John Kerry vs. Martin Luther

John Kerry

John Kerry

For the American politician working the stump, there is seldom anything risky about quoting scripture. The word of God oozing from a candidate’s lips is as predictable as the ensuing chicken and peas dinner, and has traditionally been one of the most effortless ways of winning over a mob of American voters. Unless — and this is a full-size unless — one happens to be a Roman Catholic who quotes a certain verse from the Epistle of James (2:14, to be exact), which Sen. John. Kerry did last Sunday, March 28, in St. Louis.

“The Scriptures say, ‘What does it profit my brother if someone says he has faith but does not have works?'” preached Kerry. “When we look at what is happening in America today, where are the works of compassion?”

Granted, Kerry meant only to suggest that President George W. Bush was all talk. But this time, employing Holy Writ to further one’s political goals may well backfire. Immediately following Sen. Kerry’s appearance at a north side Baptist church, Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt criticized the senator for hypocritically exploiting “scripture for a political attack.” No surprise there. What is surprising is that Sen. Kerry, or someone on his team, failed to note the potentially incendiary nature of this highly controversial Biblical passage.

With Sunday’s speech, Sen. Kerry has inadvertently introduced into the campaign a theological dispute that has separated Catholics like Kerry and Protestants like Bush for nearly 500 years, namely the doctrine of Justification by Faith versus Good Works. It was, after all, this doctrine (summed up in the Epistle of James and Paul’s Letter to the Romans) more than any other that drove Martin Luther from the Catholic Church. In fact, Luther was so antagonized by James 2:14 that he would regularly rip the epistle out of each new Bible; and while in later years he allowed James a secondary status in his German translation of the Bible, Luther simultaneously strengthened his hand by doctoring the words of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, adding the infamous “alone,” to Paul’s “not by works but by faith alone will man be justified.”

What makes Sunday’s speech so controversial is that this particular verse of James’ is one that directly contradicted everything Luther and his Reformation stood for. “Many sweat to reconcile St. Paul and St. James, but in vain,” wrote Luther. “‘Faith justifies’ and ‘faith does not justify’ contradict each other flatly. If any one can harmonize them I will give him my doctor’s hood and let him call me a fool.”  Elsewhere, Luther recommended banishing James’ epistle from the University of Wittenburg, and throwing “Jimmy into the stove…for it is worthless…I think it was written by some Jew who had heard of the Christians but not joined them.”

Sunday was not the first time Sen. Kerry has gotten into spiritual hot water in St. Louis. By appearing at the largely African-American Protestant church, the candidate was carefully avoiding a confrontation with St. Louis’ Archbishop Raymond Burke, who has pledged to withhold from Sen. Kerry the sacrament of holy communion for his pro-choice views. Dusting off the old JFK line, Sen. Kerry has maintained that the Catholic Church does not speak for him with regard to his political or private life. But unlike JFK and New York Governor Al Smith before him, Kerry publicly opposes his Church’s teaching, and on one highly charged issue in particular — that of abortion. Just last week, Sen. Kerry was one of 38 senators to vote against passage of a bill to criminalize harming a fetus during a violent federal crime, according to an Associated Press story.

So far, the archbishops of St. Louis and Sen. Kerry’s home diocese of Boston have remained adamant, warning Kerry that his support for abortion is a mortal sin, and that those stained with mortal sin may not receive holy communion, and — less important at least until the campaign season ends — are doomed to eternal hellfire. Word of Sen. Kerry’s heresy has made its way back to the Rome, where a Vatican official recently told Time magazine that “People in Rome are becoming more and more aware that there’s a problem with John Kerry, and a potential scandal with his apparent profession of his Catholic faith and some of his stances, particularly abortion.” Sen. Kerry must sometimes wish he were a Unitarian.

American politicians have been cynically using the word of God for their political advantage since Thomas Jefferson let it be known that God was on our side by mentioning Him no fewer than four times in the Declaration of Independence. Of course, back then, America was a homogenous country of largely two religions, the Puritan Congregationalists and the Church of England, and one didn’t have to concern oneself with the beliefs and feelings of papists, “musslemen” and Jews. But if Kerry insists on continuing to spout Holy Writ, he may want to consider hiring on a few studied Protestant, Muslim and Jewish theologians before he commits another ecclesiastical faux pas. So far, the Kerry camp has not responded to the Bush campaign’s charges, perhaps because they are beginning to realize that religion — no matter whose or what flavor — can only bring misery to the Kerry campaign, not the eternal solace most believers expect it to bring.

“Many sweat to reconcile…”:The Life and Letters of Martin Luther, p. 269, by Preserved Smith (Houghton Mifflin Company: New York, 1911).

“…banishing James’ epistle”: from “Table Talk,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 54, p. 424-25, edited by Lewis W. Spitz (Muhlenberg Press: Philadelphia, 1955).

“Jimmy into the stove…”: from “Career of the Reformer IV,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 34, p. 317, edited by Lewis W. Spitz (Muhlenberg Press: Philadelphia, 1955).

Christopher Orlet, a columnist for The American Spectator Online, runs the Existential Journalist website.