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God and government: a dangerous mix.

My first published article was about America's "civil religion," that tendency by politicians to invoke religious themes and images in major national addresses, particularly the inaugural speeches of presidents. For most of our history, political candidates have assumed that America has a special destiny, a unique place in the order of a universe divinely created. It is hard to know for sure, but I suspect that early articulators of this position were probably more steeped in Christian theology than its current proponents.

In reviewing coverage of the Clinton inaugural events, Washington Post television critic Tom Shales mused that "separation of church and state was nowhere in evidence." One observer of the day's events told a local television station, "This was the best church service I ever attended." Indeed, President Clinton did plenty of "God-talking" on that day. I have no doubt about his sincerity, and though the president does not have a perfect grasp of the church-state separation line, he at least tries not to promulgate policies that directly advance particular theological tenets or movements.

Less noticed has been the unusual amount of religious philosophizing being done by House Speaker Newt Gingrich these days. Just two years ago, a member of his staff was quoted as noting that although Gingrich rarely goes to church, he "thinks religiously" (presumably meaning that he considers the spiritual aspects of life, not that he ponders regularly). Lately, though. Gingrich has been calling for spiritual rebirth at every turn.

In a January address to the House after his reelection as speaker, Gingrich insisted that until members of Congress "learn in a nonsectarian way -- not Baptist, not Catholic, not Jewish ... to reestablish the authority that we are endowed by our Creator, that we owe it to our Creator, and that we need to seek divine guidance in what we are doing, we are not going to solve this country's problems." Later in the same speech, he noted the problem of drug abuse and called religion a "part of the solution ... and a drug treatment itself."

This thinking is not only fuzzy, but disquieting. I have no real idea about how you establish the authority of a "non-sectarian" deity, unless Gingrich has been thinking so much about religion in the past two years that he has resolved all those pesky theological points of disagreement that have led to church schisms and the existence of over 1,500 different faiths in this country alone. Any effort to locate those "nonsectarian," but still somehow religious, remedies is certain to collide with the overwhelming diversity of religious and secular opinion in our country.

Likewise, for members of Congress to start incorporating this "nonsectarian" religion into the process of governance is both unconstitutional and -- with all due respect -- beyond the competence of that body. Religion does not exist in our constitutional scheme to serve either as an arm of government or an engine of social policy. There are plenty of houses of worship that do magnificent work in combatting social problems, but they do so unencumbered by government "help" or interference. Some would argue that is precisely why they are successful.

Lest anyone think I am reading too much into the speaker's words, recall that he addressed Republican House members last November, arguing that America must be "submissive to God's will." He further insisted, "This country will never again be healthy if we don't have the courage to confront the spiritual and cultural and moral deficit that is an even greater threat to our future than the economic deficit." Obviously, all persons, particularly elected officials, should conduct themselves in an ethical manner. But, if indeed the United States has a "spiritual" deficit, it is up to the religious community to reduce it, not politicians. Congress has enough trouble figuring out how to handle the Amtrak subsidy.

The other difference between traditional references to God in political statements and the speaker's comments is that Gingrich has an abysmal record on church-state legislation. Just last term he supported the ill-named "Religious Equality Amendment" to rewrite the First Amendment and was a prime mover in the ultimately ill-fated effort to allow religious schools in the District of Columbia to get federally funded vouchers.

In his January speech, Gingrich cited a quote from Thomas Jefferson's famous 1800 letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush: "I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." In past speeches, Gingrich has seemed to imply that since Jefferson spoke approvingly of God in that letter, he must have favored mixing religion and state.

In fact, the historical context of the letter points in the opposite direction. It was directed at the theocracy-minded clergy of New England who wanted to keep the church-state unions in their states and who bitterly opposed Jefferson's bid for the presidency. They knew of Jefferson's dislike for state-established orthodoxy and realized that as president he would advocate for the separation of church and state. Any involuntary payment to a religion not of one's own choosing was antithetical to everything Jefferson believed.

I wrote most of these sentiments in a letter to the speaker a few weeks ago. He had no response to members of the media who called about it. Let's not be too harsh on him, though. Perhaps he's just working out the Amtrak problem.
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Title Annotation:state's intervention in the religious domain
Author:Lynn, Barry W.
Publication:Church & State
Date:Feb 1, 1997
Previous Article:Religious affiliations of Congress reflect statistics of America.
Next Article:Ralph Reed's war on poverty: hope or hype?

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