Church and State

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.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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3 Responses to Church and State

  1. chaz11222 says:

    Mr. Dolan claims that “Nor can we argue purely from revelation: why should other citizens respect our opinions if we do not present them as applicable to all people regardless of religion?” That’s precisely the problem: hiding under your tax-exempt mantle of “revealed” holiness, you want to tell the rest of us what to do, and how to live. The bottom line is that absolutely NO ONE is coming into our Churches or places of worship and telling believers what to believe…..or forcing them to use contraception. BUT If the Bishops (and other denominations) want to continue running businesses outside of their places of worship…businesses that employ millions of people of varying faiths -or no “faith” at all- THEN they must play by the same rules and rights that other workers live by and enjoy (especially if their businesses use our tax dollars, and skip paying taxes, in the process). If the Jehovah’s Witnesses church hires me, can they alter my health insurance to exclude blood transfusions? Even worse- what if they operated a hospital by their “rules”? This is not a “war on religion”. Never was. However, it IS a war BY some religions… on women and men who simply want to plan their families, to control their futures, to keep their jobs, and to have health insurance that allows them to do that. Likewise It is a war -not on religion- but on gays and others who the church deems to be second class citizens, and targets of its venom. The churches (or the IRS) need to decide whether these churches are  going to be political organizations proclaiming and practicing partisan politics from the pulpit…or….tax-exempt places of WORSHIP. Not both. Not in America.

    • hessd says:

      I think I wind up on your side of the issues you introduced and on Dolan’s side of the issue you began with. If religious commitment causes people to get into the issue and help those who need help, good for them. When the rationale for their participation–what Dolan calls “arguing purely from revelation”–becomes the basis of the program and bound upon all participants, I say we’ve gone too far.

  2. Bonnie Klein says:

    Hi, Dale!
    I got interested in the difference between these when they echoed in my mind after I’d read on.
    A) I am driven to participate in the public discussions because of my commitment to protect the poor from the depredations of the rich.
    B) 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.
    This is how I see it. A expresses a commitment to a state of being or a value—protection of the poor from the rich; B, a commitment to a specific course of action.
    There are people, like George Bush, who may say God tells them to enact specific legislation, and we better be aware of the dangers that kind of political decision-making can lead to, so thank you for your thoughts here.
    As I looked at these two sentences, though, I sensed a strong similarity between them.
    Behind A may be a range of reasons for such a commitment, true, but there is some motivation—a commitment is born of something—and couldn’t one of them be phrased with the same opening as B? “The founder of my faith, to whom I owe ultimate allegiance, teaches that the poor should be protected from the rich.” Still a commitment to a state of being or value, but the source is identified.
    Also, couldn’t “protection of the poor from the depredations of the rich” be a translation into a cause of a general religious teaching that we should “take care of” the poor? Could you create a path from the general teaching, to the area of commitment, to a commitment to passing a specific law in that area?
    So, for a person of faith, it seems to me, the motivations for his actions, the values that inform his conscience and guide his choices, stem from “the one to whom I owe ultimate allegiance.” Isn’t it the goal of one’s faith to live it? I don’t think, at that level, a person of faith can divorce the faith from the person enough to make decisions without the tenets of the faith underlying or at least aligning with his decisions. This is the argument I can see being used to keep “people of faith” out of the debate: one is being “influenced” by his faith. Not fine, either, since the debate needs a variety of viewpoints.
    But I don’t know if that’s even the point. Maybe the point is that we seem unable to “enter into allegiance with everyone [anyone!?] else” who wants to serve the public good. I wonder if we even have a clear conception (or hope) of a Public Good, or if we are too mired in our differences to see our common needs.
    Have a great day! 

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