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February 20, 2015

Last week saw two quite interesting but contrasting op-eds on the topic of religion and politics, from the New York Times’ Frank Bruni and the Boston Globe’s James Carroll. Both columns dealt with Jefferson’s “separation of church and state.” The Bruni piece Too Much Prayer in Politics: Republicans, the Religious Right and Evolution was rather simplistic, the Carroll article The Wall Between Church and State Can Erode Both left much for serious thought.

The Bruni article was not very thoughtful as he simply took aim at a target – the religious right – and argued that their odd pronouncements are proof enough that religion has no role in the public square. Bruni offers the full parade of horribles: Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, the chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore. Even in the confines of a short column, there is enough nuttiness there to warn us all of the sometimes bizarre nature of the religious right in the Republican Party. Bruni takes a mild swipe at President Barack Obama too, but it’s the Republicans he is after. For a liberal New York Times columnist it must have been a very easy column to write.

The Carroll piece is much more nuanced and sophisticated because he recognizes and praises the role of the separation of church and state but finds the champions of that view have little to answer for its greatest weakness: “a privatizing of religion that infantilizes faith and exempts politics from serious moral criticism.”

Carroll criticizes what he sees as the “Sunday school” religion in which even the faithful who attend services lack biblical literacy. The moral lessons of the Bible are thus inaccessible and the doubts that all of us must face when confronted with them are left wanting.

Once in this state the idea of a Lottery never mind casino gambling would have been subject to moral scrutiny that came from the churches, primarily but not exclusively the Catholic Church. That sort of critique is long gone. Even on the issue of physician assisted suicide (“death with dignity”) as I have argued, the political market has pushed the Church to make its moral argument in secular terms.

I can do without the religious preferences of Huckabee and Perry quite nicely, but if I have to give them up must I also give up Lincoln? In his Second Inaugural he wrote this, the most frightening words Americans have ever heard from their president:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." (Psalm 19:9)

But then:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

The phrase “With malice toward none, with charity for all” as Ronald White argues in Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: the Second Inaugural, calls us to agape, or Paul’s expression of selfless love in 1 Corinthians 13. “Love is patient, love is kind . . . “

When I read  “With malice toward none, with charity for all” I think of a different verse, from Matthew 5:44:  “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

To keep such thought in the public square, we should endure even Rick Perry.

separation of church and state, Frank Bruni, Abraham Lincoln, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, James Carroll

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