Congress shall make no laws …


From the Publisher/Arnold G. York

Rather than start the New Year with something controversial, I’ve decided to ease into 2005 with something simpler, like the role of religion in American political life.

The controversy over whether you say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” “Cool Yule Man” (which I guess shows my age) always seemed to me to be kind of silly, because really all anyone is saying is, I feel good in this or that holiday season and I want to share it with you.

Part of my attitude, I suspect, comes from the fact I was raised in Flatbush, Brooklyn. In my part of Brooklyn there were really only two religions, Catholicism and Judaism, and both coexisted reasonably harmoniously, side by side. Protestants were people who lived across the Hudson somewhere on the other side of New Jersey, and no one gave them much thought because the chances were you were never going to meet one anyway unless your car broke down on the way to Florida. We shared religious holidays and, occasionally, I’ll confess, it got a little sticky. On Christmas Eve, for example, so many Jews headed for Midnight Mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue, the Catholics could barely get in. But aside from the occasionally interreligious flare-up, like the time Louie Cusinelli hit me with an elbow (to this day I still believe he did it on purpose) and knocked out one of my teeth while we were playing roller hockey in the park, the relationship between the two religions was relatively benign. Intrareligious strife, however, was a totally different thing. There were two major branches of the Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn-the Italian Catholics, most from Southern Italy, and the Irish Catholics. Being co-religionist they, of course, hated each other. That was really my first introduction to religious warfare. In matters of faith, things seldom are what they appear, which is a long way around to get where I’m headed with this column.

Be careful about getting what you wish for or, to put it another way, when the government comes to you with its hands out and offers to help, as it is now with the religious community of America, the watch phrase should be, be careful, very careful.

There is currently a big push in Washington to help what they call the faith-based institutions primarily by directing money to them through federal programs, grants and, most recently, trying to get the states to dole out more of their money to these institutions. The opposition to this comes primarily from those institutions, like the ACLU, which want to keep church and state separate, and from some of the churches whose leaders don’t think it’s a very good idea. But the faithful in many places are enraged by the opposition. They see themselves as being treated as second-class citizens.

The battle revolves around what our sainted founders meant in the Constitution about the separation of church and state. The truth is, our founders were far from saintly and they were men of their times, men of affairs and, most of all, politicians. They included believers and non-believers, deists, theists and atheists, but there is one thing they all shared. They shared the experience of knowing about recent European history, which had spent centuries in religious wars. There had been schisms and counter-schisms and they didn’t wanted to replay that in America. In fact, they had already seen that type of thing in some of the colonies and I suspect they knew it could tear this new country apart, so they made a very conscious decision to get government out of the God business and essentially they put that into our law. But being very farsighted and astute, they didn’t define it too closely and left a little play in the language of the documents for future negotiations.

What I think we’ve forgotten today is that government is always happy to help out religion. Every politician wants God on his campaign team and is only too willing to dip into the kitty to help. But government really is about politics, and getting elected and staying in office. And when you take a politician’s support and their money, there are great deals of other things that come with it.

What do I mean?

For one thing, in nothing flat you become dependent on their money. It’s easy to rationalize; after all, you’re doing good works with that money. Then something happens and the government wants support on something, and there it is. The support may be for the war in Iraq, or perhaps changing Medicare or the Social Security system, or for supporting a candidate. It’s, “Go along, help us, or your money may get cut off.” So you go along and soften your opposition, or endorse something you’re against for the greater good. Now some of your people start protesting that you’re selling out, so you purge them and schisms begin in the church and parts split off. It’s a very slippery slope and governments are very good at corrupting things. The church doesn’t end up bringing morality to government, in fact, the opposite happens, the government corrupts the church.

Probably most of all, religion is about faith and belief. Most people don’t have much give and take when it comes to matters of their faith. For most of us, and I include myself, in religious matters there is not a great deal of flexibility. Government and governing is all about flexibility. The two institutions are, to a great extent, incompatible, which is why I believe the founders kept them separate. To my mind it is still a good idea.