The Faithful’s Doubt is Our Saving Grace

I met a man last week who hoped to study grace. A funeral director from Tennessee, he knew grace when he saw it, in the quiet grief of a mother who lost a baby at birth or in a family that, confronted with the death of a loved one, knew exactly how to pray.

But the man was searching for a graduate program in which he might investigate God’s grace full time, thereby earning an advanced degree. He’d already been to seminary, but the formal religious education, he said, “didn’t take.” At the same time, the psychology programs to which he applied were skeptical of his area of interest. One suggested that he study “inspiration” instead. This man knew that God’s grace was real. But he was distressed to find that he couldn’t shoehorn it into an academic department.

While reporting on American religion, I’ve been blessed to meet people like the funeral director, the faithful whose hearts are moved and confused by God. These actual people — and not the yellers or the posturers, the outraged or the politically jaded — have fed my interest in this subject for decades. Religion, as it is lived every day, as it consoles and irritates and puzzles folks, is one of the most important forces in American life, and it will continue to be my motivation even as I stop writing in this particular space. This will be my last regular column for The Washington Post.

Ninety-two percent of Americans say they believe in God, according to Gallup, and I’ve come to understand that when they affirm this belief, they are not, for the most part, talking about anything having to do with the culture-war issues that make the news.

Most people of faith don’t care if Mitt Romney is a Mormon; they care if he’s qualified to lead. (In fact, white evangelicals, the group most often cited as having a problem with Romney’s faith, voted for him overwhelmingly in 2012; it turned out that they mistrusted John McCain, whom they suspected of being a private secularist, much, much more.) Most of the religious faithful never gave a thought to whether Catholic institutions should have to provide birth-control coverage to their employees until a small group of conservative activists made it a “religious liberty” issue. Most Americans like their birth control and are glad to have coverage themselves. Culture warriors have always been a small but vocal minority. Constant news and the online competition for clicks makes them louder, but amid the shouting, the search for meaning is lost.

In private, people want something to believe in. And religion, or the desire for religion or even the loathing of religion, reflects that fundamental human quest. When the world is a terrible place, does faith console you? Or does it look like a mean joke, or a trick? And how do you arrive at that answer?

The personal, day-to-day struggle with these questions, and others like them, are what the story of religion is really about. I think often of an interview I did with the Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, who told me that the problem of theodicy — Why would a loving God make, say, an earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of poor and innocent Haitians? — finally turned him into a nonbeliever.

“I just got to a point where I couldn’t explain how something like this could happen, if there’s a powerful and loving God in charge of the world,” he told me. “It’s a very old problem, and there are a lot of answers, but I don’t think any of them work.”

Also, in private, even the most convinced believers hold an inconsistent faith. Religion, as it is expressed in most people’s lives, is not the two-dimensional phenomenon you see on television, represented by racist or homophobic pastors, or polygamous sects, or atheist autodidacts.

I think often of a woman I met a decade ago who was a ardently conservative evangelical Christian and also a sort of feminist pioneer: one of the first women to graduate from the University of North Carolina’s law school. Or friends of mine, ardently pro-choice, who when pregnant nevertheless feel that they are carrying “a life.” Or the young Southern Baptist who called into a radio show I was on to voice support for same-sex marriage.

Religion in real life is never letter-perfect. It is no surprise that one of the most popular columns I wrote for The Post was about Ezekiel Emanuel, a former National Institutes of Health department chief who is an atheist and also keeps kosher.

And so, because I can, I use this bully pulpit to issue a heartfelt plea. When someone expresses certainty about religion — they say they know about God; they know what God thinks; they know what God has to say about gays or working mothers or birth control or the budget; they know there is no God — don’t believe it. Even Mother Teresa had doubts.

Doubt, from a journalist’s perspective, is where the story is. But it is also the starting point for a real conversation about the things we value most, and in America at this particular moment, that conversation could not be more necessary.

Many Unitarians would prefer that their polyamory activists keep quiet

The joke about Unitarians is that they’re where you go when you don’t know where to go. Theirs is the religion of last resort for the intermarried, the ambivalent, the folks who want a faith community without too many rules. It is perhaps no surprise that the Unitarian Universalist Association is one of the fastest-growing denominations in the country, ballooning 15 percent over the past decade, when other established churches were shrinking. Politically progressive to its core, it draws from the pool of people who might otherwise be “nones” – unaffiliated with any church at all.

But within the ranks of the UUA over the past few years, there has been some quiet unrest concerning a small but activist group that vociferously supports polyamory. That is to say “the practice of loving and relating intimately to more than one other person at a time,” according to a mission statement by Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness (UUPA). The UUPA “encourages spiritual wholeness regarding polyamory,” including the right of polyamorous people to have their unions blessed by a minister.

UUA headquarters says it has no official position on polyamory. “Official positions are established at general assembly and never has this issue been brought to general assembly,” a spokeswoman says.

But as the issue of same-sex marriage heads to the Supreme Court, many committed Unitarians think the denomination should have a position, which is that polyamory activists should just sit down and be quiet. For one thing, poly activists are seen as undermining the fight for same-sex marriage. The UUA has officially supported same-sex marriage, the spokeswoman says, “since 1979, with tons of resolutions from the general assembly.”

Conservative opponents of same-sex marriage have long used the slippery-slope argument: If states are permitted to let two men or two women marry, then what’s to stop them from giving the same privilege to two men and one woman, or two women and one man? Or six? Or 12? Once you legitimize same-sex marriage, sociologist Peter Berger wrote on his blog in 2011, “you open the door to any number of other alternatives to marriage as a union of one man and one woman: polygamous (an interesting question for Muslims in Germany and dissident Mormons in Arizona), polyandrous, polygenerational – perhaps polyspecies?”

The Unitarians are so liberal that they’re playing right into conservative hands. And the conservative blogosphere has responded predictably: First Things has taken disapproving note of the trend, as has the American Conservative.

The debate also makes the whole denomination look silly. “Unitarian Universalism is so broad-minded that it has become flat-headed,” Michael Durall, then an editor of a UUA magazine (he no longer works with UUA groups), wrote in 2004. “This is an abdication of leadership leaving Unitarian Universalism vulnerable to ridicule. Jay Leno would have a field day with this one. Do we truly want to send the message to children, youth (especially!) and adults that having multiple sexual relationships is condoned by UU churches?”

The UUPA has received its share of attention over the years – a PBS interview, a San Francisco Chronicle article – but mostly it has caused anguish and dissent among Unitarians. In 2007, a Unitarian congregation in Chestertown, Md., heard a sermon by a poly activist named Kenneth Haslam, arguing that polyamory is the next frontier in the fight for sexual and marriage freedom. “Poly folks are strong believers that each of us should choose our own path in forming our families, forming relationships, and being authentic in our sexuality.”

Over coffee last week, a friend of mine who is studying to become a Unitarian minister wondered aloud how she would feel if folks in a future congregation asked her to perform a polyamorous commitment ceremony. She is a traditionalist; she’s glad, she says, that the issue hasn’t come up.

How will Pope Francis ‘avoid breaking under the strain’?

“In the Curia, I would die.” Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires said this eight years ago, after the last conclave reportedly made him a runner-up to Benedict. Now he is Pope Francis — not just in the Curia, but at the head of it — and the burdens of the job he faces must weigh heavily upon him. He faces a growing church in the South, a shrinking one in the West, an administration riven by scandal and infighting, and a damaged corporate reputation, thanks to continuing sex scandals and revelations of financial impropriety.

No wonder he seemed, when he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica Wednesday night, somber and overwhelmed.

But the veil has now dropped between Bergoglio and the world. Last week, he was a man; now, he’s a mystery, protected by thousands of years of tradition and ritualized Vatican mores. The billion people whom he leads can now only imagine what he’s thinking. Modern interpreters will offer hypothetical translations of his words and thoughts, and future biographers will work to find the truth behind them. Surrogates will do his work for him, as Pope Sixtus V explained in 1588, so that “he, the holder of the key of all this power, may share the huge mass of business and responsibilities . . . and by God’s helping grace avoid breaking under the strain.”

One way to penetrate the pope’s current mind-set is to look at his actions and not his words. Paul Piff is a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, a specialist in reading facial expressions and body language to discern emotion. I asked him to watch the video of Pope Francis’s appearance at St. Peter’s and to interpret his inner thoughts. “Visibly tentative and uncomfortable with the position he’s been put in,” Piff said, “maybe even burdened. His posture is somewhat deferential, the tightening of his lips, and chin down, a little submissive. . . . His breathing is also visible . . . perhaps a result of nervousness or at least feeling overwhelmed.” When the Pope starts to speak, Piff adds, he raises his eyebrows, “a signal of sympathy, interest and compassion.”

Another guide to a pope’s inner life is to look back at the past. There have been many men who may have felt as Francis may feel now, allergic to the politics of Rome; some resisted becoming pope, fearing the weight of the job. In the 19th century, Leo XII asked to refuse his election, citing his poor health. He became pope anyway, and went on to consolidate enormous power under his control, not endearing himself to his subjects. Upon being elected pope in 1978, John Paul I reportedly said to the cardinals assembled in the Sistine Chapel, “May God forgive you for what you’ve done.” He died a month later, some say from the pressure of the job.

In 1963, Paul VI was elected in the middle of the Second Vatican Council, after the death of the beloved Pope John XXIII. Then, as now, the church hierarchy was riven by dissent over questions of the church’s embrace of modernity. How much should the Roman Catholic Church accede to fast-evolving sexual ethics, the increasing role and power of women outside the home, the egalitarian worldview of so many of its faithful? Paul, a centrist, died feeling misunderstood — “Am I Hamlet? Or Don Quixote?” he wrote in 1978 — having both reformed the Mass and written “Humanae Vitae,” the church’s condemnation of birth control. Like Francis, Paul was a great advocate for the poor. He agreed to wear the papal tiara at his inaugural ceremony, but afterward, he sold it, giving the proceeds to charity.

Paul took Peter’s seat with a full awareness of the anguishing loneliness of his job. “The post,” he wrote in his diary six weeks after his election, “is unique.”

“It brings great solitude. I was solitary before, but now my solitariness becomes complete and awesome. . . . Jesus was alone on the cross. . . . My solitude will grow. I need have no fears; I should not seek outside help to absolve me from my duty; my duty is too plain: decide, assume every responsibility for guiding others, even when it seems illogical and perhaps absurd. And to suffer alone. . . . Me and God. The colloquy must be full and endless.”

At least two things are known about Francis. He, like Paul, believes deeply in the comfort of a spiritual relationship with God, which transcends human company. “This is the Christian calling,” he once said. “To go and give witness. You can’t convince anybody. The encounter occurs. You can prove that God exists, but you will never be able, using the force of persuasion, to make anyone encounter God. This is pure grace.”

Perhaps his sense of grace will allow him to transcend the burdensome politics of Rome.

Roman Catholic leaders need to get rid of their groupthink

Recent events prompt a stating of the obvious. The Roman Catholic Church is not now, nor has it ever been, a democracy. It values neither free speech nor freedom of the press. Its leaders are not elected officials, so they do not sweat opinion polls. Roman Catholic bishops and cardinals do not represent the interests of their members, and members, if dissatisfied with their leadership, cannot vote those leaders out. The next pope, the Vatican press office continually reminds us, will be selected not by the 115 cardinals who will soon be sequestered in the Sistine Chapel, but by God.

But in the 21st century, this blatant disregard of democratic principles rankles. Even the cardinals from the United States showed uncharacteristic irritation when their daily news conferences in Rome were canceled last week. Italian newspapers had published leaked accounts of the closed-door meetings at which the voting cardinals are gathering pre-conclave and painted the leadership of the church as divided, rancorous and political. No one accused the Americans of leaking outright, but the news conferences abruptly stopped, and the U.S. cardinals weren’t happy. “In true old-style Catholic school teacher fashion, someone talks and everybody stays after school,” Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Associated Press.

After decades of sex scandals, financial improprieties and rumors of further financial scandals to come, the American cardinals had been demanding more transparency from the church’s governing body, the Curia. “Obviously, we want to know and learn as much as we can relative to governance in the Church, and the Curia is part of that issue,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston. “So, certainly we want to discuss and learn what we can, and I think that will go on as long as the cardinals feel they need the information.”

When their news conferences were shut down, the USCCB issued a news release: “The U.S. Cardinals are committed to transparency.” Others in the College of Cardinals, the statement seemed to be saying, not so much.

Transparency is not just a post-Enlightenment, democratic ideal. It’s a post-Watergate value, learned the hard way. Corrupt leaders betray the faith and trust of generations to come. Healing and renewed trust in authority happens only when all the secrets have finally been revealed. No one understands this better than Americans, who have gotten used to seeing their government and business leaders apologize, express remorse, and — sometimes cynically, sometimes not — remediate their sins before re-committing themselves to power. The church’s continued refusal to do this after wave upon wave of revelations of abuse of innocents and corporate malfeasance infuriates even her most loyal members.

Institutions as wide-ranging as Google and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia have made transparency a core value. A group called Transparency International ranks countries on the basis of the perceived corruption in their governments. (The United States is 19th, after the United Kingdom but before Chile.) How is it in a world such as this, the men at the Vatican’s highest levels continue to close ranks and insist not only on their own authority but also on their own moral privilege? How is it that the church can continue to be faced with evidence that it abused children and insist that it protects the weak and the vulnerable?

A rereading of Jonathan Haidt’s wonderful book “The Righteous Mind” (just out in paperback) is illuminating here. Groups of like-minded people reinforce their own beliefs. And worse. They convince themselves that those beliefs are moral, even righteous. Individuals “lie, cheat and cut corners quite often when we think we can get away with it,” he writes, “and then we use our moral thinking to manage our reputations and justify ourselves to others. We believe our own post hoc reasoning so thoroughly that we end up self-righteously convinced of our own virtue.”

Groups are worse. Evolutionarily speaking, “group selection pulls for cooperation, for the ability to suppress antisocial behavior and spur individuals to act in ways that benefit their groups. Group-serving behaviors sometimes impose a terrible cost on outsiders.” In other words, in the most powerful groups, people work together — suppressing individual quirks and desires — to protect the group. And then they overlay that group-serving behavior with a moral righteousness that explains and exonerates their ruthlessness. Democratic values — openness, transparency, diversity, free exchange of ideas — do not come naturally to groups, Haidt explains. The brilliance of the American experiment is that it created the freedom for many different groups to thrive.

But then Haidt issues this warning, which the men who run the church would do well to heed: The most effective groups take good care of the people within them.

And the group known as the Catholic Church includes all of its believers, not just the cardinals.

Even if they don’t follow its rules, Catholics stick with their church

American Catholics are famously indifferent to the directives of their leaders. They don’t follow the rule book on much of anything: birth control, legal abortion, premarital sex, divorce.

They wish, by a wide margin, that their bishops were talking more about social justice issues such as poverty and less about culture-war issues such as abortion. When asked what matters to them most about being Catholic, they overwhelmingly say the resurrection of Jesus, not Vatican authority or celibate, male priests.

And aside from those who are paid to do so, very few American commentators can rally much enthusiasm for the imminent conclave in Rome and the usual handicapping of the papabile.

“New Pope? I’ve Given Up Hope,” wrote the historian Garry Wills, perhaps America’s most eviscerating disillusioned Catholic. It’s as if Catholic identity has become entirely disconnected from the institutional church. “I’m Catholic,” a friend of mine explained to me. “I just don’t agree with anything the church says.”

During this historical caesura, when one pope has exited the stage and another has yet to enter, why not then ask the obvious, blasphemous question? What distinguishes these Christians, skeptical of authority and seeking meaning in their own interpretations of the gospel message, from their brothers and sisters who wholly reject the power of the pope? Bluntly put: Why are these Catholics different from Protestants?

Over the past weeks, Roman Catholic intellectuals and pontificators have been using words like “schism” and “reform” to describe the current moment. Will a new pope, whoever he is, have the strength and savvy to hold together a church that is, in the words of a British Vatican correspondent, “imploding” and “crumbling”?

The papal biographer George Weigel has been talking and writing about the need to “reform” the corrupt bureaucracy of the Curia, beginning, as he said in an interview in the National Review, with “a change in attitude, not merely a change of structures.” In the Huffington Post, the leftist theologian Hans Kung predicts “many conflicts” between two living popes.

In these and other comments there is a foreboding comparison to the events of the 16th century, which split the Christian West in two. After the Protestant Reformation, there were those who continued to believe in the authority of the pope and his men. And there were those who did not.

The root of the word Protestant is, of course, “protest.” It was given to Martin Luther’s movement in 1529, at a moment when Luther and his allies were declaring their opposition to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Luther was moved to his protest, of course, by what he saw as widespread corruption in the church.

In 1517, in order to finish the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, the church began selling the faithful first-class tickets to heaven: A contribution, they were told, would get them an “indulgence,” an official document that, according to one of the church’s salesmen, would buy “a divine and immortal soul.”

Can Romney reconcile his wealth and his faith?

As the calls for Mitt Romney to release his tax returns grow louder, and concerns about his undisclosed millions in offshore accounts increase, I wonder how the presumptive Republican nominee reconciles his great, secret stores of wealth with the principles of his Mormon faith. For Mormonism, as much as conventional Christianity, decries the hoarding of riches. ‘Wo unto the rich,” says the Book of Mormon. ‘Their hearts are upon their treasures.’

One possible explanation is that in faith, as in business, Romney is a bean counter, a charts and graphs guy, whose search for the right answer blinds him to the nuances of the big picture. “Wealth is a moral dilemma in Mormonism,” Vanderbilt religion professor Kathleen Flake says. “And it’s left to the individual member to navigate that.” Conveniently, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offers its members guidebooks and pamphlets that lay down, point by point, recommendations on how they should live. Think of them as PowerPoints to faith. They might grant a literal-minded person, such as Romney, a reprieve from having to struggle with his conscience over the consequences of his great wealth.

A guide called “Provident Living” describes the church’s preferred approach to money matters. Mormons should be frugal, industrious, debt-free and self-reliant. They should keep three months of food and water in storage and have a family-emergency-action plan in place in order to be prepared for any eventuality.

In addition, according to “Provident Living” and other materials, LDS members should tithe. They should use credit cards sparingly and to buy used goods until they can afford quality new ones.

“Purchasing poor-quality merchandise always ends up being very expensive,” Mormon elder Marvin Ashton writes in a 2006 LDS publication called “One for the Money.”

To live providently means to save money, according to LDS materials. Members should have at least three months’ cash in reserve in their bank accounts. “Set your houses in order. If you have paid your debts, if you have a reserve, even though it be small, then should storms howl about your head, you will have shelter for your wives and children and peace in your hearts,” then-LDS President Gordon Hinckley said in 1998.

Along with being fiscally responsible, Mormons should care for the poor and serve others, according to the tenets of “Provident Living.”

In one sense, Romney seems to have followed the tenets of “Provident Living” to the letter. He tithes. He is frugal. According to news reports, he delights in scoring the lowest-price airfare, and he drives his own U-Haul. Obviously, he has a financial reserve far beyond what he and his family need for a rainy day.

But Romney, it seems, has missed the spirit of his faith — or, as evidenced by his offshore stash, is selectively interpreting it. Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of Mormonism, taught that there is no shame in money earned through industry – “the riches of the Earth are God’s to give, but beware of pride.” But Smith, like Jesus, had a profound loathing of income inequality. The earliest LDS communities, in fact, embarked on an experiment they called The United Order, in which they shared all goods, property and profits, according to their needs. So radical was this approach that for generations Mormons were thought to be socialists. “The Saints were organized to be equal in all things,” an LDS scriptural text says.

Caring for the poor is a primary obligation of every good Mormon. You “will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish,” says Mosiah 4.

Romney’s supporters, Mormon and non-Mormon alike, undoubtedly believe that his willingness to forgo a salary to organize the Olympics and then run for president – twice – is evidence that he is living out his faith’s commandment to serve his fellow humans. Clearly, Romney is committed to public service. But his career at Bain suggests a lack of concern for people affected by his actions. And the tax returns he has released reveal a disinclination to share his wealth with his fellow citizens.

If he is elected president, how can reconciling his tax and spending policies with his faith be anything less than challenging?

Whatever the dictates of “Provident Living” might be in the White House, the Book of Mormon is clear in its warning: “The people began to be proud because of riches.”

In their interfaith marriage and divorce, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are ‘just like us’

Never mind what the tabloids say. Celebrities are not “just like us.” We don’t have our first date over sushi on a private jet, as Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are rumored to have done, and we don’t appear together publicly for the first time, as they did, in Rome. We don’t have the opportunity to rave about our new romance on the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” and Jennifer Lopez doesn’t come to our wedding.

And when things fall apart, we don’t fire our bodyguards and hire new ones.

In one way, however, Cruise and Holmes are exactly like us. Like a growing number of American couples — almost half — they come from different religious backgrounds. He is a zealous Scientologist. She was raised Roman Catholic in Toledo.

When things fall apart, these differences are amplified. “In divorce,” says Sanford Ain, a Washington divorce lawyer at Ain & Bank, “people who have very strongly held beliefs are moved to the extreme. The polarization is so great as to cause wars.”

It’s not clear whether Holmes will return to her childhood faith. Last week, rumors circulated that she had joined Church of St. Francis Xavier, near New York’s Greenwich Village. But the church’s pastor, the Rev. Joe Costantino, said that although the actress would be welcomed, she is not yet a member.

Religious belief in America is becoming increasingly individualistic. As people stray from religious institutions and follow a plurality of spiritual paths, their tolerance for interfaith marriage increases. (According to “American Grace,” a 2010 book by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, only about a third of people born in the 1960s believe that shared religious beliefs are “very important” for a successful marriage, and that percentage is shrinking.)

Perhaps, like so many couples, Cruise and Holmes believed that with mutual goodwill and respect (and possibly even love), they could work through their religious differences. Or maybe they convinced themselves that their differences weren’t so great after all. “I really like it,” Holmes said optimistically of Scientology in an interview with W magazine in 2005 and added that she was learning about Scientology. “I feel it’s really helping. What I like about it is that, you know, I was raised Catholic, and you can be a Catholic and a Scientologist, Jewish and a Scientologist.”

But as with most interfaith couples, there’s one person who exerts more influence in the area of religion, and from the beginning, that person was Cruise. In 2006, Cruise told ABC’s Diane Sawyer that the baby he was about to have with Holmes would not have a Catholic baptism. “I mean you can be Catholic and be a Scientologist. You can be Jewish and be a Scientologist. But we’re just Scientologists,” he said. And although Holmes’s devout parents apparently hoped for a Catholic wedding (and were rumored to be considering a wedding boycott), Cruise again prevailed. The sunset ceremony was reportedly performed by a Scientology minister.

The sensationalistic tabloid coverage of the TomKat split suggests that Holmes hopes to rescue Suri from the influence of Scientology by divorcing her dad. But divorce enables unilateral religious enthusiasms, it doesn’t quash them. So unless the settlement stipulates otherwise, Ain says, Cruise can take his daughter to whatever religious service he wishes on the days that he’s in charge, and Holmes can do the same. Thus the stage could be set for a perpetual clash of beliefs with the child in the middle. In some cases, a divorced parent will take a child to be baptized — one father even tried to have his son circumcised — without the other parent’s consent. (Two recent cases went to court where a judge ruled in favor of the parent who objected.)

Interfaith marriage can be harder than couples imagine as they walk down the aisle, but interfaith divorce is even harder. Holmes may now be at liberty to reconnect with her childhood religion, but she can never undo the fact that her daughter’s father is the world’s most-famous Scientologist — or that she knew it going in.

With health-care battle not yet over, Obama must reach out to religious leaders

At the funeral of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in August 2009, Boston’s Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley pulled President Obama aside for a quiet word. It was a sign of things to come: the first failure of the president to understand the moral dimensions of his health-care proposal.

The bill that has become known by its opponents as “Obamacare” had not yet been passed into law, but O’Malley said the American bishops were eager to support it. There was just one teeny problem. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would be unwilling to throw its weight behind anything that would make abortions easier to get, a hint of the war the bishops would soon wage over the place of abortion and contraception coverage in the new law.

“Listening patiently, Obama had no idea how actively the Church was about to flex its muscles,” my former Newsweek colleague Jonathan Alter writes in his book “The Promise.”

Now the Supreme Court has upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, including the individual mandate that requires every American to purchase insurance, but the furious popular and religious antipathy against the law continues. Its opponents’ main argument boils down to this: You can’t make me.

Obama has long personally believed that health-care reform was a moral imperative. He campaigned on the issue. His close friendship with Sen. Kennedy — for whom health care was the mission of a lifetime — heightened his commitment. The president pushed the issue in the summer of 2009 despite the political counsel of his closest advisers. As he said in his speech this week, Obama didn’t promote health-care reform because it was “good politics.” He did it because it was the right thing to do.

This week’s high court decision represents a political and personal win. But on the level of stating unifying moral principles for the country, of conveying his deep feeling about our responsibility to care for the least of these, which knows no party, the president has failed.

He has failed to create alliances with conservative religious leaders on health care, and he has failed to convince Americans that the uninsured deserve the protection of the government. (More than half of Americans still believe the law should be repealed.) As the O’Malley anecdote shows, Obama may have listened to his principled foes in the religious sphere — certainly he knew they were out there — but he did not hear them. Among conservative Christian believers, the president “failed to create a climate of confidence that would enable him to see this through,” says David Neff, the editor of Christianity Today.

The Supreme Court win won’t dampen conservative opposition. It will amplify it. Conservative religious groups will continue to cry that their liberties are being trampled, Last week, the evangelical Alliance Defense Fund called the Obama Administration a “dictator of conscience.” The bishops will continue their Fortnight for Freedom campaign through next week, and two dozen lawsuits, mostly by Catholic groups, are pending against the administration.

Obama might have deflected some of this assault by having deep and careful conversations with religious opponents, many of whom would have been inclined to support it, ahead of the public debate over the health-care bill.

Part of the problem, says a person who works as an informal adviser to the administration, is that although Obama maintains a faith-based office, most of his top advisors do not take the concerns of religious believers seriously. “The president does not have a lot of people around him that understand religious institutions,” he says. Referring to the work of the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, this person characterizes the president’s staff as instinctively liberal, prioritizing values such as equality and fairness above more conservative values of tradition, group affiliation, or sanctity. What if the president had used words like these to sell his health plan? Might he have triggered the same kind of rage?

The president’s “secular ‘all or nothing’ strategy failed in engaging a natural constituency,” says the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “Wherever the president frames the moral imperative, he stands poised to attract support across the political spectrum.”

Of course, the president is loathed by the folks in Washington formerly known as the religious right. And he is pro-choice, a line he will not cross. In those very real circumstances, the president might only have made so much headway. But it would have been worth it to try, the White House insider says. “As hard as these guys are on the right, they would still tell anybody what they think, and what to be careful of,” he says. They might have helped him strategize.

In an election season, it’s a president’s job not just to win, but to rise above. He might start by calling on Americans’ consciences. As he has on immigration, he might find a moderate or conservative religious leader to remind voters that they shalt not put self-interest above the suffering of their neighbors.

Why are evangelicals supporting immigration reform?

Americans believe there’s too much religion talk in the public sphere, and these days, it’s especially easy to be cynical. Scratch the surface of any passionately held faith-based position between April and November of an election year, and find a political agenda. That’s because issues like gay marriage and religious liberty motivate voters in the right and left base who might otherwise be lackadaisical or unmoved by their choice of candidates.

Too often politically motivated religious leaders say “souls” when they really mean “votes.”

What is one to make, then, of the “Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform,” a document signed last week by 150 prominent evangelical Christian leaders from across the conservative-liberal spectrum?

Often, these “bipartisan” religious efforts lack heft. They either take a position that no one can argue with — “civility,” for instance — or their self-proclaimed diversity looks to outsiders like homogeneity. Moderates from both parties can always find reasons to agree.

This statement, though, is a document of exceptional accord among groups that rarely find themselves on the same side of anything. The signatories are calling for comprehensive immigration reform that respects human dignity and the rule of law, protects family unity, is fair to taxpayers, and ensures both secure borders and a path to citizenship. Jim Wallis, founder of the left-leaning evangelical group Sojourners, signed it, of course. But so did Jim Daly, president of the socially conservative group Focus on the Family, as did the heads of many of the country’s most conservative Christian denominations: the Assemblies of God, the Southern Baptist Convention and various Nazarene churches.

“I signed on to this statement because immigration reform is more than an ‘issue’ to families,” Daly said last week. “It profoundly affects their stability, structure and quality of life.

With their signatures, the aforementioned folks – most of whom are white – stand in direct opposition to the politicians who usually represent their interests in Congress. Many of those were elected in a wave of tea party fervor in 2010, when anti-immigrant sentiment was at a height.

The Statement of Principles, in other words, creates a fault line among white conservatives over immigration. “Individual legislators are going to have to decide whether they cater to the tea party, non-faith, non-evangelical activist and ignore the evangelical base or whether they’re going to compromise,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who helped broker the agreement.

The question is why? Why would white evangelicals, historically so coherent a voting bloc, splinter in this way?

A big part of the answer, in the bluntest terms, is religious market share. Hispanics go to church; non-Hispanic white people increasingly don’t. When Spanish-speaking immigrants arrive in America, they are, for the most part, Catholic. But in the second and third generations, as they prosper, they are drawn to evangelicalism. According to a 2007 Pew report, 15 percent of all Hispanics in the United States are evangelical, and among native-born Hispanics, the number is as high as 30 percent. White evangelicals, concerned about their institutional future in a country where religious affiliation is declining, see that Hispanics are sitting in their pews, taking communion and worrying about their families’ safety as anti-immigration laws like Arizona’s go into effect. (The Roman Catholic bishops also call for comprehensive immigration reform, but notice that in this case, Catholics and Evangelicals did not work together as they so often do on abortion and other social issues. That’s because competition for Hispanic souls in America is so fierce. “We call it strategic recruitment,” Rodriguez said.)

Rodriguez convinced Focus on the Family to sign the letter only after many years of meetings, he says. When he traveled to Colorado Springs to speak to the leadership there, “I spoke about the need. I talked about the possibility of deporting the very salvation of the evangelical community in the 21st century.”

Rodriguez didn’t talk about leftist priorities, like social justice. He spoke about religious self-interest. “We’re talking about the future of American Christianity.”

But make no mistake. On this issue, as on so many others, the fight for souls is also a fight for votes. But unlike abortion and gay marriage, this one is subtler.

Will Romney, who took a hard anti-immigrant stance in the primary, be able to convince Hispanics that he cares about them as much as Obama does? (He tried to Thursday — in a speech to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials — by appealing to their pocketbooks.)

The nation’s evangelicals are pointing the way: As America evolves into a majority-non-white country, Hispanic voters are becoming as important to electing a president as they are to filling American church pews.

Vatican’s use of term ‘radical feminist’ says more about cardinals than nuns they rebuke

It surprises me a little that the men who run things at the Vatican did not use their most favorite recent pejorative – “feminist” — when they rapped the knuckles of Margaret Farley, a nun who has long been a professor at Yale, for having written a book about sex and love that condones masturbation (and as of Thursday morning was in Amazon’s top 20). In a million other ways, it doesn’t uphold their view of Christian sexual morality.

Because, unlike the other nuns the Vatican has been reprimanding recently, Sister Farley is, in fact, a feminist. An ethicist who has worked on the problem of HIV/AIDS, Farley was commended in 2005 by her Yale colleagues for her contributions to feminist theory.

Members of the Vatican hierarchy are using the word “feminist” and even “radical feminist” the way third-graders use the word “cooties.” In April, the Vatican accused the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 57,000 nuns nationwide, of allowing “radical feminist” ideas to flow unchecked in their communities. In 2008, after launching an investigation against American nuns (the results of which have not yet been released), Cardinal Franc Rode told a radio interviewer that the nuns are suspected of “certain irregularities,” a “secular mentality” and “perhaps also a certain feminist spirit.”

The authors of these rebukes never define “feminism” or “radicalism.” In their hands, these words, which can carry legitimate intellectual meanings, appear to signify something like: “Yucky women who fail to heed our instructions and, anyway, don’t meet our standards of womanhood.” In other words, the sisters aren’t behaving as girls should.

Their casual use of these terms convinces me that the cardinals, in their vast experience, have never actually met a radical feminist theologian. Such creatures do exist, although American religious orders are hardly their breeding ground. What the Vatican hierarchy sees as a “radical feminist” is a woman who dares to believe that she’s equal to a man.

“Even large sectors of the church itself have legitimate concern and want to continue to talk about the place of women in the church, and rightful equality between men and women,” Sister Pat Farrell, a member of the LCWR, told the New York Times last week. “So if that is called radical feminism, then a lot of men and women in the church, far beyond us, are guilty of that.”

Lisa Isherwood is a real-life radical feminist theologian. She is editor of the journal Feminist Theology and a professor at Winchester University in England. She believes that the men at the Vatican are using the term “radical feminist” as a right-wing scare tactic, for it evokes other enemies far more dangerous than nuns. Their thinking, she says, goes like this: “We hear the word radical Islam, and everyone panics, so let’s chuck that at them.”

The mother of radical feminist theology was the late Mary Daly, who started life as a committed Roman Catholic and spent most of her career teaching at Boston College, a Catholic institution.

She was driven to criticize her beloved church after she sat in on sessions of the Second Vatican Council in Rome and felt that women had no meaningful part in the proceedings. She was, she wrote later, appalled by “the contrast between the arrogant bearing and colorful attire of the ‘princes of the church,’ ” she wrote later, “and the humble, self-deprecating manner and somber clothing of the very few women. . . . Watching the veiled nuns shuffle to the altar rail to receive Holy Communion from the hands of a priest was like observing a string of lowly ants at some bizarre picnic.”

In her breakthrough 1974 book, “Beyond God the Father,” Daly wrote, “If God is male, then the male is God. The divine patriarch castrates women as long as he is allowed to live on in the human imagination.” Now that’s a radical feminist for you. Daly’s work gave voice to generations of feminist scholars.

Isherwood, for one, wears the labels “feminist” and “radical” with pride. She is a Catholic — “in as far as anyone’s trying to hang in there” – she says.

She deeply loves her church and believes that at its core, Roman Catholicism has a radical feminist message. “The church should be radical. It should be saying, ‘More inclusion, more equality.’ An abundance of life is a fundamental Catholic value. The idea of ordination of women and so on is just one very small, very significant point. Radical feminism would want the church to be more proactive in terms of working for a life of abundance for the marginalized.”

Now that’s a threatening idea.