Genuine pluralism

We should make room for all faiths in the public square

Issue: "Who'll be king of the Hill?," Oct. 7, 2000

Religion and politics. Their combination and conflict make noise everywhere these days. It took Senator Joe Lieberman several weeks on the presidential campaign trail with Al Gore before he could stop talking about God every day. George W. Bush really believes that government should recognize faith-based organizations as worthy public partners. The cover story in the latest Atlantic Monthly (October, 2000) takes an extended look at the growing strength of the evangelical mind. And that's just for starters. Many citizens in the advanced United States, with its separation of church and state, are upset by all this God-talk. Religion was supposed to have withered away decades ago or at least have been locked away in private quarters. Other Americans, however, are delighted by it all. They want more public religion even if it is shrouded in a moment of silence in schools. But among the public religionists, there is considerable disagreement about how to manage the duo of politics and religion. That is one reason why House Speaker Dennis Hastert's (R-Ill.) naming of a Roman Catholic priest to the post of Chaplain of the House of Representatives earlier this year caused a stir in the already tension-filled air of Congress. Many believe that a Roman Catholic priest is not fit to represent America's more Protestant civil religion. The Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin is, after all, the first Catholic and the only non-Protestant to be appointed to that post in U.S. history. The United States was, for most of its history, a Protestant-majority country, in which most Protestants ever so gradually agreed to secularize or neutralize the public square so as not to offend people of other faiths. Removing prayer from public schools was one such step in that direction. Others followed. But if the answer is to secularize public life, why continue to spend public funds on chaplains for the House and the Senate? The fact is that many if not most Americans are not convinced that secularizing the public square is the way to do justice to diverse faiths. The question, then, is this: Should government, even symbolically, enclose everyone or every representative in the country under one sacred roof? Or, instead, should it require all religious expression to remain outside the "secular" public square? Or, as a third option, should it make room for all faiths-both religious and secular-without giving a privileged position to any of them? The last option is the only just one in a republic that calls for justice for all. This is the principle carried through in the armed services. Men and women in uniform are not asked to put their religions aside when they enter the military ranks, nor is a chaplain of one faith appointed over all of them. Instead, chaplains are employed from diverse faiths to meet the needs of those who hold those faiths. This is as it should be: genuine pluralism in a society that respects religion in public but does not try to force one religion or no religion on everyone. This should be America's testimony to the world about political society: A republic is not a community of faith but a community of citizens under common public law, citizens who also have allegiances higher than the state. The United States is not a Jewish state or a Catholic state; not a Protestant state or Muslim state. And it certainly should not be a secularized state. The chaplaincy program of the armed services points the way. Charitable Choice for welfare services is the latest legitimate example, showing how government should partner with faith-based organizations without taking them over or discriminating against them. School choice ought to come next: equal funding for every student to attend the family's school of choice, whether that school is independent or government-run, whether explicitly religious or explicitly secular. As for the House and Senate chaplains, the right move should be to appoint chaplains of different faiths to serve members and their staffs according to their diverse faiths. If four or five or six chaplains are needed, that many should be appointed. The only way to move beyond secularism and civil-religious conformity is to establish genuine pluralism.

-James W. Skillen is president of the Center for Public Justice

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