Monday, January 4, 2010

Archbishop Nienstedt on Religious Pluralism and the "Tragic Flaw" in the Separation of Church and State Doctrine

By Paula Ruddy

Archbishop John C. Nienstedt’s column in the December 31 issue of the Catholic Spirit is a welcome call for recognition of the religious pluralism that exists in this country. Along with his recognition of religious pluralism, he delivers a broadside blow to the doctrine of separation of church and state. His argument requires further thought..

The Archbishop takes on Christopher Hitchens (Star Tribune, December 12) who was critical of the Obamas for displaying a Christmas crèche in the public part of the White House. Hitchens, in an uncharacteristically mild manner, says he understands the politics of President Obama’s emphasizing the Christian religion this season, but he still points to the separation of church and state doctrine: government officials may not promote one religion over another. Hitchens says he himself respects Christmas, Ramadan, and Passover equally, but the solution to the sensitive business of people forcing their religious views on others is to have government officials in their public roles steer clear of using the power of office to promote their own religions.

To this the Archbishop says “I sincerely believe that this line of reasoning is tragically flawed.” He begins his argument with a Webster’s definition of religion and the assertion that the Founding Fathers of our constitutional republic “believed in a society wherein religious belief could be freely expressed.” The Archbishop slides over the problem the Founding Fathers were particularly aware of since many colonists had fled religious persecution: what to do about the propensity of religious people to force their religions on others? The solution was indeed to have a society in which there is freedom to express religious beliefs, but religious freedom for all depends on prohibiting the governmental apparatus from promoting any particular religion. Separation of church and state is the solution we have been committed to and developing since the beginning of our nation. The Archbishop would have to do a little more explaining to show how that line of reasoning is tragically flawed. Zeal to enforce it sometimes runs to extremes, and criticizing the Obamas for a crèche maybe an example of that, but isn’t the doctrine itself sound?

The Archbishop refers to secularism as a religion that Hitchens is promoting. That only confuses the issue and fuels the culture wars. Taking Hitchens’ views, expressed in other writings, seriously and answering him reasonably would be a great help to all of us if the Archbishop were to attempt it.

However, in this brief column the Archbishop is dealing only with the public doctrine of separation of church and state. He has an alternate solution to the problem of people’s wanting to force their religious beliefs and practices on others. In applauding President Obama for displaying Christian symbols in the White House, he goes on to say that “the American ideal would be to display an abundance of [religious symbols], reflecting more accurately that this is indeed ‘the home of the free and the land of the brave.’ “ (We can disregard the misquoting of the national anthem. That might happen to anyone.) It is his solution to the problem of religious coercion that raises questions.

In Archbishop Nienstedt’s one-sentence solution to the problem of religious coercion, government offices should commemorate the religious holidays of all citizens. If there is a Christmas crib at the state house entrance, there should be equal time and display for all other religious holidays. If the Ten Commandments are enshrined in the court house, the ethical codes of all other religions should be displayed there too. The problem with this is that the minority religions will never have the resources to make this happen.

Should we count on the good will of the majority religion -- Christians -- to make the equal display of other religious holiday symbols happen? Does Archbishop Nienstedt mean that he would advocate for lifting up the other religious holidays by making sure that they are commemorated in public to the extent that Christmas would be commemorated?

It is amazing to me to hear the Archbishop champion religious pluralism in this column and advocate for the reliance on citizens’ respect for others’ values instead of on the traditional separation of church and state laws. We wouldn’t need laws if we just respect each other’s freedom and equality. Very true, but do we live up to those standards ourselves?

What about the ethics of other citizens? Can the Archbishop’s respect for pluralism, freedom and equality, be extended to the ethics of other citizens as well as to their holiday symbols? The Archbishop has been the champion of exclusive Catholic ethics to the extent of coercion of other citizens by law. He spearheaded the 2004 to 2006 attempt of the Catholic bishops of Minnesota to get the state constitution amended to prevent equal protection under the law for gay and lesbian people who want civil marriage rights. He will insist that the Catholic view on abortion restricts federal funding for an indigent woman’s choice of abortion. The ethics of other citizens don’t seem to get as much respect from him as their religious holiday symbols.

Despite my skepticism about his solution to the danger of religious coercion, I thank the Archbishop for raising all these questions that need careful, reasonable, and open discussion among all Catholics in the Archdiocese. And I thank him for at least opening the door to valuing religious pluralism.

Paula Ruddy is co-founder of the Progressive Catholic Voice and co-chair of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (CCCR).


  1. Could Archbishop Nienstedt's column on this matter be a perfect example of Catholic leaders not approving of "moral relativism", yet making very good use of it in their "pastoral" practices? There seems to be some picking and choosing going on there. How very interesting that they can use it quite freely thinking that the Lay people who see these things, do not see what is going on.

  2. If I may offer two areas of comment:
    1) Any cursory study of the founding fathers of this country would reveal the concern that "what to do about the propensity of religious people to force their religions on others" was not a primary concern. Far from restricting people from practicing their religion, the religious freedom clause was to allow people to freely practice their beliefs without fear of oppression. Furthermore, all of the founding fathers were religious men themselves. They created a system that allowed them to express their deistic beliefs (as evidenced in the documents and symbols of the U.S.).
    2) Following the definition of religion that the Archbishop gave, “religion” is “a cause, principle or belief held to with faith and ardor” there is nothing confusing about labeling Mr. Hitchens as an advocate of a distinct religion. According to the definition, and the pattern that Mr. Hitchens has displayed in his thought, it is quite clear that his cause is one of principles that he firmly believes in with a steadfast ardor, hence, a religion in and of itself.

  3. Post sent by John Carrigan:
    I seem to find myself in the embarrassing position of agreeing with the archbishop and disagreeing with you. Not sure, but what I can make of it so far.

    I agree with you that the polular understanding of separation has been that there is a wall between church and state. You'd never know that if you looked around the capitol and saw all the religious references, but they're not going to get rid of all those embarassing contradictions. I do think though that the real reference in the constitution has to do with non establishment of religion and that is what the early settlers in this country were so concerned about.

    Clearly, I think, all politics is based on values as the linguist George Lakoff of UC Berkley insists; political progressives and conservatives focus on different values. As I assumed in the article I sent you on the Morals of Mammon, I think this country has gone wildly off course precisely because it has preferred the worship of Mammon as in the gospels, but the same value is espoused in many religions such as Judaism and Mohammedanism as well as in humanism, which basically say it's bad for some to hoard while others go hungry.

    I think there is a place for religions of all traditioins to insist upon such values, and I really don't think they are or should be prohibited by some popularization of the constitutional non establishment clause. Peace, J.

    John Carrigan
    Why Wait? Move to EarthLink.

  4. Hi, Tom and John. I'm glad you tuned in. Maybe you can enlighten me on the problem the Archbishop is seeing. Isn't it now possible for him or anyone else to express religious beliefs? Is there any question about the free practice of religion? And isn't it also possible for anyone to express values and try to persuade other citizens to his/her point of view? What isn't allowed is the establishment of a state religion. When government officials of the majority religion introduce their religious symbols into public policy, documents, or law, it amounts to a de facto establishment and is oppressive to minorities. What is the problem with disallowing this? Do you honestly believe it is a "tragic flaw" in our system?

    It sounds like you and the Archbishop have a general complaint about secularism, narcissism, and greed in the US society. You are no doubt right, but is the cause of that separation of church and state?
    Or is the problem about resistence to religious language? I think that if religious leaders really wanted to communicate with fellow citizens, they would use reason, common values language, combined with compassion expressed in common human language. They wouldn't use divisive religious language. As you point out, John, there is a common language to communicate "worship of Mammon." What if religious leaders tried communicating seriously with the godless horde in a language they respected? Until they start practicing what they preach though, they have no credibility in any language.