Thursday, December 04, 2003

Chilly thinking from Wisconsin

This morning The Mighty Barrister linked a story in the Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal on letters which La Crosse Catholic bishop Burke wrote to some of the state's Catholic legislators who vote for abortion rights. The Journal obtained a copy of one of the letters, written to state senator Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point). After explaining the letter's contents, the article relates the senator's comments: "I'm concerned that the bishop would pressure legislators to vote according to the dictates of the church instead of the wishes of their constituents because that is not consistent with our Democratic ideals [...] When I was elected, I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, and that means I have to represent all the people of all faiths in my district."


It gets worse... state representative Marlin Schneider (D-Stevens Point), "called the letter outrageous." Him comments: "Churches ought not use the pulpit for blatant political purposes [...] When they start telling legislators how to vote, they've crossed the line." Schneider, mind you, is a Lutheran.

Here's the letter I wrote to him:
    Dear Rep. Schneider,

    Today I read the article in the Journal-Sentinel, "Bishop appeals to Catholic lawmakers".

    I hope that the paper misstated your comments, because I found them to be outrageous. Perhaps you were not appraised of all the information, perhaps you reacted out of anger... I do not know. What I do know is that your comments do not indicate serious consideration of the issue.

    For instance, the paper quotes you saying, "Churches ought not use the pulpit for blatant political purposes." Bishop Burke did not use the pulpit, Mr. Schneider. He wrote a private letter to Rep. Lassa which he did not publicize. And from the bishop's perspective, the issue is one of human rights, not "blatant political purposes."

    The article also offers this quote from you: "When they [churches] start telling legislators how to vote, they've crossed the line." The Catholic Church has not told Rep. Lassa how to vote; the bishop informed Rep. Lassa that her votes did not accord with the faith that she professes, and that she needs to bring one into line with the other.

    Mr. Schneider, what if a Catholic legislator had consistently voted in favor of racist legislation? Would you be outraged if one of the state's Catholic bishops wrote that legislator a private letter explaining that that person had to reconcile their voting with their faith? I doubt it.

    I expect better from the state's representatives.

    Chris Burgwald
What's going on in Cheesehead Land? Too much beer drinking, maybe.


Rep. Schneider promptly replied to my email; here it is:
    Wrong. The day my church tells me how to vote and threatens me with salvation or membership is the day I leave. I have to represent all the faiths in my district not give preference to one over the other. I am sorry you do not understand that. This is just the kind of stuff that leads to Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Palestine, Chechnya, and on and on. And they do use the pulpit and the church bulletins for blatant partisan political purposes. I walked out of my church one Sunday just three weeks ago when they passed out campaign materials in the bulletin. Obviously you agree with the Church's position on the issue not the principle involved in separation. This Doctrine of the Dual Swords goes back a long ways but our forefathers had the foresight to provide mechanisms that forbid us from favoring one religion over another. As a Lutheran do I favor my church's position on issues or that of the Constitution or my district's voters or just what? If I favor my church's position on aid to parochial schools, for example, (they were against it) as the basis of my judgment what do I tell Catholic voters who favored it? As a representative of people of all persuasions the principle must be followed of both the State and Federal Constitutions not my personal religious beliefs. I am sorry you are outraged but I will not favor one religion over another as a policy maker nor will I allow people who espouse the "truth" as only that coming from their particular denomination as the basis upon which I must make a judgement on public policy. To do so would make me a liar to my oath of office and I would bear false witness to my constituents. If you ever want to see this country tear apart at the seams just allow religion to become the basis for public policy with one becoming dominant over the others.

Here's my response:
    Dear Rep. Schneider,

    Thank you for your reply to my earlier email.

    Do you think that opposition to something by the Catholic Church makes that issue a "Catholic issue" which then shouldn't be incorporated into public law? That seems to be implied in your response. In fact, abortion is not a "Catholic issue," Mr. Schneider... it is as a human rights issue. The human embryo is biologically a human being, and as such, deserves to be protected by the law like every other human being.

    What if Bishop Burke came out tomorrow with a letter against racism? Would you say that his stance is a religious view, but that you have to respect the views of all your constituents, including racists? Would you invoke the principle of separation then? I'm sure you know that many abolitionists in the last century were fervent Christians; would you support slavery because opposition to it is a "religious belief," and public policy shouldn't be founded on religion?

    If Bishop Burke had written Sen. Lassa and required her to support legislation affirming that there are seven sacraments, then I would agree with your position. But the issue at hand is a human rights issue and not merely nor exclusively a Catholic issue.

    Thank you for your time.

    Chris Burgwald
We'll see if he responds again.

Second Update

He did.

Here's Rep. Schneider's response:
    I am not going to continue a running debate with you. I believe in separation as provided in our Constitution. I believe that churches have a right to speak out on moral issues. I do not believe they have a right to threaten lawmakers to violate their oath of office or to represent their theological views exclusively above all others. Most Americans agree with my position, not yours. Do you think if I were a Mormon lawmaker that the Mormon Church should be allowed to dictate public policy on race as it did for so many decades? I would refer you to the historic statements of my hero President, now much maligned by the right, a Catholic President named John Kennedy, whose picture hangs in my office, about the relationship between Catholic office holders and the Church. End of discussion.
Normally I'd give an interlocutor the last word in a case like this. But I couldn't this time. Rep. Schneider completely failed to respond to any of my points, and I needed to make that clear. Here's the final letter in this little discussion:
    Dear Rep. Schneider,

    I know that I will not receive a response to this email; I understand your decision not to continue this discussion, and I respect that.

    However, I do need to state that this was not a debate. In a debate there is an engagement of the ideas offered by the two sides. You have never engaged the points I've made, but continue to refer to this as a case of Catholic "theological views" being exclusively represented instead of acknowledging it as a human rights issue. You failed to respond to my example of racism as well.

    I often tell people how real political discourse is absent in America because it's rare to find two opposing sides on an issue engage in a real meeting of the minds, in which the issues and respective positions are addressed directly, without talking past one another. Unfortunately, you have done nothing to reverse my opinion on that matter.

    Wishing you a joyous Christmas Season, and

    Chris Burgwald
As Kevin Miller noted in my comments, Rep. Schneider is known in Wisconsin as "Snarlin' Marlin," and I can see why.

Third Update

Here's the letter Rep. Schneider sent to me in response to the above:
    And NOTHING I could ever say will reverse or impact your view. I refer you to John F. Kennedy's speech to the Texas Ministerial Association. Your argument is based on abortion not separation and your views will not change. I respect your belief on that I just don't believe that it is as simple as some would make it. The Church teaches all abortion is wrong. I believe there are instances where it is necessary. You won't accept that and I will not change my mind either. But that is not the issue. Let me ask you just
    one question. If Senators Feingold and Kohl were dictated to or threatened on some issue by a Rabbi, since they are both Jewish, let's say on foreign policy as it relates to Israel, would you argue that they should represent the views on Wisconsin's people or that of their religion? When churches attempt to dictate public policy it crosses over the line. I have not argued that they have no right to state their views. To impose those views by church doctrine on the rest of us is what leads to the conflicts we have seen throughout history. It is why the Pilgrims came here in the first place. I want my representatives to represent me as best as they can using their best judgment on the issues before them. If they allow one set of religious dogma to dictate their policy decisions then I object. When Bishops sit in on committee hearings with thumbs up and thumbs down directing policy makers to vote a certain way I object. And that does
    happen. When my church "leaders" said it was sinful for a Lutheran minister to participate in an ecumenical service with people of other faiths in New York after 9-11 and threatened him with excommunication I objected strenously at my church. It is that kind of narrow minded thinking among Lutherans that is quite distasteful to me. And when a Bishop threatens my friends and colleagues I will also object because his faith is not mine. I would object just as much if it were a pastor of another religion. Those who want to impose their religious views on the rest of us through public policy, sometimes without even reading bills or knowing what they mean, just a title, do a disservice to both their religion and public policy debate.
He doesn't seem to grasp my point... I'm not sure yet if I'll try again.

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