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Kerry’s Good Works

John Kerry v. Martin Luther -- and the Vatican.

By 3.29.04

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For the American politician working the stump there is seldom anything risky about quoting the Bible. Doing so has been one of the most effective ways of winning over the mass of American voters. Unless, that is, one happens to be a Roman Catholic who quotes a certain verse from the Epistle of James, which Sen. John Kerry did last Sunday 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 at the North Side Baptist Church, paraphrasing James chapter two, verse fourteen. "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 is all talk. But employing holy writ to further his political ends may backfire big time. Immediately following Kerry's appearance at the black Baptist church, Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt criticized the senator for hypocritically exploiting "scripture for a political attack." This is to be expected from the White House, but the Kerry team left themselves open by failing to note the incendiary nature of this highly controversial passage.

With Sunday's homily, 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 justification by Works. It was, after all, these doctrines (summed up in the Epistle of James and Paul's Letter to the Romans) more than any other that drove Martin Luther from the Church.

In fact Luther was so antagonized by James that, early in his protest, he would regularly rip the epistle out of each new Bible. In later years Luther allowed James a secondary status in his German translation of the Bible, but strengthened his hand by doctoring the words of Romans, adding the infamous "alone," to Paul's "not by works but by faith [alone] will man be justified."

What makes Sunday's preachment so controversial is that this particular verse of James represents everything Luther and the Reformation stood against. "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 Wittenberg, 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 Kerry has gotten into spiritual hot water in St. Louis. By appearing at the largely African-American Baptist church, the candidate was dodging a confrontation with St. Louis' Archbishop Raymond Burke, who has threatened to withhold the sacrament of communion for Kerry's pro-choice views.

Dusting off the old JFK formula, 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: abortion. Last week, Kerry was one of 38 senators to vote against passage of a bill to criminalize harming a fetus during a violent federal crime.

The archbishops of St. Louis and Kerry's home diocese of Boston have both warned Kerry that his support for abortion is a mortal sin. Those stained with mortal sin are sometimes barred from Holy Communion (and, long after the campaign ends, are doomed to eternal hellfire).

Word of Kerry's heresy has made its way back to the Rome where a member of the curia recently told Time that the Vatican is "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."

Some days, Kerry must wish he were a Unitarian.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.