The Real Issue Behind Jindal's Religious Beliefs
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Sep 08, 2007 at 07:50:18 PM EST
"For whatsoever some people boast of...the orthodoxy of their faith - for everyone is orthodox to himself - these things, and all others of this nature, are much rather marks of men striving for power and empire over one another than of the Church of Christ."
              John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689)

Leave it to religious right leader Charles Colson and former Bush White House speechwriter  Michael Gerson to turn a Democratic Party lemon into religious right lemonade. Colson and Gerson managed to twist  an ad Louisiana Democrats ran in a botched attempt to shed light on Republican gubernatorial candidate Bobby Jindal's neo-orthodox Catholicism -- into an anti-liberal screed.

Gerson --currently a writer for the Washington Post's op-ed page-- recently  described the ad in his August 29, 2007 column as "trying to incite conflict between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Louisiana."  As a Catholic, I see the controversy surrounding the ad more of a critical issue too crudely raised. The issue here is not what Bobby Jindal believes but whether, if elected, would he use his authority as Governor to employ state power to enforce neo-orthodox Catholic beliefs upon all of Louisiana's citizens. An attack ad is a bad way to address the possible implications of how Bobby Jindal's subjective brand of Catholicism would affect his gubernatorial agenda.

First let us examine how Gerson frames what he sees as the issue presented by the ad:

And Jindal's chosen tradition is a muscular Roman Catholicism. In an article published in the 1990s, he argued, "The same Catholic Church which infallibly determined the canon of the Bible must be trusted to interpret her handiwork; the alternative is to trust individual Christians, burdened with, as Calvin termed it, their 'utterly depraved' minds, to overcome their tendency to rationalize, their selfish desires, and other effects of original sin." And elsewhere: "The choice is between Catholicism's authoritative Magisterium and subjective interpretation which leads to anarchy and heresy."

This is the whole basis for the Democratic attack -- that Jindal holds an orthodox view of his own faith and rejects the Protestant Reformation. He has asserted, in short, that Roman Catholicism is correct -- and that other religious traditions, by implication, are prone to error. This is presumably the main reason to convert to Catholicism: because it most closely approximates the truth. And speaking for a moment as a Protestant: How does it insult us that Roman Catholics believe in . . . Roman Catholicism? We had gathered that much.

Gerson went on to claim that the ad "...reveals a secular, liberal attitude: that strong religious beliefs are themselves a kind of scandal; that a vigorous defense of Roman Catholicism is somehow a gaffe." Clearly, the ad misstates Jindal's use of the term "depraved" (he was citing Calvin's use of the term, not a using it to describe Protestant denominations). But if the Louisiana Democratic Party missed the central issued regarding Bobby Jindal's beliefs, so too did Gerson.

Jindal's original statements can be found in a 1996 article entitled How Catholicism is Different. But for now, getting back to Gerson -- who is clearly simpatico with many of fellow Republican Jindal's policy positions-framed the issue in this manner:

This is the whole basis for the Democratic attack -- that Jindal holds an orthodox view of his own faith and rejects the Protestant Reformation. He has asserted, in short, that Roman Catholicism is correct -- and that other religious traditions, by implication, are prone to error. This is presumably the main reason to convert to Catholicism: because it most closely approximates the truth. And speaking for a moment as a Protestant: How does it insult us that Roman Catholics believe in . . . Roman Catholicism? We had gathered that much.

Gerson is correct about one thing: Jindal's was somewhat complimentary of Protestant denominations in a backhanded manner, saying "Nonetheless, the Catholic Church must live up to her name by incorporating the many Spirit-led movements found outside her walls. For example, the energy and fervor that animate the Baptist and Pentecostal denominations, the stirring biblical preaching of the Lutherans and Calvinists, and the liturgical solemnity of the Anglicans must find expression within Catholicism. " But the entire piece does express a view towards Protestants that many American Catholics no longer accept, let alone would proclaim.

Gerson, having exploited a political gaffe, went on with this bit of  hackery:

This Democratic ad is not merely a tin-eared political blunder; it reveals a secular, liberal attitude: that strong religious beliefs are themselves a kind of scandal; that a vigorous defense of Roman Catholicism is somehow a gaffe.

This is a strange, distorted view of pluralism, which once meant civility, respect and common enterprise among people with strongly held and differing convictions. In the liberal view, pluralism means a public square purged of intolerance -- defined as the belief in exclusive truth-claims and absolute right and wrong. And this view of pluralism can easily become oppressive, as the "intolerant" are expected to be silent."

Once again, by twisting the meaning of pluralism, Gerson employs the tired old canard of liberal intolerance:

On the receiving end of those expectations, Jindal has given these issues considerable thought. "This would be a poorer society," he told me, "if pluralism meant the least common denominator, if we couldn't hold a passionate, well-articulated belief system. If you enforce a liberalism devoid of content, you end up with the very violations of freedom you were trying to prevent in the first place."

But it is clear that Gerson and Jindal, as evidenced by Gerson's piece and Jindal's 1995 article that they have not truly come to praise pluralism, but to bury it in a grave of distortion. Jindal's rhetoric in particular reveals a neo-orthodox Catholic view of Christian unity, one that increasingly adheres to the most rigid forms of Catholicism.

Jindal told Gerson in an interview:

"I believe in God, that Jesus died and rose. I can't divide my public and private conscience. I can't stop being a Christian, and wouldn't want to for a moment of the day."

This is the stuff of folks Garry Wills described as holding "God in the Hands of Angry Sinners." The true believers who are not content with them selves and their faith but who hold an arrogant superiority about them. Wills noted, " But the bond between these groups is not ecumenical. The bond is religious extremism." At the time, Wills was discussing a commonality that exists between another neo-orthodox Catholic, Mel Gibson and certain conservative Jews who praised The Passion of the Christ but it also aptly describes what truly unites an Evangelical Gerson with a neo-orthodox Catholic Jindal.

Gerson -- more than the Louisiana Democratic Party -- misses the significance of Jindal's statement. It is not whether Bobby Jindal believes "in a muscular Catholicism" (read that to mean that only the most orthodox can rightly call themselves "religious"), but whether he will substitute tenets of his faith for what is required of him by the Constitutions of State of Louisiana and the United States. As Governor, would Jindal engage in extra-constitutional behavior, abusing his vested state authority to enforce his very subjective neo-orthodox views of morality, views that often run contrary not just to non-Catholics, but to many of his own co-religionists?

In A Letter Concerning Toleration, the liberal Christian philosopher John Locke aptly observed that

"For whatsoever some people boast of...the orthodoxy of their faith - for everyone is orthodox to himself - these things, and all others of this nature, are much rather marks of men striving for power and empire over one another than of the Church of Christ."

In the same essay, Locke wrote:

"The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it in so clear a light."

In other words, if Jesus did not resort to the power of the state to win converts neither should His followers. As a Catholic, I too "believe in God, that Jesus died and rose." However, that belief does not give me license or authority to impose upon others who hold beliefs contrary Vatican teachings on issues such as birth control, stem cell research or in vitro fertilization.

As I wrote in Part Twenty-eight of this series concerning the issue of possible Opus Dei affiliation of nominees for the federal courts:

The question here is not whether a nominee is a member of Opus Dei. Instead, the question is whether the nominee will act in his public office in a manner that would be inconsistent with the laws and constitution of the United States; thwarting the will of the majority and trampling the rights of the minority? In other words, will he engage in factious behavior?And as I have previously writtenon the Catholic Right, their members often share a neo-Carlist view that our secular laws should be based upon Vatican morality. This is a reasonable and necessary question that goes to the heart of the integrity of the judicial system.

Where the Louisiana Democratic Party erred was not in raising in the issue, but by doing it in a crude and indirect way. The proper place to ask the question is either in the course of an interview or perhaps even in the course of a public debate. This "reasonable and necessary question" very much applies to Bobby Jindal should he be elected the next governor of Louisiana.

The price we pay for not knowing the difference between moral relativism and value pluralism. This allows folks on the Religious Right such as Bobby Jindal and Michael Gerson to appropriate a term such as value pluralism that applies to liberalism and twist it into a pretzel until they can sell it to the public as meaning something other than its true meaning.  

The lesson here is that if we liberals are to push back, we ought to know our own terminology -as well as that of our opponents.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Sep 08, 2007 at 07:58:08 PM EST

As you've noted, we need to get the word out. I think it was the fear of extra-constitutional action that motivated a lot of the anti-Catholic sentiment in the past.

by khughes1963 on Sun Sep 09, 2007 at 09:36:42 AM EST

I ran against Bobby Jindal in the '06 election and for as much as I would have loved to enter into a religious debate with Jindal, it was never going to happen. I even wrote a book to try and provoke the Religious Right, called "The Bare Naked Truth: on the Religious Right."

Jindal doesn't debate; he speaks at people, not with them. Unless of course, they've taken the Louisiana equivalent of the Bush Loyalty Oath, and most of the local media is current with its dues. At that point, Jindal is more than willing to answer questions like, "How wonderful of a person does one have to be, to bask in your presents?" Or "Who do you think is more popular, you or Jesus Christ?"

Anything of substance, like say, his abdominal voting record in Congress, cover-up of pedophilia of a fellow Republican, or taking credit for everything he had nothing to do with, is completely side-stepped by the "Pulitzer-prize" Times Picayune.

The TV ads against Jindal are poor attack-ads, but it's the only way the local media would even discuss Jindal's religious contradictions. Sad? Absolutely! But this race is already won, if you ask anyone in the media, they've already decided who's going to be the next governor...Bobby Jindal.

by Stacey Tallitsch on Sat Sep 08, 2007 at 11:00:49 PM EST

But it woud have to be a very self-disciplined, specific ad that raises the question I described above. Furthermore, it should not be done "in attack mode," but in a manner that merely puts the proper issue into play. Furthermore, it should not be done by the Louisiana Democratic Party but by some other entity, perhaps by a group of mainstream Catholics who disagree with Jindal's rather rigid view of the faith.
Jindal may give the right answer, but as you educated us, he obviously won't discuss the issue unless outside pressure is applied.

In closing Stacey, thank you for your providing us with your very unique insight into this matter.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Sep 09, 2007 at 01:05:13 PM EST

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