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Has Our State Lost Its Soul?

by Bishop Thomas J. Tobin

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  • Description:
    In his column for the Rhode Island Catholic, Bishop Thomas Tobin rebuked the state’s Governor Lincoln Chafee for claiming that an inaugural prayer service would violate the separation of Church and state. He reminded readers that the phrase “separation of Church and state” is found nowhere in the US Constitution. He said that the invocation of that phrase should not “be used as a weapon to silence the faith community, or restrict its robust participation in the debate of important policy issues.”
  • Larger Work:
    Rhode Island Catholic
  • Publisher & Date:
    Diocese of Providence, January 6, 2011

So, our new Governor, Lincoln Chafee, decided to break with recent history and begin his inauguration day without participating in a public prayer service. This has caused some discussion, even consternation, around the state.

Now personally, I’m neither surprised by nor disappointed by the Governor’s decision. After all, it was his inauguration, and he had every right to design a program with which he was comfortable. Whether to pray publicly with other leaders and citizens of the state on his big day was completely his prerogative.

I’m more concerned by the reason for the no-prayer decision given by his spokesman who said that the Governor’s “point of view is that his inaugural day needs to respect the separation of church and state. Separation of church and state is an important constitutional principle.”

The explanation is disappointing and confusing; it raises some rather significant questions.

First, if it’s imperative to maintain the alleged “separation of church and state” on inauguration day, why were prayers offered at the inauguration ceremony itself? And why did the Governor invite religious leaders to have a prominent presence at the event?

And is the appeal to the “separation of church and state” mentioned in this case an appropriate application of the principle?

By now you should be aware that the exact phrase “separation of church and state” isn’t found anywhere in our nation’s Constitution but rather was a principle that evolved later on. The Constitution simply says that the Congress cannot legislate the establishment of religion nor prohibit the exercise of religion. In other words, the “separation of church and state” is meant to protect religion from the interference of the state. It was never intended to remove every spiritual aspiration, prayerful utterance, or reference to God from public life.

Nor should the so-called “separation of church and state” be used as a weapon to silence the faith community, or restrict its robust participation in the debate of important public issues. I’ve found that whenever I’ve spoken out on public issues – e.g., abortion, gay marriage or immigration – some irritated souls, arguing the “separation of church and state” will insist that I’m out of line. In fact, religious leaders have every right, indeed the duty, to speak out on public issues. If we fail to do so, we’re neglecting our role as teachers, preachers and prophets. And if we don’t bring the spiritual dimension, the moral dimension to the discussion of these issues, who will?

The usefulness of religion and its importance in public life have been affirmed from the beginning. James Madison, recognized as the principal author of the Constitution, wrote, “Religion is the basis and foundation of government.” And George Washington, in his farewell address said, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

The point is this: religion has an important, indeed a unique contribution to make to the governance of our society. Can we, once and for all then, put to rest the bogus interpretations of the “separation of church and state” so often cited these days?

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, in his outstanding book, “Render Unto Caesar,” makes this observation: “Americans have always believed in nonsectarian public institutions. But the founders never intended a nation that privatizes religion and excludes it from involvement in public affairs. Nor did they create any such nation. The secularism proposed today for our public life is not religion-neutral. It is antireligious.” (p. 29)

The Archbishop goes on: “A truly secularized United States would be a country without a soul; a nation with a hole in its heart . . . Secularism as a cult – the kind of rigid separationism where the state treats religion as a scary and unstable guest – hollows out the core of what it means to be human.” (p. 30)

A “country without a soul.” A “nation with a hole in its heart.” I wonder – is that the kind of nation we long for? Is that the kind of state we want Rhode Island to become?

Pope John Paul hit the nail on the head when he wrote about the “practical and existential atheism” of our age. He describes the individual who is “all bound up in himself.” For such an individual, “there is no longer the need to fight against God; he feels that he is simply able to do without him.” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, #7)

The Pope’s insight leads me to wonder: Is our nation, and our state, in frequently appealing to “separation of church and state,” promoting an atheistic worldview? Are we creating a secular wasteland, bereft of any spiritual or religious influence? And is that how we want to live?

We have a ton of problems in our state – a depressed economy, a fragile social service network, a distressed public education system, the demise of the family, a wave of urban crime and domestic violence, and what promises to be an intense and divisive debate created by the ill-advised desire to redefine marriage. To deal successfully with these problems our leaders will need wisdom and courage. They will need a great deal of human cooperation, but also a generous measure of God’s grace. They shouldn’t be afraid to fall on their knees and ask for God’s help. A little spiritual humility would go a long way in restoring the confidence and the moral quality of our community.

© The Rhode Island Catholic 2011

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