In the final presidential debate and again and again on the campaign trail, Sen. John Kerry has insulted every Protestant in the country.
While putting himself at odds with traditional Catholics and with anybody who values logical consistency on moral issues, Kerry is so out of touch with the fundamentals and history of Christianity that he has stepped right into the muck of a 487-year-old dispute in a way sure to offend any knowledgeable Protestant.
And he did all that in just one debate answer.
Even worse, and more hypocritically, Kerry reportedly is planning a major speech on faith for Thursday night, flaunting his own ignorance while wearing the guise of a devout believer–all in a brazen bid for votes.
So what, exactly, did Kerry say that was so bad that it misrepresented Catholicism while it simultaneously affronted Protestants?
Citing the Book of James (without naming it), Kerry said “there’s a great passage in the Bible that says, ‘What does it mean, my brother, to say you have faith if there are no deeds? Faith without works is dead.’ And I think everything you do in public life has to be guided by your faith, affected by your faith…. That’s why I fight for equality and justice. All of those things come out of that fundamental teaching and belief of faith.”
The deep problem with that statement is that for Catholics, the idea that “faith without works is dead” is, while important, not “fundamental,” while for Protestants it is anathema. Indeed, it is the very passage–so often used because it is so singular, in the face of so many passages in Paul’s letters to the contrary–that for centuries has been thrown in the face of Protestants who, citing Paul, side with Luther on the issue of whether salvation is earned by good works or rather is a matter of God’s grace accepted through faith alone.
For Protestants (at least), faith is never dead.
Indeed, you cannot be a Protestant and believe that faith can possibly be dead. That was the central tenet of the entire Protestant reformation: That all men are such sinners that they can never earn salvation, but can only accept it through faith. Faith moves mountains. And while faith clearly should inspire good works, it is not and cannot be measured by good works, nor can it be the result of nor its existence be proved through good works.
To aver that the idea that “faith without works is dead” is “fundamental” to Christianity is, effectively, to say that Protestants aren’t Christian.
Kerry, however, has repeated that assertion numerous times on the campaign trail. Protestants ought to call him on it.
Catholics, too, should take issue with Kerry’s formulation of the issue. Granted, it is undeniably true that the Catholic Church fought Martin Luther bitterly over his insistence on the primacy of St. Paul’s repeated assertion that men are “justified,” or saved, through faith alone. The Catholic Church has indeed cited the passage from the Book of James to argue that good works are important. But to be important is not to be fundamental. The passage from James is not a matter of church doctrine. (More on that a little later in this essay.) But what is a matter of fundamental doctrine is the protection of innocent life (or at least life innocent of all but Original Sin). Here’s The Catechism of the Catholic Church on abortion: “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.”
That is why it is a flat-out theological error, as well as a fallacy of logic, for Kerry to say that “I believe that choice is a woman’s choice. It’s between a woman, God, and her doctor.” There is no cogent way for a Catholic to say he is compelled to express his faith through “works,” and to say that he is certain that those required works include specific policy choices “to clean up the environment,” and to achieve “equality and justice”–imperatives that are not policy-specific either in the Bible or in church teaching–but that he is not compelled as a Catholic to support laws against what the Catechism effectively defines as infanticide.
Even apart form abortion, Kerry’s appeal to righteousness of “works” is at best misguided and probably hypocritical. Yes, Jesus Himself again and again called on His disciples to care for the poor and to be good stewards of creation. It can even be argued that He demanded that communities of faith do so as a corporate endeavor. But where Kerry errs greatly is to assert that faith dictates that a civil community, acting through the compulsory force of government, adopt specific policy choices as “good works.” Neither under Christ’s formulation or under that of His “brother” James does it count as a “good work” (in terms of faith) to confiscate one person’s money (through taxation) in order to provide a government welfare check to another person. Indeed, such a system, even if wise and beneficial, is a “good work” creditable neither to the lawmaker nor the voter who supports him (nor, for that matter, by the citizen compelled to pay the taxes). An action by government may be a good idea, but it is in no way a religiously salvific.
For all Christians, good works and salvation are ultimately individual matters. It is as individuals that we are ultimately judged and, we hope, saved through God’s grace. It is as individuals, first and foremost, that we are called to house the homeless, feed the hungry, and give alms to the poor. Individuals may, indeed should, do so in large part through the body of the church, which is the community of faith. But our faith requirements neither begin nor do they end with Caesar–nor can Caesar, for the hopes of our redemption, be the means of our faith.
Even for Catholics–whose commitment to works, by the way, merits great admiration and emulation from Protestants–the precedence of works over faith has never been absolute.
Consider, first, the “deathbed” conversion or confession. Catholics, indeed all Christians, have always held that even a life filled with sin, a life wasted in wantonness, can be redeemed by a single, sincere expression of faith. Ultimately, faith can make alive what works have never awakened.
Second, even if Kerry knew what he was talking about (which he quite manifestly did not) and intended to wade into the waters of the centuries-old Catholic-Protestant divide, he still would have well out of date.
The fact is that Catholics and many Protestants are far closer than ever before on the works/faith conundrum. About 35 years ago, the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation began sponsoring groups of scholars to re-study the issue and try to reach accommodation. In 1983, the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth, the scholars achieved an initial consensus. Finally, in 1998 and 1999, the churches agreed on and then signed a carefully worded, 44-point statement. The statement’s most important passage was elegant: “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.”
Yes, good works are an obligation–for all Christians. But this Vatican, under the leadership of a highly traditionalist Pope, has agreed that the works are a response to the mystery of God’s grace. Faith without works may be dormant, but it certainly isn’t dead. For as long as faith survives, redemption is possible.
Catholics and Protestants certainly can and do agree to put different emphases on Paul and on James, on faith and on works, and they can respect each other’s different emphases with no problems. But to say that faith without works is dead, and then to define “works” as a liberal legislative agenda on social and economic policies, all the while dismissing the imperatives of strict Catholic doctrine on an issue (abortion) that is fundamental to the faith, is to give offense to Catholics and Protestants alike.
Finally, to profess, for purely political purposes, a faith that is either so ill-informed or so insincere as Kerry’s appears to be, is to be, in Christ’s words from Matthew, like “the hypocrites [who] love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.” For as Christ said a few sentences earlier, “be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them… When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets.”
Sen. Kerry this week has been blowing his own trumpet, but its notes ring false.
–Quin Hillyer is an editorial writer and columnist for the Mobile Register. A traditionalist Episcopalian, he majored in theology at the Jesuit-run Georgetown University.