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It’s always hard to get a handle on how religion and politics should intersect in a democracy. Thomas Jefferson is credited with the church-state wall of separation model, the height and permeability of which the U.S. Supreme Court periodically takes a stab at describing. Jefferson, even though he attended Sunday services and arranged to hold them in the Capitol Rotunda, had the fervent belief that religious hierarchs should not dictate political policy or receive government support. President Bush, on the other hand, has undertaken public funding for “faith-based” programs that significantly breach the wall of separation and allow tax money to support religious institutions. For well more than half a century before “faith-based” came on the scene, religious groups had administered significant amounts of government money in neutral ways, providing food and relief overseas, running migrant education programs, maintaining soup kitchens and so on. The faith-based initiative sloughs off that neutrality, without much pretense, and lets federal funds help support a denomination’s program, staff and facility. Many of these “faith-based” beneficiaries supported Bush in 2000, and now are likely to do so in 2004. Bush’s ideology is in sync with theirs, at least for electoral purposes. Bush describes the world in Manichaean terms, as an apocalyptic battle between good and evil with the United States being “good.” There’s a hubris here that some religious groups have baptized. Some in the Catholic hierarchy and the Vatican publicly are mulling over whether they should allow John Kerry communion because of his votes on abortion. This is peculiar because the same bishops do not seem to suffer much anguish over the many positions Bush takes contrary to Catholic teaching, such as capital punishment and the war in Iraq, to name two. On most issues, Kerry probably is closer to Catholic teaching than Bush, but Kerry is the bishops’ target. Is this because it is easier for them to exercise direct public power over Kerry by denying him communion than by persuading the electorate (Catholic or otherwise) of the strength of their argument? This also is politically safer than preaching against Bush’s protestant policies. The bizarre effect of this tactic is that, in censuring Kerry as less than an authentic Catholic and thus (indirectly) supporting Bush, the bishops made a choice that favors the “counter-Catholic” teachings of Bush. It is also an appeal to a religious authority structure that doesn’t fit into a pluralist society. Not long ago, the hierarchical luminaries, led by the now-discredited Cardinal Bernard Law, made a splashy show at former President Reagan’s White House during the Walter F. Mondale-Geraldine Ferraro bid to unseat Reagan, again over the abortion issue. We now know, years later, that a number of these church leaders, showing themselves to the media as moral leaders, were in reality covering up grave clergy misconduct, all the while telegraphing how they expected their co-religionists to vote. On April 13, according to an article on CNN’s Web site, the Rev. Bill Carmody, a Catholic priest doing chaplain-for-a-day service in the Colorado Legislature, rather amazingly prayed that the solons be “the antithesis of [President] John Kennedy � may their faith influence and guide every vote they make. “ The irony was supreme. It was Kennedy’s election that turned the corner on religious bigotry in this country and established the idea that political leaders needed to act according to conscience in the American political crucible, and not accept ipso facto ecclesiastical dictates. How would this chaplain possibly know if Kennedy did not act out of conscience, and why was he praying in effect that the Vatican and religious authorities should mandate social policy? Poor Carmody just didn’t get it, and therein lies the problem. The Catholic hierarchy is not alone in these missteps. In recent years, the religious right has organized itself into a formidable political power, rich in money and votes. It has skillfully woven religious doctrine into political agendas, even though the majority of Americans might disagree. The Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are archetypical of this. There is tension in the tightrope walk between the right of religious people to vote and organize according to their beliefs and the national goal of preventing a religiously based rule of law. There is no bright line of demarcation, and society generally wobbles along, without falling off the high wire. Our culture reflects this murkiness. Literature relates stories of Thomas Becket and Sir Thomas More as heroes of religious conscience for standing up to the king. But literature also recounts the lives of godly charlatans gone amuck such as Elmer Gantry, and the Scopes trial showdown between state-sponsored Genesis and irreligious science is a classic. The roots of our country grow deep in the principle of freedom from state-dictated religion. Many early colonists fled to America to avoid repressive government-supported religion. Jim Wallis, in the February issue of Sojourners magazine, argues that religious belief in fact often does inform how society organizes itself, and appropriately so; and that liberal believers should be as forthright about wearing their religious beliefs on their sleeve as their conservative counterparts. In fact, the Quakers helped move our country away from slavery, and the Congregationalists imbued us with the ideal of free public education. Their personal virtue and moral persuasiveness drew us in that direction, not the dictates of church leaders. Indeed, the movement against slavery grew even while religious officialdom sanctioned it as the will of God. As Abraham Lincoln noted in his second inaugural address, the churches of the North and the South invoked the same God to obliterate each other. Religious belief and practice can help society become more just and moral, for the common good. The line gets drawn, however, when one religious group asserts its supremacy over another or over secular groups in a pluralist society, and individual conscience is not respected nor the political conditions necessary to a democracy. Reason and conscience should carry the day, not dictates by religious authority. This is a lesson that the religious right and the Catholic bishops have yet to understand. James C. Harrington is director of the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin. This article was originally published in Texas Lawyer, a Recorder affiliate based in Houston.

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