On Religion, Government, and Statesmanship

Congratulations to John Kerry, who has shown the courage to promote a thoughtful, reasoned approach to the issue of the relationship of government and religion.

Over the last four years, many politicians have tried to gain political support by encouraging the desire of religious extremists to use the government to further their churches' ambitions. George W. Bush himself has been singing the tune of "Onward Christian Soldiers" as a backdrop to his public speeches. As recently as January 15, Bush has advocated the creation of a new governmental order in which religious ideologies are given greater authority than the secular system of laws and the Constitution.

In Atlanta, Bush told an enthusiastic audience of churchgoers, "My attitude is, the government should not fear faith-based programs. We ought to welcome faith-based programs, and we ought to fund faith-based programs... Faith-based programs are only effective because they do practice faith. It's important for our government to understand that... Faith-based programs only conform to one set of rules, and it's bigger than government rules."

The links in Bush's new chain of power are clear. The Federal Government uses taxpayer money to fund church programs that take over areas of public life that have been, until now, the responsibility of the government and under the control of the democratic process. These churches are then given the freedom to use public funds in whatever manner they see fit, even to coerce program recipients to follow their particular religious ideologies. Under the Bush plan, the government cedes ultimate power to the churches, and becomes a mere conduit through which churches can raise funds.

Of course, it isn't just ambitious politicians like Bush who have attempted to hand over the power of the Federal Government to America's churches. Church leaders themselves have become increasingly outspoken in their attempts to control the secular political process that is the foundation of the American democracy.

For example, Raymond Burke, the new Archbishop of St. Louis, has recently decreed that Catholic legislators within his dominion who fail to pass laws in accordance with the wishes of the Catholic Church will be banned from participating in the rite of communion until they "publicly renounce" their positions and agree to follow the will of the Vatican. In essence, the decree of Archbishop Burke demands that America's political leaders pledge obedience to the authority of the Catholic Church, placing religious authority above the authority of government. Such a shift would be nothing less than a theocratic coup d'etat of the sort practiced by the Iranian fundamentalists in the late 1970s, forcing political leaders to serve as the mere rubber stamps for an undemocratic, unaccountable council of leading priests.

John Kerry, a lifelong practicing Catholic, understands the risks of moving America toward such a system. He therefore responded to the demands of Archbishop Burke with the following statement, in which he focuses on the Catholic Church's demands on the issue of abortion in particular.

"As a Catholic, we've long had a discussion in the church about that issue, and obviously I have enormous respect for any prelate in the church structure and I'm somebody who cares about that enormously. I was an altar boy and I've grown up in that ethic.

"But, and here's the but: What I've learned is that the separation of church and state in America is a critical component of who we are as a nation. President Kennedy took that on in Houston in 1960 and made it clear that there is a separation and we have to honor it.

"What I believe personally as a Catholic as an article of faith is an article of faith, and if it's not shared by a Jew or an Episcopalian or a Muslim or an agnostic or an atheist or someone else, it's not appropriate in the United States for a legislator to legislate your personal religious belief for the rest of the country. Now, that's the oath you take when you swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States.

"So, I respectfully disagree and I have to do what I think is important with respect to the Constitution, my obligation as a legislator, and that's what I do."

This statement by John Kerry is as essential as it is courageous. Kerry clearly makes the point that a secular government protects all Americans, religious and non-religious, against the theocratic tyranny that would result from the attempt of the government to fund and in other ways promote religious activities.

John Kerry has shown that he has the maturity and decency to recognize that other Americans have a right to their own beliefs about religion that is equal to his own. Kerry shows himself to be a deeply principled, and fundamentally fair, leader.

Through statements such as these, John Kerry has shown himself to be the kind of statesman that America has not seen since the days of Abraham Lincoln. He is, of course, not perfect. No leader is. However, Senator Kerry has earned the trust of the American people by applying his courage to the protection of freedom for all people to enjoy, instead of promoting the anti-democratic ambitions of a minority of zealots.

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