The new state church

Culture | But in exchange for the new secular ministry, the state will expect its citizens to kneel

Issue: "Who's marching now?," Oct. 17, 1998

President Clinton, according to the Starr documents, told his wife that the reason he was spending so much time with Monica Lewinsky was she was a troubled youth and that he was "ministering" to her.

President Clinton generally gets high marks for his capacity to comfort people in disaster areas and to say the right words to the nation during times of tragedy. Americans see him as a man of empathy, someone who can feel their pain. The president seems to have inspired his aides with a sense of mission, a conviction that they are part of an idealistic crusade in which they will fix the ills of society and "meet people's needs."

Perhaps there is a religious component to the president's continued popularity, despite the growing record of his misdeeds. Certainly he is the object of a loyalty that borders on fanaticism. Consider Toni Morrison, the black Nobel-prize-winning novelist, who told The New Yorker that "white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black president. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas." Seeing President Clinton as our first black president, Ms. Morrison goes on to label the Kenneth Starr investigation as, of course, racist.

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President Clinton's emphasis on social liberalism, prosperity, and popular magnetism has caught on in Europe as well. The Reaganesque conservatives such as Margaret Thatcher are gone. Last month's election in Germany (see p. 22), which installed Gerhard Schroeder as prime minister in place of Helmut Kohl, puts Social Democrats-the socialist party of the welfare states-back in control of 10 of the 15 members of the European Union.

Mr. Schroeder, like the other new socialists, emulates President Clinton in both his political campaigns and his personal life: Currently on his fourth marriage, Mr. Schroeder has been a notorious womanizer. His third wife even wrote a book about his philandering, including his affair with a journalist 20 years younger than he who is now Mr. Schroeder's trophy wife. But this didn't bother the German public, who-wooed by media-savvy feel-good ads-voted overwhelmingly to oust the conservative Kohl in favor of a German Clinton.

But it is in England that we see the cutting edge of the resurgent liberalism. Prime Minister Tony Blair, a Clinton clone from the Labor Party, has announced plans for the government to offer secularized "pastoral care."

According to a story in The London Times by Stephen Bevan and Michael Prescott, Mr. Blair will propose the appointment of secular "vicars," to be paid by the state. Since the traditional churches are not managing to keep families together, the job will be given to the bureaucrats who register births, deaths, and marriages. These functionaries will be upgraded to "secular vicars" and will offer marriage counseling and pastoral advice. Parents who do not go to church will be urged to hold a "civil naming ceremony" for their children to take the place of baptism.

A government source told the Times that the plan was a "rap across the knuckles" for the churches. "They are seen as too preachy. Parents and newlyweds don't want that, but they do want help. They need to feed off the type of community links that churchgoing provides."

Mr. Blair is proposing what Henry VIII only dreamed of: a state church without the church. In presenting his idea to the Labor party conference, Mr. Blair makes clear his support for "family values," but family values purged of the church's "preachy" morality: "The sexual revolution won't be replaced by a new Victorian era. Women won't give up the chance for a career as well as children. Gay people aren't going to go back to the days when everybody knew about it but nobody admitted it, and we called it morality."

The prime minister, who considers himself an evangelical Christian, also took the occasion to defend President Clinton: "It seems a trifle out of proportion to turn the whole political system of the world's foremost power into a Spanish inquisition on the president's private life."

England, of course, with Germany and most of the other European nations, has a tradition of the state church. It is true that the established churches are not doing

their jobs. Few people attend them; the tax-supported clergy have little incentive to build congregations; and their theology has become as worldly and vacuously liberal as the societies upon which they prey.

The American founders did not want to separate church and state as much as they wanted to protect churches from being taken over by the state. Churches, like other institutions and like individuals, lose their vitality and their integrity when they are dependent on the government's dole. The best thing that could happen to European churches would be for the state to cut them off. Disestablishment could force the churches to be Christian again.


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