Signing a petition might not sound like a very controversial thing to do, but at churches around Boston, it’s an issue that’s been garnering some real debate.
An article published in The Boston Globe on Monday told the story of the debate sweeping Boston’s Catholic churches about whether political signature drives should be allowed on church property. On Oct. 26, the archbishop of Boston, Sean O’Malley, announced that signature-gathering would be allowed at churches so long as it happened away from foot traffic and was approved by the church’s pastor. This reversed an announcement he made just a few months earlier, on June 1, when he essentially said the exact opposite.
Last Sunday, churchgoers saw what the reality of this decision would mean for their congregations. At Immaculate Conception Parish in Marlborough, it was announced that after the service, people could sign a petition in the lobby supporting a measure that would prohibit the state from funding abortions. The law allowing this funding has been in place since 1981, though it has always been a contentious one, especially in recent years. This is a perfect example of the kind of petition that is likely to become prevalent at local churches under the new ruling.
The issue of political involvement in churches is contentious enough on its own, and when paired with the debate over funding abortions with state dollars, it only gets more heated. The separation of church and state is an idea that we’ve clearly established the importance of when it comes to our politics and public life, but the other side of the issue — about the role that politics should or should not have in churches — is something we’re a lot less clear on.
But when it comes down to it, the distinction shouldn’t actually be all that complicated. As long as churches are exempt from paying taxes, they are receiving government benefits — and thus, they have the same responsibility to the separation of church and state that every other establishment does. Churches should have just as little role in political matters as politics have in church matters — none.
This is a lot easier said than done, though, especially when it’s not the sentiment we’re seeing from the White House. Throughout his time in office, President Trump has been trying to push this issue in the opposite direction — from his pledge on the campaign trail that come December, he would ensure people were saying “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays,” to the executive order he passed in May allowing church officials to endorse political candidates without facing any financial threat. Ever since he took office, it has been increasingly obvious that he wants churches to have more political power than they currently do. But this is dangerous.
Churches, by their very natures, have a huge amount of influence over their members — and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when they are using that influence to try and affect people’s political opinions, and in turn affect larger political outcomes, they are no longer respecting the very important boundary between church and state that we have established in this country.
At the same time though, it’s important that we aren’t so quick to push politics away from places not traditionally political. This has been an especially strong sentiment in the NFL surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s protests — people don’t want to have to think about politics in their everyday lives. But that’s not productive either. Politics do affect every aspect of our lives, so it makes sense for them to be discussed just as ubiquitously. Even churches shouldn’t be sheltered from that. Having political discussions and thinking about political issues in churches can be inescapable, so we should embrace them when it comes time.
However, if that discussion turns into one where churches are using their power and their government tax breaks to push for political policies and ideas, that’s where we run into a problem.
In and of itself, a petition is relatively harmless. But asking people on the street to sign a petition is a vastly different matter than asking people in a church to do the same. There is a very different power structure and a very different relationship with the government involved. The separation of church and state is one of the ideals the United States was founded on, but we have to remember that it is just as applicable in matters of the church as it is in matters of state.