In Salem, Oregon, where I got nearly all my political training, there is a Church Street and a State Street. The First Methodist Church of Salem sits there quietly at the intersection of Church and State where, by all rights, there should be a Wall of Separation. The Capitol Building is only a block away, but no one seems to be alarmed.
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan appeared on “Face the Nation” on Easter Sunday and made some remarks about the Wall of Separation that truly amazed me. You can see them here. In his conversation with Bob Schieffer, Dolan said two things that strike me as remarkable.
The first is that JFK’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association (here) has been misinterpreted, that Kennedy had not meant to say that the “separation of church and state also means a cleavage, a wall, between one’s faith and one’s political decisions, between one’s moral focus and between the way one might act in the political sphere.”
What Kennedy did say is, “Whatever issue may come before me as President, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure of dictates.” It is easy, in the present climate of opinion, to be drawn off by “what my conscience tells me,” but we should note carefully what Kennedy was listening for in the voice of his conscience. He was counting on his conscience to tell him what was in the national interest. Doesn’t that seem like part of a different conversation than the one we are having now?
Let me amend Cardinal Dolan’s statement a little to emphasize what I think he is saying. He thinks Kennedy has been misunderstood to say that he would put a wall between his “personal” faith and his performance of the office of President. I think that is precisely what Kennedy did say. Behind all the language about “not being dictated to by the Pope,” there is the commitment to act in the public’s interest as a public official if he can–and a promise to resign if he cannot. I think the Cardinal is trying very hard to misinterpret Kennedy’s stance and calling a correct interpretation (mine, in this case) a “misinterpretation.”
The second element of the interview that concerns me is the Cardinal’s notion of “the public square.” This has been debated for thirty years that I know about, and probably for more than that. The view Cardinal Dolan rejects is that “faith has no place in the public square.” That way of putting it makes is sound like the question is whether public debate should be dominated by secularists or whether “religious people” should also be allowed to participate. I get that in my classes at PSU all the time by students who believe that the Supreme Court has said that students are not allowed to pray in public schools. They are often surprised to learn that what the Court said is that students may not be required to pray in public schools. The issue has never been prayer; the issue is compulsion.
The Cardinal does not distinguish, the way I wish he would, between the motive for participating in public debate and the views one expresses. I am driven to participate in the public discussions because of my commitment to protect the poor from the depredations of the rich. Fine. The founder of my faith, to whom I owe ultimate allegiance teaches that there should be a negative income tax, tied to the federally defined poverty line and augmented annually by cost of living adjustments. Not so fine.
In my commitment to the poor, I enter into alliance with everyone else who believes the public good is served by reducing somewhat the catastrophically large gap between the rich and the poor. I work with whomever to establish whatever that will achieve that noble goal. But when I take the other route, I claim the authority I grant to the founder of my faith–“I grant”…”my faith”–and I use it to establish the public policy of the government which may leave everyone worse off. If God requires it, it doesn’t really matter if it leaves everyone worse off. If I object to God’s requirement on the grounds that it would leave everyone worse off, I lay a public outcome against God’s will, as I understand it, because I don’t want everyone to be worse off. And God does?
If the public square concept means that public policy is to be enacted based on my notion of what God wants, the well-being of aside, then I think the public square concept is a menace and should be dropped. If it means that people of my faith, your faith, and no faith are all allowed to propose policies that, before enactment, must meet the public test of fairness and must run the gamut of political constituencies, than I say let ‘er fly.