The Red Mass: A response to Marie Griffith

I’m coming into this conversation late, but I haven’t had the time until now to sit down and write about this as carefully as I need to.

Early last month, Marie Griffith posted an editorial at Religion & Politics in which she “register[ed] deep discomfort with the cozy government-church embrace represented by the Red Mass in Washington D.C.” She was referring to a special mass celebrated annually in the capital, attended by many Catholics working in the federal government. This year’s attendees, Griffith reported, included “six out of the nine current Supreme Court justices, along with members of President Obama’s cabinet, members of Congress, and members of the law profession.” Griffith worried that “the attendance of 2/3 of the U.S. Supreme Court at a holy service that explicitly promotes the Catholic faith sends a bewildering message to citizens who hold other religious beliefs, and those with no religion at all.” She found it particularly troubling that Supreme Court justices who “clearly disagree with current Catholic pronouncements on political matters” or “who disagree with any perceived religious interference whatsoever” nevertheless seemed to “feel the need to attend the Red Mass.” The suggestion was that Griffith thought these justices felt some kind of ecclesiastical pressure to attend. She concluded her editorial on the ominous note that if any religious body “imposes upon political leaders some supposed necessity to attend its own worship service in order to be considered legitimate, beware.”

Predictably, some Catholic commentators–here, for example–have accused Griffith of anti-Catholicism. I admit that possibility crossed my mind as well. Griffith herself tried to preempt that reading by insisting in her editorial that “it is not anti-Catholic to ask these kinds of questions,” and then going on to say that no religious body–“Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or you-name-it”–should be exercising the kind of political pressure that she worries the Red Mass may represent. Fair enough, which is why I mentally backed away from my initial reaction of “Whoa–I didn’t realize Marie Griffith was that way…”

I don’t think Griffith’s editorial is anti-Catholic; but there is something about it that calls for some probing. Even though I identify with the political camp he’s pissing on, I think Matthew Franck at The National Review is on the right track when he writes that “since [Griffith] sees fit only to mention the culture-war obsessions of the Charlotte Democrats, it is hard not to suspect her attitude is ideological in its origins.” Having acknowledged that Franck arrived where I wanted to go before I did, I’m now going to back away from him by tendering a gentler, less partisan version of that critique. In the spirit of Griffith’s own invitation, “Challenge me, do,” let me offer the following scenario by way of trying to elucidate political motivations that I suspect underlie Griffith’s editorial in addition to her concerns about church-state separation. The words “in addition to” are important here: I want to be very clear that I am not suggesting that Griffith’s concerns about church-state separation are an insincere cover for what is “simply” a  partisan reaction. But I do suspect that partisan commitments are at work under the surface of her argument; and if I’m right about what those commitments are, then there’s a longer conversation to be had about the possibility that Griffith is selectively applying her church-state objections in what amounts to a double standard.

With all those ass-covering disclaimers and qualifiers in place, here’s my hypothetical scenario:

A Reform temple in Washington D.C. holds an annual service attended by Jewish members of the Supreme Court, members of Congress, administration staffers, lobbyists, lawyers, etc. At this year’s service, the rabbi delivers a sermon in which he points to the long tradition of American public figures comparing their nation to the biblical Israel. The rabbi argues that if Americans take that comparison seriously–if they really want to be a covenant people of God–then they need to stand for the ethical principles of Torah: safety nets for the poor, justice for immigrants and others on the social margins, policies that promote liberation for the oppressed and dignity for the downtrodden.

My pointed question for Griffith, and others who share her sense of dismay at the Red Mass, is: Does this scenario trouble you as much as the Red Mass? Why or why not?

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