A warning told again: Politics and religion don’t mix

August 16, 2023 4:30 am

COLUMBUS, Ohio — MAY 10: Linda Wagner of Galena holds up a sign during a protest against Issue 1 before the Ohio House session, May 10, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

In a special election on Aug. 8 scheduled by a gerrymandered, authoritarian legislature intent on manipulating low voter turnout during a hot summer, Ohio citizens went to the polls and did something extraordinary in these fractious times.  

They upheld democracy. 

The election was to approve a ballot issue that made it nearly impossible to amend the state constitution by raising the approval threshold to 60% of votes cast, raising the bar for citizen-driven initiatives. As the only measure on the statewide ballot, Issue One also required a percentage of voters in all 88 Ohio counties to validate any future citizen-led petition drive. 

In other words, one county not generating the requisite number of signatures would trump the remaining 87 and automatically end any hopes for citizen-led initiatives to counteract an out-of-control, rigged legislature.

Voters would have none of this. 

Issue One was voted down by 57% to 43%. Informed citizens turned out in droves to just say no to what they knew was an overreach by a Republican legislature that already controls every statewide office in Ohio, except for the U.S. Senate seat held by Sherrod Brown and three Ohio Supreme Court seats.

In the aftermath, many citizens of the Buckeye State now realize that some conservative Christian denominations and, most particularly, the state’s Catholic hierarchy, let democracy down by generously supporting Issue 1 in the hope of derailing a reproductive rights amendment ballot measure in November. Worse yet, the Catholic Church’s contributions were steered to an astroturf organization called Protect Women Ohio that was created in February to block passage of a constitutional amendment to ensure reproductive rights. 

One newspaper provided this crisp summary: “The Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, and Diocese of Columbus, which are ecclesiastical jurisdictions of the Roman Catholic Church in Ohio, contributed a combined $900,000 to Protect Women Ohio.”

But that’s only part of the church’s involvement in trying to curtail democracy to achieve their goal of curtailing women’s access to reproductive health care. According to the Ohio Secretary of State’s website, allied groups and individual parishes also contributed to the Issue 1 campaign, aligning with the legislature in undermining the principle of one person, one vote.

In a May statement, the Catholic Conference of Ohio maintained that “the Bishops of Ohio do not have a position on Issue 1 as it does not have moral content.” But the facts, as shown in the payments to PWO, which ran numerous ads worth millions of dollars in support of Issue 1, speak otherwise.

(Detail selected from Ohio Secretary of State Website)

Church officials later prepared this statement:

“The Diocese of Columbus, like the other Dioceses, stand with Protect Women Ohio, who is leading the charge against the abortion amendment in November.”

In an interview with the Columbus NBC affiliate WCMH aired just hours before the polls opened, one devout Catholic expressed concern about the church’s role in Issue 1 and what it says about using a shadow organization like Protect Women Ohio to achieve a political end rather than being transparent with the faithful. 

“You can’t claim your neutrality with it, then throw any dollars, never mind these significant dollars, behind an issue,” Columbus area resident Michelle Reese told the interviewer.

The concern with political activity by the Catholic Church moved this writer to contact his pastor and share his concerns in the strongest terms. Here are excerpts from a communication sent prior to the overwhelming defeat of Issue 1:

“When is democracy and the principle of majority rule not a “moral imperative”?

On October 30, 2022, I wrote you in these words:

“More and more, we hear people complain about “everything being politicized.” If there is any truth to that, there is no reason for the church to be complicit in creating our current and very toxic environment.”

Those words certainly ring true today by the politicization of the church, making it appear to be a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party, all for the purpose of curtailing reproductive rights, particularly in the case of rape and incest.

Is it therefore a moral imperative for anyone to be forced to give birth under such circumstances or for severe issues related to the health of the prospective mother?

As I heard Sister Simone Campbell say several years back, being pro-life means more than just being pro-birth. The politicization of the Roman Catholic Church means that in focusing on a single issue, the social gospel is thrown to the winds and thus extinguished.

A recent letter to the editor published in the Columbus Dispatch had this to say on the subject:

“I see Republicans passing out many yard signs and heard them say vote “yes” on Issue 1 to save lives. Can they explain why being pro-life seems to stop at banning abortions and does not apply to banning capital punishment, reasonable gun control, more subsidized food, medical care, housing, and a living wage?” 

I think it is fair to say that in the case of Issue 1, the ends to eliminate reproductive rights and frame this measure as a moral issue or a moral imperative do not justify the means of thwarting the democratic process and imposing the undemocratic onus of allowing 40% of the citizens to control the process of self-governance through undemocratic means.

Indeed, we are interested in hearing a return to the social gospel and the need for homilies that deal with caring – caring for the poor, the homeless, those that are ill, and those whose health care may be taken away if the reactionary forces you champion in this political debate are returned to power.

One more thing. Add caring about democracy to that list.

I once asked a priest if abortion trumps every other issue, including poverty, homelessness, health levels, environmental devastation, and other social challenges. He did not answer me.

Please know, along with the bishop, that it is time to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Both of you are … alienating once faithful Catholics by politicizing the church.”

When I shared my views with my friend Dick, a devout Catholic with longstanding ties to his parish in northeast Columbus, he offered his view:

“The message from the August 8 election is clear to us. Even though gerrymandered districts result in some people not being represented, the will of the people prevailed. Yes, the will of the people spoke loudly and clearly by saying No! to Issue One.”

Dick also believes in the supremacy of democracy.

People like Michelle, Dick and me are not alone in saying enough is too much in the politicization of the church and its role as a subsidiary of the Republican Party. Add to that the lack of transparency as shown by working with dark money groups to hide the church’s level of involvement in the world of politics. 

In the wake of Issue 1 and what we now know, God may not be a Democrat. But he certainly isn’t a Republican.

My Catholic friends believe in rendering to Caesar. But like a heated bar fight, politics and religion just don’t mix.

As Ohio dioceses are considering a replay of their continuing involvement with the Republican Party in November, the faithful in the pews are also starting to vote: With their feet, and what they don’t put in the Sunday collection basket.

That money just might turn dark and wind up in the sewer of politics, an earthly transfiguration of sorts.

In the end, and in this time before we reach eternity, it must first always be about democracy.



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Denis Smith
Denis Smith

Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and served as a consultant in the Ohio Department of Education's charter school office. He has additional experience working in marketing communications with a publisher and in association management as an executive with a national professional society. Mr. Smith is a member of the board of Public Education Partners.