The phrase that appears as the title of this entry is often quoted by those concerned about the real or imagined encroachment of organized religion in the public and social life of this country. The phrase appears nowhere in any of the founding documents of the United States but appeared in a letter of the deist Thomas Jefferson to the Baptists of Danbury, CT. It is his interpretation of the “establishment clause” in the Bill of Rights ( the first ten amendments to the US Constitution.) This “wall” image has become the rallying cry of those who wish to resist and often remove any religious exercise from the “public square”.
As a side note, I cannot forbear from an anecdotal observation that the “wall” seems most often deployed against Catholicism and orthodox Christianity in general than other religions. It is not for nothing that one of the most prominent lights of the old WASP secular liberal world, John Kenneth Galbraith once described anti-Catholicism as the “single most perduring prejudice” in America. Anti-Catholicism has also been described as “the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals”; the last “respectable prejudice” left in America.
In the previous blog, I mentioned some instances of this even among those whom many of us might consider political or social-issues allies.
Ironically, Roman Catholicism and Roman Catholics, in general, have done more theological and civic work underpinning the American value of “religious freedom” than most other religious bodies in America.
Our leaders have gone out of their way to appear as “American” and have made themselves as “popular” and “non-threatening” as humanly possible. One need only remember John F. Kennedy’s remarks on his Catholic faith in the 1960 campaign to Protestant ministers and others.
Yet that was an era when Catholic prelates such as Cardinal Spellman and Bishop Sheen; and Catholic clergy and nuns enjoyed a high public esteem; while retaining a reverent dignity both in their own demeanor and in the minds of the public. Movies such as Going My Way; The Bells of Saint Mary’s; The Song of Bernadette was not “niche” films but played to nationwide audiences. Catholic priests showed up as strong and wise figures in films as military chaplains, prison chaplains, and even on the docks of New York City.
Today, to put it mildly, things are “different”.
We have come from a respectful tolerance to a scorn and an exclusion that has been unknown in the country until now.
The editor of the New York Times recently seemed to put belief in “space aliens” on the same plane as normal ( and serious) Christianity in examining the religious beliefs of (Republican) candidates. He even managed at first to lump the very Catholic Rick Santorum with “extreme” Evangelicals. He also tossed in a parody of the doctrine of Transubstantiation that would have done any anti-Catholic propagandist proud.
As we all know, there will be no prayers or religious references in the 10th Anniversary ceremonies of 9/11 at the World Trade Center. It is thought to be “too difficult” to arrange. Yet no more than a week later in that very year a massive public memorial service could be organized at Yankee Stadium which I remember being broadcast over the PA system at Jones Beach and hearing even the eerie wail of a Muslim imam, along with Hebrew chants, and Christian hymns without causing any discernable damage to the fabric of American political life.
I wonder where we’re heading.