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Church-state relations: a wall of separation or a one-way street?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 12, 2010

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," said John F. Kennedy in his famous "Houston speech" of 1960. The future president went on to say that in his ideal America, "no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act."

The problems that JFK created with that speech are well documented. (Just for a start, readers can find critiques of the Houston speech here and here and here.) But liberal Catholics regularly invoke Kennedy's logic as if it were-- or should be-- formal Church teaching.

Just for the sake of the argument, let's press that logic, and how it applies to the political scene in America today.

If no prelate should tell a president how to act, it's fair to assume-- isn't it?-- that no lawmaker should tell a bishop how to teach.

Yet last week Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi gave marching orders to Catholic leaders, telling them that they must work with her for the passage of comprehensive immigration reform. "I want you to speak about if from the pulpit," she told the American bishops.

"The people-- some oppose immigration reform-- are sitting in those pews, and you have to tell them that this is a manifestation of our living the Gospels," Pelosi continued.

If a bishop had given that sort of instruction to Catholic politicians, telling them what they "have to " do, angry editorials would have appeared in dozens of newspapers, warning that the "wall of separation" between Church and state was crumbling. In this case, oddly, the pundits are silent.

Is the Church an ever-present threat to the autonomy of the state, but the state is no threat to the Church? The founders of the American Republic thought otherwise; they came to North America to escape government meddling in religious affairs.

Actually, if an outspoken Catholic bishop had given legislators the same sort of instructions that Pelosi gave the bishops, it's likely that most of the lawmakers would have ignored him-- as lawmakers have ignored bishops again and again in recent years. There is no price to pay. Legislators know by now that they can vote as they please, without fear of any ecclesiastical reprisals. So in fact the Catholic Church is no threat to the autonomy of the political order.

Nancy Pelosi, on the other hand, has enormous political clout and a demonstrated willingness to use it. Bishops who answer her summons to activism on the immigration issue might find that she is willing to guide federal grants toward their dioceses; bishops who resist her orders might find that obstacles are raised when they apply for government funding.

Would Pelosi actually use her political power to reward and punish Catholic prelates? We don't know. But we know that she could, and that knowledge is enough to lend special urgency, shall we say, to her request for action by the bishops. Was it really a request? We didn't hear her say "please." 

If the separation of Church and state should be "absolute," as John Kennedy argued-- if a wall should be erected to bar ecclesiastical interference in political affairs-- then the ban on interference should work both ways. A wall, after all, can be broken down from either side.

However, if it is acceptable for a politician to instruct bishops, but not for a bishop to instruct politicians, then the appropriate metaphor for church-state relations is not a wall but a one-way street. 

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: unum - May. 14, 2010 10:02 PM ET USA

    The "separation of church and state" is a figment of the progressive imagination. But, it is a necessary figment in their program to make people believe that they can create heaven here on earth. Conservatives have been slow to challenge the ACLU and established "law" based on progressive court decisions. It may take a few judicial impeachments to convince the judiciary that the Constitution means what it says.

  • Posted by: mjarman7759049 - May. 13, 2010 9:17 AM ET USA

    Of course, there is no concept of the "separation of church and state" in the Bill of Rights. There is simply the Establishment Clause (the government can't set up a "state-endorsed religion," such as the Church of England) and the Free Exercise Clause (the government can't pass a law that makes you do, or not do, something that conflicts with your religious beliefs or restricts your ability to engage in religious activity). Justice Black's metaphor in Everson is just that, nothing more.

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