Wednesday, September 12, 2012

52 years later, is the church threatened or threatening?

In 1960 when John F. Kennedy became the Democratic candidate for President of the United States, a lot of people panicked. The ironically named "Citizens for Religious Freedom," a group of some 150 evangelical and mainline Protestant leaders, issued a manifesto declaring that, in the words of the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale, "Our American culture is at stake." With a Catholic at the helm, they feared, the pope would call the cards.

Fifty-two years ago today, Kennedy gave a memorable speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Telling the group of Protestant ministers that he believed in an America where "no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials," he promised that
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.
The speech probably gave him the edge he needed to win the presidency.

Fifty-two years later, six of the nine Supreme Court justices, 28% of the members of Congress, and both vice-presidential candidates are Catholics. Not everyone is happy with recent Catholic-supported efforts to limit access to abortion and contraception, but nobody seriously suggests that the pope is ruling America. In fact, it's the Catholic bishops who are panicking. "Across America, our right to live out our faith is being threatened," they warned parishioners in a recent bulletin insert.

Church and state have had a rocky relationship at least since the fourth century CE, when the emperor Constantine legitimized Christianity and gave the keynote address at the Nicene Council. Should religious lobbying groups help to make public policy? Should public policy exempt religious groups from otherwise universal requirements? Yes, and yes, says the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. No, and no, says Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

The answers are not always clear. An enormous amount of spin (from all sides) has muddied the waters. If you are at all concerned that, in America today,
  • the state has too much power over religion, or
  • the church has too much influence on the state, or
  • church and state are altogether too cozy with one another--
I recommend reading two short articles on this anniversary of the Houston speech.

First, read the speech itself. It is beautiful literature. Historically significant. As relevant today as in 1960. Still powerfully moving.

Then take Emily C. Health's perceptive quiz, "How to Determine If Your Religious Liberty Is Being Threatened in Just 10 Quick Questions."

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