Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Church And State, Conflated

Four years ago Rick Santorum  (in)famously told students at Ave Maria College in Florida

We all know that this country was founded on a Judeo-Christian ethic but the Judeo-Christian ethic was a Protestant Judeo-Christian ethic, sure the Catholics had some influence, but this was a Protestant country and the Protestant ethic, mainstream, mainline Protestantism, and of course we look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country and it is in shambles, it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it.

The parameters of "mainline Protestantism" are somewhat elusive.      Excluded would be Roman Catholics; Eastern Orthodox adherents; Jews, Muslims, and members of Eastern religions; individuals denying a religous affiliation; and, for the most part, evangelical Protestants.     (Evangelical and mainline are not mutually exclusive, but nearly.)

Wikipedia identifies mainline Protestants as Congregationalists, Episcopalians, northern Baptists, Methodists, most Presbyterians, most Lutherans, and members of some smaller denominations. (The United Church of Christ, formed a few decades ago by union of Congregationalists and Disciples of Christ, should be added.)   In the U.S.A., the numbers of Roman Catholics are holding steady, members of Eastern religions are growing as the nation becomes ever more diverse, evangelical Protestants are increasing in number, and the number of individuals eschewing any religious affiliation is exploding.         The proportion of mainline Protestants, hence, has declined to its lowest level in history, though whether the number is as low as 15 million or as high as, say, 45 million, is debatable.

While it is difficult (for anyone but Rick Santorum, apparently) to generalize, mainline Protestant denominations have shifted over the years to a theological viewpoint with which the former Pennsylvania senator from Virginia disagrees.   (Even here, however, generalization is risky:     some congregations within a couple of the denominations may not march in lockstep with the national organization.)       It is not reassuring, however, that an individual who is vying to be president of a nation of extensive ethn ic and religous pluralism among its 300 million-plus citizens would argue, without elaboration, that one vital part of the religious mosaic "is gone from the world of Christianity."

It is presumptuous of any individual to read any denomination out of the Christian family.      Having declared mainline Christianity "in shambles," Santorum appears to be assuming that "the world of Christianity as I see it" is, simply, the world of Christianity.

Josh Barro of Forbes has a different take.     He believes more important is the portion of the speech in which the Pennsylvania Senator from Virginia says

If you were Satan, who would you attack, in this day and age? There is no one else to go after, other than the United States. And that’s been the case for now almost 200 years, once America’s pre-eminence was sown by our great Founding Fathers.He didn’t have much success in the early days—our foundation was very strong, in fact, is very strong. But over time, that great, acidic quality of time corrodes away even the strongest foundations. And Satan has done so, by attacking the great institutions of America, using those great vices of pride, vanity and sensuality…

Barro comments

Let’s think back to what America was like almost 200 years ago. Slavery was legal, indeed enshrined in our Constitution by our Founding Fathers. The federal government was forcibly removing American Indians from their lands, leading to thousands of deaths. Women couldn’t vote and were limited in their rights to own property. And yet, Santorum sees Satan wielding more influence and having more success in America today than he did then.

The issue is not that Santorum favors slavery or Indian removal—if prompted, I’m sure he would agree strongly that these were great evils. But how does somebody look at the history of American society and see a country that was more Godly under Andrew Jackson than it is today? The answer is by focusing only on the rights and treatment of white, Christian men. When some conservatives and libertarians make paeans to a lost period of American greatness, they are treating the perspectives of women and minorities as if they don’t exist, or don’t count. 

There is enough that is wrong-headed in the speech to go around.     Santorum, to his credit, does not suggest that he has changed his mind in the ensuing four years or otherwise developed a fondness for tolerance.      Nor could he.     Sunday, he said on ABC's This Week 

now we’re going to turn around and say we’re going to impose our values from the government on people of faith which, of course, is the next logical step when people of faith — at least according to John Kennedy — have no role in the public square.

John Kennedy, unsurprisingly, said no such thing in his speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.     The distinction Kennedy rightly drew, as Jon Meacham told Charlie Rose today, is between church and state- not between religion and politics, as Santorum imagines it.      In the same broadcast, Dr. Richard Land, still a conservative Christian as president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, argued that Kennedy acknowledged a role for his conscience as informed by religious faith while maintaining that he would not be guided by an external religious authority.  

It is telling that a major presidential contender believes there should be two sets of rules- one for "people of faith" such as himself and another for his disbelieving neighbor.     Whether that neighbor is Christian or not, white male or not, Rick Santorum's vision is of a bifurcated nation, one forever divided against itself.       Out of one, many.

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