For those who might be outraged to see four Montana Roman Catholic priests standing prominently in the audience of the Great Falls rally when President Donald Trump came to visit, you may be missing the point.
The problem with it isn't that clergy were in an overtly political situation. The problem is what those priests appeared to endorse.
Even though Americans should cherish the separation of the state from church, that's a one-way street. The government should leave churches alone and shouldn't sidle up next to any one. But, churches may not feel bound to the same rules. Many churches, on both sides of the political spectrum, are becoming more political.
We'll reserve judgment on whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. But, it's hard for a newspaper to condemn folks for expressing an opinion or taking an action in the community. And that's exactly what political activity is — speaking out and supporting through action.
It's also important to note that clergy becoming more and more overtly political is something that isn't just happening with conservatives. While some liberals were concerned seeing priests at a Trump rally, there doesn't seem to be the same outrage expressed when clergy members march in a resistance parade or protest. As with all political issues, both sides claim to have God on their team and therefore clergy support only makes sense and proves that they're fighting on the side of angels.
Again, we'll reserve judgment on whether political activity from the pulpit and from church leaders is a beneficial thing. That's probably open to considerable debate.
Moreover, it's probably not the newspaper's role to spy on ministers and priests, watching to see if they express any political views, or participate in rallies or events. When you work for a church, you don't necessarily abandon your right to speak or even stand up for what you believe. Again, some may argue you have more of an obligation to speak out.
But, we're not here to play priest-watch or monitor-the-ministers.
We do have one concern about the quartet of priests who showed up for the Montana Trump rally — and those concerns seem to be shared by the leaders of the state's two diocese who offered some measure of rebuke for them showing up in complete ecclesial garb.
While we understand the Roman Catholic Church has entered into political issues ranging from climate change to the death penalty, we also believe that many of these political forays are just extensions of the church's dogmatic beliefs. For example, at some points during the year, some parishes have white crosses representing abortions — an overtly political statement, but also a long-held theological position of the church. Those are thoughtful and deliberate political statements made after much consideration.
We're not concerned that the priests have political views. And, we're not surprised that those views are conservative.
But what we're they thinking when they appeared to be applauding and cheering on some of Trump's most spurious comments? What about the Pocahontas lines that seemed to not only be aimed at Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but also derogatorily at all Native Americans?
Why would they join in the jeering of the "Me Too" movement which has as its center women who have been victimized? Surely, if any institution can recognize the tremendous harm of sexual assault and victimization it should be the Roman Catholic church which has been consumed with the aftermath and reports of abuse within its own clerical ranks for more two decades.
Surely, the priests would have understood the references to former President George H.W. Bush's "Thousand Points of Light" — a program nearly borrowed from the theology of Christianity which calls on its followers to be the light in a dark world. Trump mocking it seems to be a rebuke of everything the church would stand for — people doing good in the world.
While these priests could not have possibly known Trump would go off script and say things that should be heretical to everything the Catholic church stands for, we would have hoped that they would have exercised the kind of leadership to either denounce it or at least not appear to be egging it on.
After all, one of the priests, Rev. Ryan Erlenbush, earlier this year found himself in another controversy when he took a stand against his alma mater, the Billings Catholic Schools for allowing a homosexual couple to be a part of the fundraising efforts.
It seems like Erlenbush was strong enough to make a public statement on Facebook, but not strong enough to stand up for the right thing in front of a political rally.
But that's exactly what people should expect from their religious leaders. We should expect them to transcend politics and take the right position regardless. We doubt many would argue a priest should cheer on racially insensitive comments, belittle victims or mock those who would do good deeds.
But they did. And we still don't understand why.
Being politically active is one thing. But cheering on behavior that would have no place in a church or even civil conversation is troubling and shameful, especially when those priests appeared in the garments of the Catholic church.
It looked like an endorsement, and because of that, it runs the risk of others assuming it had the blessing of its leaders (which it did not). It stands to damage the church's reputation for those who want to believe the worst about it, and it undermines the tremendous work the Roman Catholic Church does in the world when it comes to helping those most in need.