By Brian Kaylor 2-24-2016

As Jeb Bush’s presidential aspirations flamed out in South Carolina, he exited the race in one way quite similar to how he entered: Criticizing Pope Francis on religion and politics. By joining other politicians in falsely creating a divide between political topics and religious ones, he inadvertently tried to strip away fundamental qualities of religious worship.

After Pope Francis blasted Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump as “not Christian” for focusing on building walls instead of bridges, Bush — who is Catholic — criticized Francis for being political instead of merely religious. Calling Francis just “a spiritual leader,” Bush added, “I don’t think he should be interjecting himself into the political arena.”

Bush similarly tried to separate religion and politics back in June (when he led in the presidential polls) after Francis released an encyclical on climate change.

“I don’t go to Mass for economic policy or for things in politics,” Bush said on the eve of the encyclical’s release.

“I’ve got enough people helping me along the way with that. I don’t think we should politicize our faith. I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm,” he added.

Bush is not alone in his criticism of the pope for being political. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another Catholic who dropped out of the presidential race, criticized Francis during the campaign for pushing the U.S. and Cuba toward restored diplomatic relations. Christie voiced his concerns during a political TV show on a Sunday morning as Francis led Mass in Havana.

“I just think the pope was wrong,” Christie argued.

“The fact is that his infallibility is on religious matters, not on political ones.”

Marco Rubio, another Catholic who would like to move into the White House, agreed with Christie. Rubio insisted the pope’s infallibility existed “on theological matters” but “does not extend to political issues, like the economy.” Rubio went on to separate “moral issues” from “economic issues,” as if the latter includes no moral implications.

Bush, Christie, and Rubio mistakenly seek to put politics and economics on one side and religion on the other. Such a dividing point misses the point of their faith. Catholic Mass — and worship services of other Christians — remains grounded in politics. Religious worship is political. To say “Christ is Lord” is to say Caesar (or President Obama, or any other national leader) is not. Thus, the biblical narratives depict Jesus as crucified as a political insurrectionist with a political charge hanging above him on the cross: “This is the King of the Jews.”

The religious and political cannot be separated. To reject the politics or economics of Jesus would be to reject the spiritual teachings of Jesus.

Religious worship inherently carries political messages, expectations, and deeds. Christie or Bush would be wrong to conclude no politics exists in Mass or its liturgy (the rites, prayers, and other parts of a worship service). After all, the word “liturgy” comes from the Greek word leitourgia, a political term describing service given for the city-state or political community. Aristotle used the word in this manner in his Politics as he offered advice on how to best organize the political community. As Christians gather for worship, they assemble as citizens of a kingdom, with the liturgy uniting them much like the pledge of allegiance and national anthem do for citizens of the United States.

When Bush, Rubio, and Christie attempt to divorce economics, immigration, foreign policy, or environmental issues from Mass, they water down the liturgy and the historic witness of the Catholic Church. Ultimately, the greatest threat to churches will not be hostility from nonbelievers, especially as attacks affirm influence and importance. Rather, the greatest threat is for believers to reduce the teachings of Christianity down to merely governing the realm of the afterlife. Such a move will render churches irrelevant in people’s lives.

Francis recognizes that a vibrant, genuine faith requires a holistic look at the world. Such a faith requires a politics that does not fit into the red-blue dichotomy of U.S. politics. It requires people to care not only about souls, but also about the environment, money, war, life, and a host of other issues. Such politics likely will not play well in our polarized politics where sound bites and incivility rules. If a Catholic politician hopes to win the Republican presidential nomination, they should probably stay away from the politics embedded in Mass. But they should not pretend they are being apolitical while attending Mass.

Brian Kaylor, Ph.D., is an award-winning author with three books on religion and politics.

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