More responses on the Pledge case

Christian organizations' responses to the Supreme Court's "under God" ruling have slowed to a trickle, but division continues. (See yesterday's Weblog if you missed remarks from most of the biggies.)

Family Research Council president Tony Perkins sides with Focus on the Family's James Dobson, the Rutherford Institute's John Whitehead, and a few others in lamenting that the Court based its decision on Michael Newdow's legal standing, not on the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance. "I believe the Supreme Court should have used this opportunity to uphold the right of school children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance," Perkins said. "Look for more atheists to come out of the closet in the near future with new attacks on the Pledge. The High Court will not be able to sidestep this issue for long."

Concerned Women for America's Jan LaRue, however, has expanded her earlier comment praising the ruling. "The Court's ruling on the issue of standing is by no means 'just a technicality,'" she says. Her analysis is headlined with a praise for the Court's "pledge for parental rights and judicial restraint."

The Catholic League says the decision is imperfect, but good enough. "It is too bad that the substantive issue of whether recitations of the Pledge in school are legal wasn't addressed," says William Donohue. "It is regrettable only because there is a concerted effort in this country, led by organizations that are openly hostile to religion, to eliminate all public vestiges of our religious heritage." That effort "must be stopped dead in its tracks" rather than merely thwarted, he says. Still, he enthuses, "This is not a good day for the radical secularists. Which is why it is such a good day for everyone else."

So far, however, almost all of the pundits have merely remarked on the headlines rather than on the actual court opinions. Indeed, it's important to take note of the diversity of the justices' arguments on this case. Justices Thomas and O'Connor joined in Chief Justice Rehnquist's "concurring" opinion that "under God" is constitutional, but the three of them cannot be further apart in their reasons for believing that. Rehnquist says "under God" is merely a historical nod to religion; Thomas says it's a contemporary but acceptable reference to religion; O'Connor says it's not a reference to religion at all.

Rehnquist says, "Our national culture allows public recognition of our Nation's religious history and character." The Pledge, he argues, is a "recognition of the fact … that our Nation was founded on a fundamental belief in God." It's okay because it's historical.

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Thomas, however, says that the Pledge is truly religious in a contemporary context. "Pledging allegiance is to declare a belief that now includes that this is 'one nation under God,'" he says. "It is difficult to see how this does not entail and affirmation that God exists." But such an affirmation is okay under the Constitution, he says, because the First Amendment merely bars the establishment of a national religion and asking students to recite the Pledge doesn't do that.

O'Connor, however, denies that "under God" has any religious meaning. In fact, she says, the words don't really mean anything; they simply "serve to solemnize an occasion instead of to invoke divine provenance." The Pledge and other references or commemorations of religion in public life "are more properly understood as employing the idiom for essentially secular purposes. … Any religious freight the words may have meant to carry originally has long since been lost."

And there we have the state of the debate over religion in contemporary life. Some secularists argue that religion has no place in the public square, but most people say it does. But these folks are deeply divided on the reasons or degree to which faith may be represented in governmental matters.

That, then, is the focus of this week's Time magazine cover story.

How religious do Americans want their president?

"Just what is the right amount of piety in the Oval Office?" asks Nancy Gibbs in this week's Timecover story (sorry, it's available only to subscribers). "Americans have shown they want a believer in the White House, but how much do they care about what he believes in? Do they want faith to affect policy? Or do they just share a conviction, as Presidents all through history have affirmed, that the Oval Office is a lonely and humbling place whose occupants need all the help they can get."

The emphasis in the main article is on Bush, while Kerry gets the focus in a sidebar. And near the end of the story, Gibbs somewhat answers her own questions: "[Bush's] talk of love and liberty brings the country together—unless it is pulling it apart. Fully 85% of Bush's supporters say his faith makes him a strong leader, according to Time's poll; 65% of Kerry's say it makes Bush close-minded." (The Economist ran a similar analysis last week.)

The division is strongest on the issues of faith and war, Gibbs writes. "It is at this point that his faith becomes more than a matter of conscience for some critics, who wonder whether his particular set of spiritual instincts both lift him up and close him off to conflicting points of view." Here she quotes heresy champion Elaine Pagels and Charles Kimball, who has written that belief in absolute truth makes one evil. Gibbs summarizes their critique: "The approach of a Christian in Bible study searching for the small inarguable nugget of scriptural truth that will enable him to understand God's love for him, ignore all distractions and stay sober, may not be the best one for deciding what to do next in Iraq."

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Gibbs has her own critique of Bush's faith-based foreign policy: "At some point he risks becoming trapped in contradiction when he tries to separate the jihadists from the God in whose name they fight … It is as though Bush can't allow the possibility that the enemy is motivated by its understanding of God's will lest his critics note that he believes the same of himself."

Well, his critics are already accusing him of using the same belief structure as Osama, anyway. But often lost in such commentary is the difference between a head of state seeking God's will and a freelance terrorist doing the same. Christian theology, at least, has almost always drawn a strong distinction when it comes to state authority.

Here's the Bush/Kerry divide, as summarized by Gibbs:

However often Bush defends Islam as a religion of peace, his case for war now rests less on high-fiber geo-political arguments than on the suggestion that the 3rd Infantry Division be used as an instrument of God's will to share the gifts of liberty with all people. Kerry, in contrast, has avoided the moral language of people's God-given desire for democracy. "I have always said from Day One that the goal … here is a stable Iraq, not whether or not that's a full democracy," he said in April in New York City. Even though their strategies are increasingly similar—bring in the U.N., stay the course, press ahead with reconstruction—the rhetoric and rationale behind the strategy sound very different.

Bush at the Vatican

One point missing from this Time cover story, however, is that Pope John Paul II shares Bush's belief that government—and thus the military—can "be used as an instrument of God's will to share the gifts of liberty with all people." And yet he's concerned about "grave unrest" in Iraq. The Pope, too, wants to see the U.S. "bring in the U.N., stay the course, press ahead with reconstruction." That was basically the message of his address to Bush earlier this month: "Mr. President, your visit to Rome takes place at a moment of great concern for the continuing situation of grave unrest in the Middle East, both in Iraq and in the Holy Land," he said.

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You are very familiar with the unequivocal position of the Holy See in this regard. … It is the evident desire of everyone that this situation now be normalized as quickly as possible with the active participation of the international community and, in particular, the United Nations Organization, in order to ensure a speedy return of Iraq's sovereignty, in conditions of security for all its people. The recent appointment of a Head of State in Iraq and the formation of an interim Iraqi government are an encouraging step towards the attainment of this goal.

So on the issue of Iraq, is Pope John Paul II closer to Bush or to Kerry?

Which candidate is closer to the Pope in this comment from John Paul II, which shortly followed his comments on Iraq: "I also continue to follow with great appreciation your commitment to the promotion of moral values in American society, particularly with regard to respect for life and the family."

But the big news this week wasn't what Pope John Paul II said to Bush, but what Bush said to the Pope. National Catholic Reporter John L. Allen Jr. reported Friday that "Bush asked the Vatican to push the American Catholic bishops to be more aggressive politically on family and life issues, especially a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman."

What the story comes down to is that Bush apparently said, "Not all the American bishops are with me" on cultural issues. The story has caused a small political tempest, with columnists like The Boston Globe's Derrick Z. Jackson saying that it's "one more sign that Bush is trying to ram selective chunks of religion down the throats of all Americans in the most multicultural nation on earth. … [He's] trying, more clearly than ever, to get the pope in bed with him so both of them can camp out in our bedrooms."

But wait a second. If the Pope was privately praising Bush for his stance for the federal marriage amendment, for example, and Bush responded that not all bishops were with him, was he playing the part of Grand Inquisitor? If Pope John Paul II was talking about how Bush shares official Roman Catholic doctrine that abortion truly is a more important issue than, say, labor rights, (that's the subject of a very good Timesidebar) would Bush have been wrong to point out comments by American Catholic bishops suggesting moral equivalence?

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Bush's comment implies "that he hoped the Vatican would nudge them toward more explicit activism," but there's no Bush quote to suggest that it was more than an off the cuff remark.

In fact, the Bush campaign told Time magazine this week that it would be bad news for the Pope to crack down on bishops, and indirectly, John Kerry. "A top Bush strategist is concerned that [the debate over Kerry's Catholicism] unsettles the moderate slice of the Catholic electorate that both parties are courting, puts Kerry in the sympathetic position of being a victim and—worst of all, as far as the Bush campaign is concerned—makes people aware that he is a Catholic," Karen Tumulty writes.

Bishops consider Kerry

Meanwhile, those very bishops will be meeting this week in Colorado to discuss, among other things, Roman Catholic politicians like Kerry who oppose key Catholic teachings. Articles previewing the closed meeting are legion, but Time's Tumulty gives a decent summary:

The bishops will hear from a task force, led by Washington Archbishop Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, that is supposed to give them a set of guidelines on the issue shortly after the election. McCarrick has said he has "not gotten comfortable" with the idea of confronting anyone at the altar, even as he has asserted that Catholics conscious of grave sin should not take Communion. The antiabortion group American Life League responded in early May with full-page newspaper ads in the Washington Times featuring a picture of the crucified Christ and asking, Cardinal McCarrick: Are You Comfortable Now?

Near the end of Tumulty's story is this observation:

Some say there is even a double standard at work. For all the attention that has been given Kerry's problems with the clergy of his church, "there have not been an equal number of stories about the way Bush has ignored his own faith group, the United Methodist Church, by declining to accept a delegation of bishops that wanted to talk to him about the war," says Philip Amerson, president of the Claremont School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary in Claremont, Calif.

What this ignores—and thereby constitutes a major miscommunication to readers—is that there's a massive difference in Catholic and Methodist attitudes toward the relationship of the believer to his bishop. Furthermore, Bush could have easily communicated with Methodist leaders who supported his Iraq actions—the difference between Catholic dogma on abortion and Methodist opinion on Iraq is so huge that to equate the two is ridiculous. But in doing so, Tumulty raises an interesting question: is it possible that Kerry would be a better United Methodist than he would a Roman Catholic? Is Bush closer to Catholicism than to United Methodism?

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