Of Piety and Politics: Reexamining the Relationship between Church and State

Kayla Wolf used her research grant to study the Catholic Church (Courtesy of Kayla Wolf via Instagram)

Features Editor Emerita

Attending a Jesuit college guarantees some degree of religion-oriented learning. For Kayla Wolf, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’19, this was not an especially appealing aspect of her undergraduate education. In fact, she found the idea of attending a Catholic school somewhat intimidating and was apprehensive about even considering a university with a religious affiliation. Fast forward three years to the spring of 2017 and Wolf ended up applying for a Fordham research grant to spend every day of her summer break studying what had initially made her doubtful about FCLC: The Catholic Church.

Wolf and I met on a Tuesday evening at the Ram Café. Cheerful and passionate, she began by speaking about her transformational understanding of religion as a concept and a tool, and what led her to pursue a project that focused on the Catholic Church. She admitted to initially feeling uncomfortable with the idea of attending a Jesuit institution. “I feel like that’s a common thread with a lot of people [at Fordham],” Wolf explained, “I was very intimidated by the theology courses, but when I realized that it wasn’t necessarily just Catholicism, I absolutely fell in love with learning about religion and how something so abstract can have such incredible power.”

Combining this newfound understanding of religion with her initial passion for political science, Wolf began crafting an idea for a summer research project. “I went to a panel discussion at Fordham put on by the Theology Department led by Reverend Bryan Massingale, who is actually a professor of theology at Fordham,” she explained. “It was about Catholic social teaching during the Trump presidency, and it kind of got me thinking, because those are my two interests—theology and political science—and specifically the intersection.” In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Wolf wanted to better understand the inevitable role that religion plays in the politics of both individuals and institutions. With this idea as her basis, she began putting together her own project.  

Using the presidential election as the guiding theme, Wolf came up with the idea to focus on those who led the Catholic churches that surrounded her geographically. “I created this entire research project where I spent the summer interviewing priests in New York City about their congregation and if they talked about the election before or after, then certain issues like immigration, climate change, the travel ban and healthcare.” She continued, “I interviewed 25 priests, five in every borough of New York City, to see if there was a geographic difference. I asked them basic demographic questions about the racial composition and class composition of their congregation and if they offered mass in languages other than English and then the year they were ordained so I could kind of get a sense of how old they were. I then asked if they discussed the presidential election before or if they encouraged their congregation to vote.”

Her initial hypothesis focused on the location of specific churches throughout New York City, and whether the placement of those institutions affected the opinions of parishioners as well as the priests. “Going into this I had thought a lot about geography, wondering if the churches in Staten Island would be more conservative versus the churches in the Bronx, for example, or in areas that are mostly people of color,” Wolf explained. “To some extent it was true. I interviewed a couple of priests on Staten Island who were some of the most conservative thinkers that I interviewed. But I also—in Staten Island—interviewed a priest who was extremely liberal and was really struggling with how to preach to his congregation who only cares about the issue of abortion,” she recalled. Ultimately, this hypothesis led Wolf to a dead end.

Instead, what seemed to be most interesting about her project (and most frustrating) was the vast range of opinions she found within the Catholic churches in New York. Months after she had completed the project, Wolf still found herself looking for common threads that helped her understand the Catholic Church and its effect on politics.

While she went searching for commonalities in these Catholic priests’ teachings that may have shed light on the 2016 election, Wolf instead found herself gaining a better understanding of the vast power that religion holds as a persuasive tool. When asked about Donald Trump’s promise to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico, “most of them said, ‘I think it’s despicable, it’s completely against our teaching, it’s heart wrenching and I hate it. It’s terrible rhetoric.’ But then a decent amount also said, ‘Well, Catholic social teaching says that countries have a right to defend their own borders.’ Both using Catholic social teaching.” She continued, “Priests are political animals too, they have their own opinions, regardless.”

But perhaps the most interesting conclusion Wolf came to was that religious teachings can be used in extensive ways to justify an individual’s opinion. “I want to say 22 or 23 of the 25 brought up abortion, but I didn’t even touch on it,” she explained. “Some of them said, ‘Look you have to vote for the pro-life candidate,’ and others said, ‘You know what, I think abortion is an issue, but I think all the others are too and I’m so disheartened that Catholics are just seen as abortion voters.’” Wolf continued, “I think what was most interesting is that, of all the priests I interviewed, there were complete opposite opinions, but using the same texts and the same basis to support both of their arguments.” Taking this into account, it is easy to understand why the Catholic majority is not strictly Republican or Democratic, but rather has swayed from party to party depending on the candidate.

Wolf finished her interviews by touching on a rather divisive issue: the relationship between church and state. “One of my questions was, ‘The separation between church and state has always been controversial in American democracy, what role do you believe the church should play, if any, in the American political system?’” Wolf continued, “A lot of them said, ‘I think the church has a really big role to play, I think we shape people morally, so we give them the tools of how to look at problems and things and they should use those values when going to the ballot box. It’s not necessarily that we’re telling them how to vote, just saying here are really important issues that are grounded in Catholicism, so take that and vote your conscience.’ That was the vast majority, ‘vote your conscience,’ I heard that phrase a lot.”

Shaping people morally is a significant responsibility. Wolf’s project shed light on the fact that religion plays an incredibly important role in our lives as Americans, regardless of whether one identifies as a Christian, Muslim, Jewish, atheist or any denomination thereof. How we as people create our morals and choose to act on those morals is integral to our understanding of politics, and this became evident to Wolf throughout the summer of 2017. Projects like hers are increasingly important in an age when we claim to have a clear distinction between church and state, and, in fact, the core of our supposed morality is rooted in religious ideals.