God Spells

“Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious beliefs and opinions, they may with practices. . . . Can a man excuse his practices to the contrary because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Government could exist only in name under such circumstances.” Reynolds v.  United States

In his call for deference to Catholic teachings in national legislation and regulation, E.J. Dionne wrote:

At the heart of the love many of us have for the church [. . .] is a profound respect for the fact on so many questions that count, Catholicism walks its talk and harnesses its faith to the good works the Gospel demands.

I do not understand why a profound respect for the good works done by people of faith, including the Catholic Church, leads to a desire, indeed, a demand, that good public policy be compromised to accommodate religions when they choose to engage in the secular. Indeed, it was, and is, profoundly disturbing that Catholic progressives were so willing to overturn fundamental progressive valuesin order to placate unreasonable demands of the Catholic Church.

The confusion appears to stem from the view that religions must be unbound from the secular rules of our society even when religions choose to act in the secular world. It was a view that appeared to be rejected in our constitutional law and one that Catholic progressives fully renounced, an event certainly marked by JFK’s famous 1960 speech on the separation of church and state:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

The relitigation of church state separation is not new (though the zeal of some Catholic progressives in their defense of religious exceptionalism in the secular world seems new to me). And on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s famous speech, Rick Santorum delivered an anti-JFK speech at the same location:

Kennedy chose not just to dispel fear, he chose to expel faith.

Santorum’s crude premise is, of course, ridiculous. Consider his argument:

Of course no religious body should “impose its will” on the public or public officials, but that was not the issue then or now. The issue is one that every diverse civilization like America has to deal with -­‐ how do we best live with our differences. Our founders’ vision, unlike the French, was to give every belief and every believer and non-­‐believer a place at the table in the public square. Madison referred to this “equal and complete liberty” as the “true remedy.”

Ironically, just a few weeks before, Santorum had this to say about “giving every belief and every believer and non-believer a place at the table in the public square”:

Former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania told Fox News that [President] Obama seems to misunderstand that Islam is not just a religion, but also a political doctrine. [. . . ] “I don’t think Barack Obama would say, ‘Well we have religious tolerance, we’re going to allow them to do that,'” he said. “That is the wrong way to look at this. This is not whether it’s a legal right to do it. People have legal rights to do a lot of things in this country.” The imam is “ignoring the will of the American public, as by the way, Barack Obama is by siding with him,” he said.  [Emphasis supplied.]

If I am understanding Santorum correctly, he is in favor of restricting political speech, but not religious speech and, oh by the way, Islam is not really a religion anyway—a “false theology”, if you will.

But to return to the more pertinent issue—accommodation of religion in the secular square, I do not mean to imply that E.J.Dionne is expressly supporting the Santorum version of the argument. Dionne is certainly more erudite and clever than that. Here is the more intelligent version, delivered by Judge Michael McConnell (PDF), also on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s speech:

[O]ne might find some of [JFK’s] language in this passage excessive. He says he is the Democratic Party’s candidate for President, who “happens also to be a Catholic.” The words are jarring. Most religious people have reasons for being of a particular faith, which matter and which say something about their understanding of authority and of the ways God works in the world. They do not simply “happen” to be of one creed or another. Religion is too deeply a part of moral and intellectual identity to be dismissed as a happenstance.The untroubled way in which Kennedy cabins his religion is also conspicuous: “I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.” Senator Kennedy says that religion is his “private affair,” apparently irrelevant to his public service. That is why he regards it as so unfair for people to be asking these questions instead of focusing on the “real issues.” As he put it in the quote that began this Essay, the kind of church he believes in is “important only to me.” Would Kennedy say the same about other important associations? What if he belonged to the NRA, or the Sierra Club, or the Council on Foreign Relations? Or any other group that takes positions on matters of public import? Is it unfair for voters to inquire how these memberships might reflect or influence his public views? Why is religion different?

This is a very reasonable point. I think it misses on two grounds. The first is likely the more important—JFK delivered, first and foremost, a political speech intended to helping him win the Presidency. There was no room for the nuances McConnell seeks in his reaction. Second, when JFK spoke of religion, I feel confident he meant in the way it was flung at him, as a member of a tribe being ordered to adhere to certain policies by a hierarchical superior. JFK did not mean, in my view, that the moral teachings of Catholicism did not inform his public views, but rather, just as he said, that he would not be dictated to as a public official be either Catholic Church officials or doctrine.McConnell continues in this vein:

On every issue Kennedy mentions in the speech, with one possible exception , he distances himself from positions of the Catholic Church: “I ask you tonight to follow in that tradition—to judge me on the basis of my record of fourteen years in Congress—on my declared stands against an Ambassador to the Vatican, against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools, and against any boycott of the public schools (which I have attended myself.)”He is against an ambassador to the Vatican. He thinks aid to parochial schools is unconstitutional. He would make up his own mind on issues of birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, “in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates.” This invites
the question: Would a Catholic politician be disqualified from office, in Kennedy’s estimation, if he agreed with his church’s position, or if  Kennedy attended public school from kindergarten through second grade, his conscience were formed, at least in part, by the teachings of his church?

This truly misunderstands JFK’s point in my estimation. JFK identified some very high profile issues where the Church’s teachings were fairly universally known and to illustrate his point on how Catholic Church officials and doctrine would not dictate public policy to him. The point would be defeated if he instead catalogued the issues on which he followed Catholic teachings. McConnell continued:

[W]as there nothing in the social teaching of the Church to which Kennedy could point with pride and approval? One would never know from Kennedy’s speech, for example, that the Catholic Church had been a strong and early supporter of labor unions and was leading the way on the issue of racial desegregation. In 1946, ten years before Brown v. Board of Education II, the Catholic diocesan school district of St. Louis was the first school system in the South to desegregate, and did so over vociferous local opposition. [. . .] More broadly, the emphasis of Catholic social thought for the past several hundred years has been on the importance of the common good—a rejection of both the radical individualism of liberal capitalism and the totalitarianism of socialism and communism. In many ways, Catholic social teaching about the subordination of private interests to the common good has a deeper connection to the Puritan and republican origins of the American Republic than does subsequent liberal individualism. These teachings would seem to be congenial to Kennedy as a liberal Democrat. Why was he unwilling to mention them?

The answer seems obvious—that was not the point of the speech politically. There is no dispute that there is much good in religion, and in the Catholic Church. There is much that a progressive would agree with and adhere to. Recognizing these goods was not the point of JFK’s speech. And it is not the point of the separation of church and state. Both McConnell and Dionne seem incapable of understanding that seeking to permit religious exceptionalism to the application of secular law and good public policy is not only not progressive (McConnell, unlike Dionne, makes no claims to being a progressive), it is, to coin a phrase, un-American.Perhaps this point can be better illustrated by a Voltairian example: here is National Review’s  Andrew McCarthy complaining, with good reason, about a judge insisting that Americans must sacrifice their First Amendment rights to respect for religion, in this case, Islam:

A state judge in Pennsylvania has dismissed an assault and harassment case against a Muslim defendant who admitted attacking the victim. Magistrate Judge Mark Martin, a veteran of the war in Iraq and a convert to Islam, ruled that Talag Elbayomy’s sharia defense — what he claimed was his obligation to strike out against any insult against the prophet Mohammed — trumped the First Amendment free speech rights of the victim.

If McCarthy’s transcript is correct (here is the audio), then this is precisely an example of creating a religious exception to our secular laws, in this case, a restriction on First Amendment rights with regard to speech about religion.Of course, in Islam, like Rick Santorum, Andrew McCarthy has found the one religion he demands be disrespected. But the point remains, irrespective of the source.

In our secular government, there should be no special privileges for religions. This does not mean that religions are barred from the secular arena. Indeed, as we all know, the ethos of many religions inform our public debate. And when the ethos of certain religions prevail in the debate, through elections, they become our secular law (limited of course by the rights protected by our Constitution and Bill of Rights).

But when our secular laws and government adopt public policy that places religious teachings in conflict with our laws, then religious beliefs must not provide immunity from compliance in our secular world with our laws. This is true when the law bars polygamy, genital mutilation, race and gender discrimination and yes, employers offering health coverage for women that includes contraception.



Former Daily Kos Guest Blogger from 2004 to 2006. Contributor at Talk Left blog. Currently Featured Writer for Daily Kos.