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The church vs. state question

Observer Viewpoint | Friday, December 2, 2005

The Founding Fathers did not invent religious tolerance – it had already formed out of the circumstances that created the original colonies – however their unique perspective gave them the presence of mind to enshrine it in the Constitution, in the form of the separation of church and state, and so to protect it from less-gentle hands that might govern in the future. They were not unreligious men, yet they understood that a certain distance is required between politics and religion, for the protection of both.

We still dwell in the nation of their legacy, and the consequences of embracing pluralism as a public virtue are widespread. There are few societies, if any, that are simultaneously as secular and as religious as the United States, or where questions of the relationship between church and state are taken up more fiercely by more people. This is a sign of the nation’s health.

However, for people of faith-especially those who practice religions like Christianity and Islam, which do not embrace the equality of other beliefs – the nature of the country raises a difficult question. What does it mean to be a religious person in such a tolerant and pluralistic society and how can one embrace all of these values while compromising none?

I like to think of this as the Notre Dame question. Because of the unusual location of the University between spiritual and secular poles, this question underlies many of the fiercest debates that occur here. Examples include the treatment of gay students and staff, calls for censorship by those who find performances like “The Vagina Monologues” “inconsistent” with Catholic values and the ever growing pressure from the Vatican to control which theologians are allowed to teach and what they may say.

However, Notre Dame is a very insulated microcosm that is only beginning to reflect a wider trend sweeping Christian churches and the nation. The coupling between religion and politics has grown stronger in the past decade, to the ultimate detriment of each. This union has already produced some very strange bedfellows, like the Republican Party’s unstable mixture of traditional small-government conservatives and religious theocons who will spend any amount of money in pursuit of their social agendas.

This close relationship is dangerous, because it tempts religious leaders to use their authority to directly impact government in dubious ways, for example declaring that voting for a particular candidate is immoral, or ostracizing political leaders when their public views do not match those of the religion. It takes more than the restraint of the State to make the American system work; it also requires a degree restraint on the part of religions not to undermine it. Under this pressure the very idea of separation of church and state and the tolerance and pluralism that are built on it begin to crumble.

Here is a realistic example. There are, at present, four Catholics on the United States Supreme Court, and if Samuel Alito is confirmed (as he is likely to be) then there will be five. However, just because a justice is Catholic it does not follow that his legal views are in lockstep with his private moral views or that either of these are in lockstep with the views of the Catholic Church. Many people in government see no inconsistency in having differing public and private moral opinions, and indeed for justices of the Supreme Court, called to unbiased judgment on the merits of the law, such a separation is almost a requirement.

Recently United States bishops have threatened to withhold communion from politicians who vote in ways that are not consistent with the views of the Church (the centerpiece of this was John Kerry and abortion, though there is no reason that the same pressures could not be exerted by the bishops for any other issue). If this threat were extended to the justices on the basis of how they rule then five – including Chief Justice Roberts – would be placed under duress, where they would have to choose between their duty to the nation and the risk of outright public rejection by their churches.

If this situation were to actually occur, then the most likely outcome would be as many as five of the nine justices withdrawing themselves from the case that brought the threat, if a quorum (six justices) were lacking, then the Court itself would be forced to withdraw from the case altogether. Following such an event the Court would be, at worst, powerfully disinclined to hear cases that might place it in such a dangerous position again or at best, the Catholic justices who saw an irresolvable obstacle to their ability to do their duty would feel compelled to resign.

In short, an unjust and incautious attempt to control the Court through religious means would, in the end, bring about results desired by neither the Court nor the Church, and would ultimately cause incalculable harm to both and to the nation.

Lance Gallop is a 2005 graduate of Notre Dame. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.