Wanting It Both Ways

While searching recently for a colorful quote about relations between church and state, I turned to a man who knew a thing or two about the subject: John Hughes, known to critics and admirers alike as Dagger John. Hughes, as most readers will know, was the bishop and then archbishop of New York from the early 1840’s to the early 1860’s. His tenure was as stormy as the times in which he lived. He was the public face of the American church at the height of nativist reaction to Catholic immigration.

He was not one to back down from a fight. Indeed, he relished the opportunity to confront the forces that threatened his flock. During one such confrontation the press in New York accused him of an offense that will sound familiar to 21st-century Americans. The New York Herald and other newspapers charged Hughes with mixing religion and politics.


Talk about playing into an opponent’s hands! In an elegant reply to his critics, Hughes wrote:

When several strong denominations attack one that is weaker in a manner which turns religion into politics and politics into religion, the sentinels of our liberties [in] the press are asleep. But when that one assailed denomination meets the assault and repels the assailants with the same weapons which the latter has selected, then the danger of mixing religion with politics is for the first time trumpeted in the public ear!

Dagger Johnso called because his critics saw the cross that accompanied his signature as a dagger aimed at true Americans - surely would recognize today’s debate over religion and politics. Things have not changed all that much.

During the debate and confirmation hearings of Chief Justice John Roberts, the nominee’s religious beliefs came under public scrutiny and even criticism from his opponents. Roberts, of course, is a devout Catholic, as is his wife, a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross. Some Democratic senators and, more crudely, some liberal commentators seemed to suggest that a devout Catholic ought to be viewed with great suspicion. During the confirmation hearings, Roberts somewhat defensively assured the senators that his religious beliefs would not affect his decisions on the court. My faith and my religious beliefs do not play a role in his decision-making, he said.

This is the sort of thing one must say these days if one is a devout Catholic and a nominee for high public office. What a shame.

Imagine, though, if Roberts had said that his reading of the Gospel helped shape his tolerant attitude toward gays. Would his piety and faith not be celebrated, rather than treated with suspicion?

So many members of the church-state police imagine that they are sentinels of liberty, when in fact they are no more than partisan apparatchiks. Rare is the liberal politician or commentator who will gnash his or her teeth over the presence of clergy in a civil rights march, or at a demonstration for affordable housing, or on a stage devoted to condemnation of the war in Iraq. And if a candidate for any office spoke openly about the role his or her faith played in shaping suitably progressive views, the howls of First Amendment monitors would be muted indeed.

But if a Supreme Court nominee, or a candidate for nearly any elected office, is suspected of adhering too closely to Catholic teaching on abortion, the slanders of the Nativists are revisited, uttered this time not by street toughs but by indifferently educated members of the political and cultural elite.

It must be noted, though, that church-state hypocrisy is not limited to one party or ideology. Conservative Republicans are playing partisan games, too.

Embattled President Bush played the religious card the other day in defending his choice of Harriet Miers as his current nominee to the Supreme Court. In a statement even John Hughes might have found surprising, the president said, in essence, that he chose Miers because of her religious beliefs. People are interested to know why I picked Harriet Miers, the president said in something of an understatement. He explained: Part of Harriet Miers’ life is her religion.

That, of course, does not necessarily distinguish Harriet Miers from most Americans. If living a life in which religion plays a part is qualification for the Supreme Court, every reader of this magazine can wait in breathless anticipation for the next court vacancy.

The president, of course, is trying to build a constituency for the Miers appointment among other evangelicals. But the argument is troubling, even for those who appreciate the role of faith in civic life. It is one thing to say, I have religious beliefs, and they may or may not affect my view of the law or of political issues. It is quite another to say, I have religious beliefs, and that is why I should be appointed or elected.

It was left to the Rev. Barry Lynn, who heads an organization called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, to note the irony between the Roberts and Miers nominations. He said, correctly, that some Bush administration officials suggested that those who brought up Roberts’s religious beliefs were bigots.

Now that same administration is citing a Supreme Court nominee’s religious beliefs as evidence of her qualifications.

On the matter of church and state, it seems that everybody wants to have it both ways.

Dagger John could have told us that.

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