Clerics in politics
The recent brouhaha over Bishop Drexel Gomez’s participation at a recent Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) rally raised important issues of the involvement of clerics in politics, and the relationship between church and state, more of which at a later date.
Unfortunately, these and related issues were obscured by all manner of uncritical thinking. This included slipshod editorializing by this journal in its March 8 edition entitled, “Reasonableness, family and politics”.
The editorial weighed into the debate with rushed judgement and little historical context seemingly making judgements based on a simplistic reading of the daily headlines rather than a closer reading of history.
The editorial was a textbook example of making poor analogies. It attempted to support its sloppy conclusion by equating and forcing a false equivalence between the involvement of Rev. Frederick McAlpine in politics and the attendance of Delores Ingraham at political events on the one hand, with Bishop Gomez’s participation at the PLP rally on the other.
Mrs. Ingraham’s attendance at such events is regulated by General Orders and long-held customs. Moreover, she is not a cleric or a religious leader. Further, this column has previously argued that clerics such as McAlpine should not be engaged in partisan politics for reasons similar for arguing that Bishop Gomez’s rally attendance was an error of judgement.
This newspaper reported that Bishop Gomez stated of his participation at the political event: “I was there simply because I was invited by my brother, who was having the formal opening of his headquarters in Nicholl’s [sic] Town.”
The Nassau Guardian reported, “He [Bishop Gomez] pointed out that he stayed clear of political statements when he addressed PLP supporters.” The paper quoted the bishop: “I felt I was the most appropriate person to make the presentation, as the older member of the family and the person who has been in the public domain.”
Bishop Gomez continued: “I chose my comments very carefully. I only spoke about my brother and our family. I made no reference whatsoever to political issues or to political parties. My intention was simply to introduce him to the people at the formal opening of his headquarters.”
The Guardian further reported: “Bishop Gomez said he exercised two rights when he spoke at the political event. The first being his constitutional right to speak in the public domain on public issues and the second being his religious right to comment on matters of justice and truth.”
It is not the bishop’s exercise of his right of freedom of speech that is being questioned. The concern is the poor exercise of his judgement in speaking at a partisan political event. Good judgement requires that one choose not only one’s words carefully, but also one’s appearances in both senses of the word.
Bishop Gomez also has a right to run for the House of Assembly, a right he is unlikely to exercise. Anglican priest Fr. Addison Turnquest once ran for the FNM. Though it was his constitutional right to do so, it was a poor exercise of judgement.
Constitutional rights come with duties. This is captured in the adage that though a citizen has the right to speak, he or she does not have free reign to bogusly shout fire in a crowded theater. Moreover, our rights are exercised within the context of other obligations and the demands of prudence and restraint.
A priest has the right to go out dressed in clerical garb to nightclubs, drinking and dancing into the wee hours. But that priest risks giving confusion to the faithful and undermining his or her moral authority and the credibility of the wider communion he or she represents.
What The Guardian reported as Bishop Gomez’s defense of his two rights, “his right to speak in the public domain on public issues” and “his religious right to comment on matters of justice and truth” begs for clarity.
What exactly was the religious right exercised by Bishop Gomez at the PLP rally? What matters of truth and justice did he address at the rally in light of his statement, “I only spoke about my brother and our family. I made no reference whatsoever to political issues or to political parties.”
In pressing that he exercised his right to speak to matters of truth and justice, Bishop Gomez appears to be making an inference. Is the inference that his brother’s candidacy as a member of the PLP will better advance the cause of truth and justice? Is this not an endorsement of his brother and the PLP?
Is it Bishop Gomez’s contention that he in no way imagined that his remarks at the rally dressed as he was in clerical garb would carry any influence with voters in North Andros or The Bahamas in general? Is it his contention that his appearance would be seen as nonpartisan, even neutral, amidst a general election campaign?
All of this adds more holy confusion than blessed assurance for the faithful and observers seeking to understand Bishop Gomez’s post-rally defense. The bishop’s appearance at the rally in clerical garb added to the confusion for many.
Former Commissioner of Police Reginald Ferguson also had a brother in politics, Johnley Ferguson, who ran for the House of Assembly as a Free National Movement (FNM) candidate. Assuming that the former commissioner was in that post when his brother was running, would it have been appropriate for the former, dressed in his police uniform, to address a FNM rally to speak about his brother?
Of course, there is a prohibition against such a thing in General Orders. The reasons behind the prohibition are compelling. Among them, the risk of undermining one’s authority and that of the institution one represents by giving the appearance of partisanship.
Would Bishop Gomez have spoken on behalf of his brother were he still the head of the Anglican Church in The Bahamas? It is extremely doubtful that even as the retired head of the Anglican Church that the late Bishop Michael Eldon would have spoken at a political rally to introduce a family member.
Suppose current Anglican head Bishop Laish Boyd had a sibling running for office. Would it be prudent for him to mount a partisan political platform in an election season to speak about that sibling and their family?
Bishop Gomez pleaded: “My intention was simply to introduce him to the people at the formal opening of his headquarters.” In moral theology, as in normative ethics, one is judged by one’s intentions and actions either of which or both of which may be flawed depending on the case at hand.
The four cardinal virtues in the Christian tradition are prudence, justice, temperance and courage. Prudence is the virtue which helps to guide or balance the other virtues. A classic definition of prudence is the ability to “judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time”. Restraint or temperance refers to “practicing self-control, abstention, and moderation”.
For many, Bishop Gomez exercised neither prudence nor restraint by speaking at a partisan political rally. Before acting, a cleric must ask whether his or her actions will be an occasion of confusion for the faithful.
With the benefit of centuries of historical hindsight and chastened by its blurring of the lines between church and state, the Roman Catholic Church is clear about the restrictions on clerics and bishops involving themselves in the political process.
The likelihood of Archbishop Patrick Pinder even attending a political rally as the ordinary or as a retired archbishop of Nassau is next to nil. Any Catholic priest who went on a political platform with or without his clerical collar to speak about his sibling would make that mistake only once, if ever.
Adding to the confusion, were Bishop Gomez’s comments after Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham suggested that Opposition Leader Perry Christie apologize for the attendance of the bishop at the rally. Though the prime minister’s comments were not addressed to him, it was the bishop who responded in language that can only be described as bellicose.
As other religious leaders are calling for more civil dialogue and restraint, Bishop Gomez blustered that the prime minister would lose a fight with him. Is that the appropriate language and tone for the former head of the Anglican Diocese or for any religious leader?
In this entire matter Bishop Gomez has acquitted himself as a political partisan and combatant instead of as a moral leader. Many Anglicans are alarmed at his conduct. So too are many other people of good will and Christian faith.
Mar 13, 2012