Trading the Gospel for the fads of politics


Two of the world’s most famous clergymen marked birthdays this past week — Archbishop Desmond Tutu turned 75 on Saturday, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson turned 65 the day after.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Rev. Jesse Jackson

Both belonged — Tutu indispensably, Jackson very dispensably — to great political movements for civil rights and racial equality. The causes of which they were a part were among the lights in an era too often darkened by state domination and discrimination. The good political news of the century past was that moral witness expressed in nonviolent protest could bring down even the most malevolent and powerful regimes.

It reveals something significant about the politics of our time that religious figures could be so influential; a confirmation that the engine of history is not really politics (as the heirs to the French Revolution thought), nor is it economics (as the Marxists thought), but rather it is the world of culture: ideas, values, morals, faith. And it says something, too, about religion in our time that the world’s most famous clergymen would be known not so much for what they did in the pulpit, but on the street.

The right relationship between the pulpit and politics requires fine distinctions and prudential balance. Tutu and Jackson are both men of the political left, which means they rarely had to contend with the accusation they were violating the separation of church and state, or seeking to unjustly impose their own religious beliefs in their campaigns. Such protests are reserved for religious figures on the right.

Yet men of the cloth should be less concerned about whether there is too much religion in politics — the secular state does not lack for ever-vigilant guardians — and more concerned about too much politics in religion. The political seduction of religion is a danger both ancient and modern.

The upshot of trading the Gospel for the fads of politics is that neither Tutu nor Jackson seems to function as a clergyman so much as a traveling celebrity for fashionable causes, like the innocuous grace before meals that lends a spiritual gloss to a gala dinner.

The Christian pastor has to work for Gospel values in this world, which include a political order rooted in justice, promoting both peace and liberty, and with special solicitude for the poor and the weak. Yet no matter how much progress is made toward a free, virtuous and just society, the Christian disciple always recognizes that the political order cannot be confused with the kingdom of God. My kingdom is not of this world. So said Jesus to Pontius Pilate. It has often been forgotten.

Politics seduces the Christian pastor when he measures the Gospel against the standards of the world, reducing the Gospel to a tool of politics, which in turn becomes a mundane religion. Reverend Jackson was seduced entirely, going so far as to run for president twice as a sort of quasi-pilgrimage to the idol of politics. It’s hard to remember now the Jesse Jackson who preached indignantly against the scourge of abortion in black America, or the need for moral renewal and virtuous living; all that he long ago abandoned like a snake shedding an old skin.

The seduction, which has afflicted others on both the left and right, strips the Gospel of its transcendent message in order to make of it another ideology or another partisan position. St. Paul warned against emptying the Cross of Christ of its power; there is no surer way to do so than to make it an instrument in search of power.

Archbishop Tutu had the benefit of suffering in his early life, which keeps one’s eyes fixed on the mystery of the Cross. But after the Nobel Prize in 1984, and certainly after the birth of the Rainbow Nation 10 years later, it has been hard to think of any position he has taken that would upset the Hollywood glitterati who so lavishly feted his birthday last month. Even in his latest controversy, when he inveighed against Jacob Zuma — the former deputy president of South Africa, who was acquitted this year in a sordid rape trial — he did so in exquisitely politically correct terms. It wasn’t the routine promiscuity that earned Tutu’s censure, but “unprotected sex” in an HIVridden country — an updating of the Sixth Commandment calculated to cause minimum offence.

The upshot of trading the Gospel for the fads of politics is that neither Tutu nor Jackson seems to function as a clergyman so much as a traveling celebrity for fashionable causes, like the innocuous grace before meals that lends a spiritual gloss to a gala dinner. It’s a long way down from where they started, when it was their willingness to stand against the powerful of the world that earned them their original respect. They have joined the global elite now, and gained the esteem of the great and the good. But, as the question was long ago posed, what does it profit a man to gain the whole world?


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Trading the Gospel for the fads of politics." National Post, (Canada) October 12, 2006.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2006 National Post

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