in Saint Paul.” It’s by a Macalester college professor and examines thehistory of politics and the Catholic church in Minnesota from the 1860s to the 1930s.
Here is a partial synopsis. The gilded age church in Minnesota was an institution in transition, and our first Archbishop, John Ireland, was a remarkable man who understood his flock. He knew they struggled for just wages, decent working conditions, affordable housing and fair treatment in society. So he made it his mission to see to it that they had access to the American dream. It wasn’t easy. And there was no shortage of conservatives within the church hierarchy who thought that those daily struggles of our Catholic immigrants were not as important as the preeminent political issue of the day: the evils of drink. Church conservatives believed that if we simply outlawed social evils (e.g. the drink), then other social ills would take care of themselves.
John Ireland was skeptical. So he directed church resources toward ensuring economic prosperity for all his flock. In hindsight, few would argue that his course was unwise – especially considering that, within a year of his death, national political forces successfully implemented alcohol prohibition. Ironically, the federal enabling legislation for this effort was named for its chief proponent, Minnesota Congressman Andrew Volstead. Regardless, the results were not what Minnesotans, or America, had hoped for.
During prohibition, alcohol did not go away. And, as it turned out, misguided efforts to officially turn our back on this social issue only exacerbated it’s impact, and gave rise to an underground culture which fed organized crime, speakeasies and the excesses of the roaring twenties.
Most of us have heard the Edmund Burke quote: those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it. I am guessing the pezzo novante of the church have heard this as well, which is why I am puzzled when they abandon their flock to bray with righteous indignation over divisive social issues. Maybe it feels good when you believe you are right. Maybe it feels good to rub elbows with our society’s wealthy and important people. But when I look at the judgment of history, the best faith leaders were those who eschewed the country clubs, grand donor galas and the Sunday afternoon yachting excursions in favor of standing with our tired, our poor, our huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
I read in the news recently that the Catholic church here in Minnesota has donated $750k to a political campaign aimed at passing a constitutional amendment over a divisive social issue. Last year, I received a slickly
packaged DVD in the mail which sought to persuade me on the same issue. Rumor had it that whole scheme also cost about $750K, all paid for by an “anonymous donor.” Who are all these secret rich people who give money so that a religion may influence an election? Apparently the church hierarchy is aware this could make them look ridiculous, because they’ve issued a command not to talk about it. This all goes down in Minnesota as Catholic Bishops nationally seek to end no-copay contraceptive health coverage for women who work in the hospitals they control. The bishops bewail, “Government has entered the sanctuary.” I wonder, is there a one of them who considers this a logical consequence of bishops seeking to stand in your polling booth?
How have we again arrived at the religious right’s medicine show? History has shown that these colorful bottles of liquid fail to address society’s ills. History has also shown that a people is best served when church leaders consider their flock’s real, day-to-day problems, and dispense with divisive social issues that feed their head but not their soul. Gandhi seemed to know it. Jesus seemed to know it. Buddha seemed to know it. Mohammed seemed to know it. Their clergy are the legacy upon whose shoulders these ideas rest. I wonder what it will take for them to know it.
In the wake of reading Claiming the City, I considered how we find ourselves at the same politics-and-religion crossroads today. Despite John Ireland’s wisdom, the Catholic church in Minnesota retreads a well established folly – one with which the judgment of history, not to mention scripture itself, has found deep fault.