May 16, 2005
Collisions and Doubts
-- Martin E. Marty
Where to draw "the line of separation between the rights of religion and the Civil authority" (James Madison)? Or, less felicitously, where to maintain or breach "the wall of separation between church and state" (Thomas Jefferson)? When to make use of the line? Those questions are older than 1787, and today more than ever there are "collisions and doubts," as Madison called them. The line has always been messy, the wall has always had breaches, and this will always be so, as long as a dynamic republic shall last. Two newspapers on May 12 offered new examples of this fact.
In a Chicago Tribune op-ed, David McGrath, an expert on English literature and Native American affairs, complained about a 198-foot tall crucifix towering at the junction of I-57 and I-70 ("The Art of Jamming Beliefs Down Our Throats"). It stands "as close to the highway" as the state will permit, its glistening surface serving to "shout and bully with its message of Christian morals." McGrath welcomes civil controversy but finds this uncivil. And a photo of the cross suggests that it may be just this; it is overbearing, triumphalist, and more. What would Jesus do? He'd probably call such use of his cross "tacky." But where it is, is perfectly legal. If it is even as close as one inch from the legal boundary, all we can do is put on our dark glasses, glower with McGrath, and take refuge in more chaste visions of the cross and expressions of piety. Why? Because the cross is on private land. On public land it would be claiming privilege for faith over non-faith, one faith over others. Where it is, "any number can play" on equal terms.
Most misplacements of the Ten Commandments and crosses occur on courthouse lawns or classroom walls. Are these about religion? Since religion can be expressed on most private lawns and on church, home, and store walls, aren't these courthouse and classroom placements saying something political and primeval? "We belong, and you don't! We set the terms and you are marginal, unpatriotic, or wrong!" Such forms of "shouting and bullying" may be detrimental to faith and civic life.
As for the "when": The New York Times and then the Associated Press (on May 14) ran stories about Air Force Academy personnel, programs, and privileges, as well as pressures against most religions that do not focus on the "born-again" experience and orthodoxy. Details remain controversial, but charges are that anti-Semitism and anti-other religion mark some of the teaching on the premises of the Academy (the wrong "where") and during classroom and other teaching and publicizing time (the wrong "when"). Air Force Academy Chaplain Melina Morton -- who has to be trusted, because she's a fellow Lutheran -- says, "I realize this is the end of my Air Force career" because she protested and pointed to wrongs. In fairness, we have to hear more from Major General Charles Baldwin, Air Force chief of chaplains, who said the higher-ups merely sent Morton to Japan, far from Colorado Springs, and changed her duties, assigning her to serve there in her final chaplaincy days.
The Pentagon is looking into more than fifty recent complaints of religious intolerance at the Academy, and is assessing a report by Yale Divinity School professor Kristen Leslie. Leslie quoted an Air Force chaplain during basic training who warned that "those [cadets] who are not born again will burn in the fires of hell." Off premises and off time he can say that. On premises? Wrong.
Page two: Last week we commemorated Will Herberg's Protestant-Catholic-Jew fifty years after its publication, claiming that like all of us men in 1955, he made slight mention of women. But reader Bob Miller scanned the bibliography and footnotes of the book and found a dozen pioneer women's names, and a closer reading finds Herberg quoting British leader Barbara Ward on the first page. We are glad to issue this correction. Good for Will!
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.