church and state

An archbishop faces ghost of JFK

In the beginning, there was candidate John F. Kennedy, who told an assembly of Protestant ministers not to worry about his Catholicism because, "I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair." In that influential 1960 address, Kennedy boldly proclaimed: "I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.

"Whatever issue may come before me as president -- 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 the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise."

And so it came to pass that -- politically speaking -- JFK begat the Kennedy dynasty, which begat Mario Cuomo, who begat Geraldine Ferraro, who begat Joseph Biden, who begat Rudy Giuliani, who begat John Kerry, who begat Arnold Schwarzenegger, who begat Nancy Pelosi and so forth and so on.

Looking back, it's clear that Kennedy's high-risk visit to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association changed Catholic political life. That's why one of America's most outspoken Catholic leaders recently seized an opportunity to deliver a very different message to another Protestant audience in Houston.

Kennedy's speech was "sincere, compelling, articulate -- and wrong," claimed Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, at a Houston Baptist University forum on faith and public life. "His Houston remarks profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America's public life and political conversation. Today, half a century later, we're paying for the damage."

The key, argued the archbishop, is that Kennedy did more than endorse the separation of church and state. He did more than plead for religious tolerance in the public square, after generations of tensions between Catholics and Protestants.

Ultimately, that Kennedy did was pledge to separate his faith from his personal conscience, thus building a high wall down the center of his own heart, mind and soul. How is it possible for Christians to do this, Chaput asked, when dealing with profoundly moral issues such as health care, immigration, abortion, poverty, education, religious liberty, family life, sexual identity and matters of war and peace?

"Real Christian faith is always personal," he said, "but it's never private."

Political and religious leaders have been debating the meaning of Kennedy's words ever since he spoke them. This was especially true during the 2008 presidential race when critics dissected the beliefs of several candidates who openly discussed their religious beliefs -- such as Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin and, of course, the future president, Barack Obama.

During a Fordham University forum on "The Kennedy Moment," political theorist William Galston of the Brookings Institution said that the key to the 1960 address was the candidate's bold insistence that his private spiritual views should not even be discussed because they "do not influence his views on public matters."

Kennedy also endorsed a "separation between democracy and God," noted Galston, former senior domestic policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. In fact, he used the word "God" only once, in a reference to the presidential oath of office.

This speech "could have been given by a nonbeliever. Indeed -- deep breath -- I rather suspect it was," said Galston. "At the very least, there is no indication that JFK regarded the church as having any rightful authority over his public conduct."

For Chaput, it's impossible to concede that the teachings of the Catholic faith should have nothing to do with the public lives, vocations and actions of individuals who continue to call themselves faithful Catholics.

Nevertheless, 50 years after Kennedy's speech in Houston "we have more Catholics in national public office than ever before. But I wonder if we've ever had fewer of them who can coherently explain how their faith informs their work or who even feel obligated to try," said the archbishop.

"At least one of the reasons for it is this: Too many Catholics confuse their personal opinions with a real Christian conscience. Too many live their faith as if it were a private idiosyncrasy, the kind that they'll never allow to become a public nuisance. And too many just don't really believe. Maybe it's different in Protestant circles. But I hope you'll forgive me if I say, 'I doubt it.' "

God and Caesar, 2009

There is nothing new about Christians deciding that, when political push comes to legal shove, they cannot render unto Caesar what they truly believe belongs to God. Nevertheless, it still makes news when believers vow to act on this conviction.

"Through the centuries, Christianity has taught that civil disobedience is not only permitted, but sometimes required," proclaimed a coalition of Catholic, Orthodox and evangelical Protestants on Nov. 20, in their 4,700-word "Manhattan Declaration."

"There is no more eloquent defense of the rights and duties of religious conscience than the one offered by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. ... King's willingness to go to jail, rather than comply with legal injustice, was exemplary and inspiring."

Thus, the declaration's authors vowed to reject "any edict that purports to compel our institutions" to compromise on centuries of doctrine about marriage, human sexuality and the sanctity of human life. The text was written by evangelical activist Charles Colson, church historian Timothy George of the evangelical Beeson Divinity School and the Catholic scholar Robert George of Princeton University.

The Los Angeles Times offered an especially brutal evaluation of the text, claiming that it offered a "specious invocation of King" and that its logic was ultimately "irresponsible and dangerous."

But the editorial board reserved its strongest words for the Catholics bishops who signed, asking if they considered "how their endorsement of lawbreaking in a higher cause might embolden the antiabortion terrorists they claim to condemn? Did they stop to think that, by reserving the right to resist laws they don't like, they forfeit the authority to intervene in the enactment of those laws, as they have done in the congressional debate over healthcare reform?"

So far, 19 Catholic bishops and archbishops have signed, including New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., and the Catholic shepherds in Detroit, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix and Pittsburgh, among other cities.

At mid-week, the project ( had attracted about 230,000 endorsements, including those of famous evangelicals such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, National Association of Evangelicals President Leith Anderson, Evangelicals for Social Action Director Ron Sider and Bishop Henry Jackson, Jr., a Pentecostal leader in the Washington, D.C., area. Orthodox leaders who have signed include Metropolitan Jonah Paffhausen of the Orthodox Church in America and Wichita (Kan.) Bishop Basil Essey of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.

Responding to claims that the declaration is merely a partisan attack on President Barack Obama, Colson noted that it states that in the Roe v. Wade era, "elected officials and appointees of both major political parties have been complicit in giving legal sanction to the 'Culture of Death.' "

On sexuality, the document stresses that some people are "disposed towards homosexual and polyamorous conduct and relationships, just as there are those who are disposed towards other forms of immoral conduct. ... We, no less than they, are sinners who have fallen short of God's intention for our lives. We, no less than they, are in constant need of God's patience, love and forgiveness."

While nothing in the Manhattan Declaration is truly new, arguments about its call for civil disobedience will help draw sharper lines between traditional believers and the powers that be in an increasingly diverse and secular America, said Dr. H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., senior editor of the Christian Bioethics journal at Oxford University. He is professor emeritus at the Baylor College of Medicine and a philosophy professor at Rice University.

"This document is the product of a political coalition, but it's not political in the same sense that the tax code is political," said Engelhardt, who is advising several Eastern Orthodox leaders who are studying the text. "This is political in the sense that these Christians are working together on certain issues that have moral and public implications."

The reality is that its authors believe there are "certain God-ordained truths" that continue to have authority and weight in American life, he said. The big question: Are they right or wrong?

"You could make a case," concluded Engelhardt, "that anyone who recites the Nicene Creed, or anyone who believes that God has established any requirements for how we are supposed to live our lives can now be called a Fundamentalist in the context of this secular culture. ... That is what this debate is actually about."

Case by case government doctrines

Welcome to the church-state battlefield, President Barack Obama. Consider this hypothetical landmine: Would it be discrimination for a Christian AIDS hospice to refuse to hire a worker who believes AIDS is a sign of God's wrath?

Ponder these scenarios. Can a Muslim school fire a teacher who converts to Christianity? Can a Jewish pre-school discriminate against a job applicant who is active in Jews for Jesus?

Wait, there's more. Is it job discrimination for an evangelical shelter for parents and children to refuse to hire someone who rejects centuries of Christian teachings on sex and marriage? How about forcing a Catholic hospital to hire doctors and nurses who reject the church's doctrines on abortion?

These are the kinds of questions swirling around the White House as Obama tries to find a way to embrace a wide variety of religious groups and the faith-based ministries they operate -- while rejecting some of the ancient doctrines that guide their work.

"There is no doubt that the very nature of faith means that some of our beliefs will never be the same," said Obama, at the National Prayer Breakfast in which he promoted his Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. "We read from different texts. We follow different edicts. We subscribe to different accounts of how we came to be here and where we're going next -- and some subscribe to no faith at all.

"But no matter what we choose to believe, let us remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate. There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being."

Then, citing a variety of faith traditions, he said one law can bring unity, which is "the Golden Rule -- the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth."

The audience said, "amen." But church-state lawyers and packs of social activists began murmuring about the details. There are, after all, secular and religious groups that believe President George W. Bush's team erred when it allowed many faith-based ministries to receive government funds, while hiring only employees who affirmed their doctrines and mission statements.

These tensions remain, because Obama has decided -- for now -- to allow this practice to continue, while stressing that the Justice Department will review complaints on a case-by-case basis.

The ground is moving. For decades, a guiding principle of church-state law has been that state officials must avoid becoming "entangled" in doctrinal questions that allow the government to favor some faith groups over others.

In his prayer breakfast speech, the president said his initiative would not "favor one religious group over another -- or even religious groups over secular groups." But will some ministries get to hire according to their doctrines, while others will not, with the government separating the sheep from the goats?

"I really don't have a clue" what the case-by-case language means, said Stanley Carlson-Thies, who worked with the Bush White House and now leads the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. "I think they are trying to get out of the fix they're in. Obama's people have told so many religious groups that they're not going to hurt what they do. Yet they have also told groups on the other side, 'Of course we stand with you. This is discrimination and we're not going to allow it.' "

As recently as the 1990s a broad coalition of church-state experts -- from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Christian Coalition -- managed to work together on some crucial religious liberty issues. The goal was to promote free speech, freedom of association and "equal access" for believers and nonbelievers in the public square.

But today, driven by conflicts over gay rights, the spotlight is on what candidate Obama consistently called "religious discrimination." The White House must choose between armies of religious believers who follow radically different sets of doctrines.

In the end, it's impossible to separate the power of faith from the doctrines and traditions that inspire these believers, said Carlson-Thies.

"The faith is where the passion comes from, it's where the witness is," he said. "It's clear that the president admires many of these faith groups and the work they do. The question he faces now is, 'Do you want to work with them or not?' "

Faith & politics? Nothing new

When it comes to religion and politics, it's hard to talk about the contests without naming the players and their teams.

Consider Hillary Rodham Clinton, who insists that her political convictions are rooted in her United Methodist faith. Then there is Barack Obama and the Rev. Jeremy Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ. Enough said.

What about John "Faith of My Fathers" McCain, an Episcopalian who worships with the Southern Baptists? Soon he will pick a running mate. Do you prefer Mitt Romney, who served as a Mormon bishop, or Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister?

But to see the big faith-and-politics picture, it helps not to focus on the details. That's why the famous church historian Martin Marty, speaking early in this year's topsy-turvy primary season, elected to do the near impossible -- deliver a 45-minute lecture on this hot-button topic without mentioning the name of a single candidate.

"Won't that be a relief?", asked Marty, speaking at Palm Beach Atlantic University in South Florida.

The alternative is to cause yet another shouting match in the political pews. Tune in the typical talk-television politico, he said, and "as soon as there's a label as to whether she or he is representing a candidate or party or whatever, you know what they are going to say and it ends there."

Right up front, Marty admitted that he has been a doorbell-ringing political activist since 1949 and he still calls Harry Truman "my president." Also, the intersection of religion and public life has been a major theme in many of his 50-plus books and the weekly columns he has published for 50 years in the Christian Century, a mainline Protestant journal.

Truth is, he said, it's impossible to study American history without noting the role religion has played in politics and culture. Since day one, America has offered a powerful blend of evangelical revivalism and enlightenment rationalism and believers on both sides of the aisle have followed their heads as well as their hearts.

This faith factor isn't fading, as America life becomes more pluralistic and complex. Once, America was a Protestant, Catholic and Jewish nation. Now, it is a "Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim nation -- and much more," said Marty.

But one thing America certainly isn't is "secular" and there is no evidence whatsoever that the power of religion is fading in the world as a whole. Marty said this reality is hard for many scholars and journalists to accept, especially those influenced by studies in the 1960s that guaranteed a 21st Century world that would be "secular, sensate, epicurean, hedonistic, contractual, pragmatic, programmatic and empirical."

"That model didn't work for most people" around the world, he said, and it "doesn't work for any of us" in America.

These days, religious believers on both sides of the aisle continue to be shaken by aftershocks from the school prayer decision in 1963 and Roe v. Wade in 1973. The Iranian crisis in 1979 cracked the shell of America's sense of safety and security, which later was shattered by the hellish reality of Sept. 11, 2001.

Marty said it's hard to discuss national "security," without talking about religion. That's also true when it comes to debating an issue that "starts on page one of the Bible," which is caring for creation and the environment.

Then there are the issues linked to what he called the "care of the other," including health, education, welfare and immigration. Religious believers also are worried about the state of American culture, yet it's hard for them to find common answers to questions such as, "What is beautiful? What is true? What is good? What is noble? What is ugly?" Then there are all those hot-button issues linked to sexuality, marriage and family life.

All of this keeps seeping into American politics.

The bottom line, said Marty, is that it's good for religious activists to work in politics, but very bad for them to confuse religion and politics.

Believers must, he stressed, remember that the "God who sits in the heavens shall laugh at our pretensions, our parties, our causes, but the same God holds us responsible and honors our aspirations." And, as for the flash point where politics and religion meet, "we can't live with it, we can't live without it. ... You aren't going to get anywhere without dealing, some way, justly with the religious involvement of the people."

First column on Christmas wars 2006

Another year of Christmas warfare has come and gone and Rutherford Institute President John W. Whitehead is already having mischievous thoughts about 2006.

There's no reason to think these Christmas clashes will stop anytime soon, especially not in an election year. But if Americans are going to keep fighting about Christmas, Whitehead thinks their civic leaders should at least create some constructive debates at the grassroots level where they'll do some good.

What they could do in 2006, he said, with a laugh, is put signs under their big public trees that proclaim, "Formerly known as a Christmas tree."

Then everyone would get mad -- with good cause.

"So is it a 'Christmas tree' or a 'community tree' or what? Someone has to make that decision," said Whitehead. "The problem is that if people in your community want to call it a 'community tree,' they have every right to call it a 'community tree.' But if the people in your community want to call it a 'Christmas tree,' they have every right to call it a 'Christmas tree.' ...

"People are going to have to talk to each other and work things like that out. There's no way around it."

The irony, said Whitehead, is that legal strategists who often disagree about other church-state conflicts agree that America's laws are not all that confusing when it comes to "December dilemma" conflicts in the public square.

A veteran leader on the progressive side of Baptist life agrees. According to J. Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee, which often clashes with conservatives, there is nothing wrong with calling a Christmas tree a "Christmas tree." At the height of this year's holiday warfare, he circulated a three-rule list to help public officials -- especially in schools -- negotiate this cultural minefield in future years. He noted that many liberal and conservative experts agree that:

(1) Concerts in public schools can and should include sacred music along with secular selections, as long as the sacred does not dominate.

(2) Dramatic productions can include religious subjects, as long as they do not involve worship and the goal is to education about religious faiths and traditions.

(3) "Free standing creches, as thoroughly religious Christian symbols, should not be sponsored by government, but Christmas trees and menorahs are sufficiently secular to allow their display without a constitutional problem," wrote Walker.

As this final suggestion hints, the key is that communities can celebrate Christmas, as long as their leaders do not appear to be promoting Christmas -- alone.

"Christmas is Christmas and a tree is a tree," he said. "There's nothing wrong with calling it what it is: a Christmas tree. And it is perfectly appropriate to extend a specific holiday greeting such as my Jewish friends do when they wish me a 'Merry Christmas,' and I return a 'Happy Hanukkah.' "

This is just the start. As America grows more and more complex, noted Walker, this all-purpose polite greeting may end up sounding something like this: "Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a Joyous Kwanzaa, Martyrdom Day of Guru Tegh Bahadur, Bodhi Day, Maunajiyaras Day, Beginning of Masa'il, Nisf Sha'ban and Yalda Night, Yule and Shinto Winter Solstice, and Ramadan! Or, happy holidays!"

Whitehead agreed that the goal is for public officials to strive, at all times, to be "inclusive, rather than exclusive." Nevertheless, the growing diversity of American religious life has many public officials "running scared."

Some panic and make mistakes. This leads to the scenario that -- year after year -- causes the highest number of outraged calls to the Rutherford Institute. Many public officials push for civic and educational programs that emphasize Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but then include "secular" holiday music rather than religious Christmas music.

"We all know what the law says," said Whitehead, whose organization has produced a guide entitled "The Twelve Rules of Christmas."

"If people would just include Christmas in the whole diverse holiday mix, most of this trouble would go away. But there are public officials out there who think they have to do away with Christmas altogether in order to avoid controversy. And what happens? People in the pro-Christmas majority start feeling like they're being pushed around and they start pushing back. Then everybody gets mad -- Christmas after Christmas."

Deja vu Nativity wars

Another Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Winter Solstice season has come and gone, but the lawyers will be cleaning up for quite a while.

Things got rough on the church-state front. Pick a zip code.

Firefighters in Glenview, Ill., were ordered to take down their station's lights, tree and Santa when neighbors said they were offended.

A pastor in Chandler, Ariz., was grieved when the public library set up a display of readings about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but not Christmas. Instead of adding Christian books, as the pastor requested, the library staff removed the whole display.

The American Civil Liberties Union intervened in Tallahassee, Fla., when the Jewish Chabad offered to help county commissioners buy a 22-foot menorah for the courthouse yard. Both sides threatened lawsuits, until a shopping center offered to play host.

The conflict is now global. Leaders of the Abbey National Bank in England ordered the Upminster branch to remove an offensive Nativity scene from private property. Down under, the Anglican archbishop of Sidney, Australia, protested new bans on Christmas decorations in businesses and schools.

There were waves of similar cases.

But this drama would not be complete without an election dispute in Palm Beach, Fla., where protestors are trying to unseat council members who nixed a creche on public land, next to a holiday tree and a city-owned menorah. This gets complicated. Officials offered to allow a creche in a city park next to a menorah used in rites by the Orthodox Lubavitch Center. So there could be a Nativity scene next to the "religious" menorah in the park's display area, but no Nativity scene next to the "secular" menorah on a street median.

This week, the council voted to avoid the religious symbolism wars altogether.

"It's a mess," said Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., which is involved in several Christmas cases. "The key ... is that a Christmas tree simply does not equal a menorah, because the courts have said that a Christmas tree has become a secular symbol while a menorah is a religious symbol.

"To put a more neutral spin on it, it's really clear that an evergreen holiday tree with totally secular decorations on it is not a Christian symbol."

Not all creche controversies are created equal. The most problematic involve government-owned and operated decorations on public land. In other cases, authorities may allow diverse collections of private religious decorations on public sites that are zones for free speech. With private groups, on private property, anything goes.

The case law is actually decades old, noted Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Yeshiva University. Nevertheless, many public and private leaders remain confused.

In a recent Pennsylvania case, a school's multicultural committee set up a display with a creche, a menorah and a Kwanzaa scene, she noted, writing for FindLaw's Legal Commentary. Although this display was almost certainly constitutional, a principal panicked and ordered only the creche removed.

The message in the original, diverse display, she noted, was "not one of endorsement for a particular religious viewpoint," but that government was "acknowledging the celebrations of its various citizens. And that is perfectly constitutional."

Meanwhile, there is no legal entitlement for citizens to demand that government acknowledge their particular faith, she noted. Civic leaders should try to offer equal access or do nothing. But if diverse decorations are allowed, then there "no constitutional right not to be exposed to the holidays, either," she noted. Some may be offended.

At times, the whole debate becomes a tornado of lawyers arguing about how many generic angels, non-liturgical stars and strings of secular twinkle lights beleaguered politicos must drape around religious symbols to make them safe for public consumption.

Enough is more than enough, said J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.

"Why not just put Nativity scenes on the front lawns of every single church in town?", he asked. "Why do people think they need to get the government get involved, which shoves things into a constitutional zone where you have to start counting the number of reindeer and Santas around your Nativity scene so that everybody knows you're trying to be neutral?

"Why don't our churches just get together and handle this?"

Free speech movement, for believers on campus

It took a few minutes for leaders of the Bisexual, Gay & Lesbian Alliance at Rutgers University to realize something was wrong at their back-to-school meeting.

The hall was full of unfamiliar students wanting to become members. Most were carrying Bibles with markers in the first chapter of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans. They also had copies of the campus policy forbidding discrimination on the basis of "race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, age, sex, sexual orientation, disability, marital or veteran status."

Truth is, this scene hasn't happened at Rutgers or anywhere else -- so far.

What if it did?

What if conservative Christians tried to rush a gay-rights group and elect new leaders? What if, when told they couldn't join because they rejected its core beliefs, evangelicals cited cases in which Christian groups were punished for refusing leadership roles to homosexuals? What if, when jeered by angry homosexuals, evangelicals called this verbal violence rooted in religious bigotry and, thus, harassment?

"No, no, no. I have never heard of a case in which conservative Catholics, Protestants or Jews tried to turn the tables in this fashion," said historian Alan Charles Kors, president of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)

"That would never happen. There is an inherent meekness ... among students of faith on all these campuses. It's so ironic that people call them intolerant and offensive. Most of these religious students are among the last people who would ever go where they are not wanted. All they want is to be free to express their beliefs."

But there have been a growing number of cases in which traditional religious groups have been attacked because their "intolerant" beliefs and policies offend modern academia. Almost all of these cases are collisions between ancient moral doctrines and campus policies that defend and promote the Sexual Revolution.

The bottom line, according to recent FIRE legal guides, is that almost all campus policies that inhibit religious practices also inhibit the constitutional rights of free speech, association and assembly. Public colleges and universities are not supposed to make doctrinal decisions that deny privileges to some religious groups that are then extended to other secular or religious groups.

Yet that is what is happening.

"Religious liberty is now center stage in the battle for freedom on campus," according to David French, a Harvard Law School graduate who wrote the manual covering disputes over faith issues. "Religious students are particularly convenient targets. After all, they think and behave in ways that many other students don't understand; they tend to be small minorities on most campuses; and -- by religious conviction -- they often resist even the most heavy-handed repression."

For all of their talk about "diversity" and "tolerance," French is convinced many academic leaders think that "the fewer 'fanatics' -- of the 'wrong' kind -- the better."

While these campus disputes are often described in terms of "left" and "right," the FIRE project ( has been endorsed by a diverse coalition of activists ranging from Edwin Meese III, attorney general in the Reagan administration, to American Civil Liberties Union President Nadine Strossen.

The key is that academic leaders must be honest, said French. Leaders at state schools are quickly learning that their work is covered by explicit laws that ban any "viewpoint discrimination" that blesses some believers and curses others. Religious schools, meanwhile, are allowed to require particular beliefs and practices -- mandatory chapel, moral codes, doctrinal statements for faculty -- if these rules are clearly stated in writing.

Right now, the toughest battles are at some of America's most prestigious private colleges and universities. These secular schools once encouraged fierce debates and proudly tolerated dissent. But now, it seems that some worldviews are created more equal than others.

Many religious believers do not discover this reality until they arrive on campus and receive copies of the all-powerful student handbook.

"Students must be told the truth," said French. "They should not be duped into believing that they have enrolled in a school that respects their beliefs and their freedom to express viewpoints that are out of the so-called mainstream. These secular schools must be more honest in their recruiting materials and catalogues. This is a truth in advertising issue."