As candidate for president, Sen. Barack Obama has played up his faith credentials. He's a new kind of Democrat, comfortable talking God in a country where church is separated from state, but where religion simply cannot be totally severed from people's political preferences (as Mitt Romney found to his dismay).
This week, Barack Obama had a revelation: Yes, he can! He can disown the pastor who converted him to Christianity, married him to his wife and baptized both his children. "I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened by the spectacle that we saw yesterday," Obama told assembled reporters. When there's a batty old uncle in the pulpit, of course there's going to be a spectacle.
So now Obama is magisterially excommunicating the old pastor. "I gave him the benefit of the doubt in my speech in Philadelphia, explaining that he's done enormous good," said Obama. But then the old coot turns around and blurts out what he really believes, including "such ridiculous propositions as the U.S. government somehow being involved in AIDS."
Obama had given Rev. Wright absolution and also the ultimate prize: the chance to be known as pastor to the next president of the United States. And instead Rev. Wright chose to stick to his own sick theo-political guns.
He's a pastor, not a politician, Wright told us. Yes -- a pastor who believes there's nothing sick, evil or twisted that the American government might not have done.
And Obama is a politician, not a pastor. But more important, he's made it clear he's the pope, not just a congregant, in his own political church of hope.
At the same time that Rev. Wright's internal melodrama was playing out on the national stage, Cardinal Edward Egan sent out an extraordinary announcement chastising former Mayor Rudy Giuliani by name for receiving communion during the papal mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral.
"The Catholic Church clearly teaches that abortion is a grave offense against the will of God," said the cardinal. "I had an understanding with Mr. Rudolph Giuliani, when I became archbishop of New York and he was serving as mayor of New York, that he was not to receive the Eucharist because of his well-known support of abortion. I deeply regret that Mr. Giuliani received the Eucharist during the papal visit here in New York, and I will be seeking a meeting with him to insist that he abide by our understanding."
Rudy Giuliani not only chose to receive the Eucharist, he spoke to reporters afterward about it. His spokesman now says only that Rudy's religion is a personal and private thing.
The interchange between the cardinal and the former mayor is bound to be misunderstood by many others who see religion merely as a personal and private thing.
The cardinal's concern here is not politics at all, but the meaning of the Catholic faith. Can you be a good Catholic and advocate for legalizing and funding the killing of innocent human life in the womb?
When Rudy Giuliani steps up to the plate to take the communion wafer, he's offering one public answer to that question: Yes, he can.
Everyone who looks at Rudy's public act of receiving communion is also learning an answer to that question.
Is respect for human life -- from the moment of its creation -- central to Catholic faith, or is it a side issue dispensable under the right circumstances or for the right (read: powerful) person?
Either the cardinal or the mayor was going to supply the answer.
Cardinal Egan will no doubt endure much criticism for doing what a Catholic cardinal is supposed to do: preach and protect the faith of his church. But the alternative is turning the politicians of this world into the guardians of faith.
And that should be enough to give even the village atheist pause.