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Religion, God help it, back for further debate.

Well, you know the culture war has taken a turn toward the worse when celebrity columnist Charles Krauthammer and celebrity TV producer Norman Lear have at each other. Scholars whose lives are devoted to such things without ever seeing an audience larger than 30 would kill for the chance to discuss morals on such a level.

Lear, whose contributions include "All in the Family," feels a need for transcendence. Replies Krauthammer, it's religion, stupid. He says Lear's People for the American Way should get the Supreme Court to allow schools to post the Ten Commandments.

They could paste them to the metal detectors. And so it goes.

As suggestions go, Krauthammer's isn't bad. Heaven knows, the Ten Commandments are cultural reference points, and we all need something in common besides Barney the dinosaur.

But then: Whose Ten? Some folks split our First and merge the Ninth and Tenth. That leads to them violating the Sixth Commandment and calling it the Seventh.

What makes religion difficult in a pluralistic society is how easy it is to offend someone. A lifetime is needed to learn how to discuss religion in mixed company. But you have to learn. We've already seen a schism over one word in the Creed.

When we lived in Kansas City, our pastor, a good and holy man, had the habit of ending sermons he couldn't end otherwise by concluding with a call to recite the Hail Mary. On one occasion, he was called upon to preach at an ecumenical gathering in a Lutheran church. He did well, but, as usual, he hadn't anticipated his conclusion. "Let us all pray ..." he said. And paused. His face reflected what he knew about Protestants -- that they think we make too much of Mary. The pause continued, and suddenly a beatific look crossed his face, and he hurried to a conclusion: "...the prayer we have in common, the Our Father!"

Any discussion of American religion in the abstract has to allow for touchy moments, or it's irrelevant.

One has the feeling, reading Krauthammer's end of the discussion, that the American uro-religion would be a stew of low Episcopal and high Baptist with just a drop of evangelical seasoning.

That's what one hears on solemn occasions when public prayer is called for. It's hard to pay attention without being distracted by wondering if anyone actually talks to God that way. Demographically, it looks like public prayer will have to leave room for Allah pretty soon, on top of everything else.

Such religion seems to satisfy people who want religion as a distraction from who has money and power and who pays taxes. But even they would concede the human's relation to God should run deeper.

Secularists respond by citing Lebanon and the Middle East in general, Pakistan and India, Ireland and even Canada as what happens when serious religion runs amok in public. They would keep patching the wall of separation between church and state because they honestly fear that otherwise denominational differences may include preference for plastic explosives over AK-47s. Bosnians didn't kill each other when their religious differences were repressed by godless, atheistic communism.

There may be middle ground between drowning one's opponents in butts of religious wine and turning the wine into water, but in this matter the middle ground won't attract anybody. Something more radical is called for.

Actually, I think the radical solution is developing without any help from the chattering classes. The media, as usual, has missed it, too.

When John F. Kennedy cracked the Catholic barrier to the presidency in 1960, he began to open a wedge for politicians whose faith is different from the thin Sunday morning gruel that had been considered standard for public life. The wedge has been widening ever since.

Martin Luther King and Jerry Fal-well are distinctly religious persons whose religion was accepted as part of an authentically political impact. Jesse Jackson straddles the two worlds almost perfectly. Nobody would confuse the public utterances of Mario Cuomo or John Danforth with syncretism, and in an important speech Joseph Biden quoted the 91st Psalm (90th in editions that follow the Vulgate) -- not from a translation of the Bible, but from the adaptation for a hymn you can find in your missal supplement.

Jimmy Carter deserves more credit than anyone will ever give him in all of this. By the end of his presidency some of his best friends were Muslims and Jews, but he never yielded an inch of his Baptist Sunday school teachings.

The nonchattering classes have concluded already that it's possible to be seriously religious without being seriously stupid or, worse, seriously tyrannical.

We won't work out overnight all the details of tolerance without condescension and religion-based disagreements without anathemas and interdicts. But there is considerably anecdotal evidence that America is heading that way. Celebrities will catch up, but not overnight. Eventually the Ten Commandments for schools will be adjusted without lawyers.
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Title Annotation:religious tolerance in politics
Author:Blackburn, Thomas
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 2, 1993
Words:822
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