Noah Feldman, in today’s New York Times Magazine, offers a misguided solution to the church-state tension in this country. Citing a divide between Values Evangelicals and Legal Secularists, he suggests that all government funding should be withdrawn from religious institutions (would this include government research grants or student loans for universities such as Notre Dame?) and that a wider inclusion of religious activity and symbols should be allowed in public institutions. No public money for religion, but greater public presence for religion. That’s his proposal. I’ll bicker with the latter part of his proposal.
Mr. Fedman suggests that the use of religious language and symbols in public instutions (such as Congress, the judicial system and public schools) can "signal commitment to shared values," and that such a commitment is necessary for the health of our nation. The problem with this proposal is that prayer, scripture and religious symbols are not civic symbols of unity. Prayer is not the same as pledging a commitment to uphold the Constitution. Religious language cannot achieve in the civic realm what a Memorial Day ceremony, July 4th celebration or Flag Day parade can. Religious symbols and language point to religious things; civic symbols and language point to civic things. The celebration of civic activities and the display civic symbols can and do signal commitment to shared values. We don’t need to impose one style of watered-down civic religiousity to achieve civic unity.
Furthermore, prayer is a religious practice in which religious adherents call on God to act. To reduce religious language or religious practices to mere symbolism that signal some sort of civic unity is to cheapen religious practice and insult its practioners. Prayer is not a civic symbol – it is an act of faith.
That is why school prayer is a bad proposal. Prayer in school takes a religious activity and makes it a civic rite, robbing it of its religious meaning. Do I want my daughter asking her second grade teacher about the proper practice of prayer or belief in God? Do I want my daughter reciting a watered-down, possibly misguided prayer in school just prior to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance? Give to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s, and to God what is God’s. The flag is a civic symbol, and let it thrive and unite our nation’s people in public places. The cross, the Ten Commandments, prayer and other religious symbols and practices – these belong to the religious sphere and should not be coopted, corrupted or claimed by the government or its institutions.
Secondly, Mr. Feldman wrongly suggests that legal secularists "insist that the majority give up its own celebration (of Christmas) to accomodate (the religious minorities)." That is plain wrong. Nobody denies a religious person’s right to practice their religion. But the Religious Right wants to use government and its institutions as a vehicle to promote their brand of religion and religion-inspired values. Nobody is denying Billy Graham the right to preach in Central Park, the right of evangelicals to evangelize in neighborhoods or street corners, or the right of Catholics to publish religious newspapers. But what we do oppose is the use of government institutions to promote a particular religion or religious-inspired set of values.
Mr. Feldman may be right about funding of religious institutions (I certainly agree that the government shouldn’t be funding addiction programs in which the treatment is a regime of Bible study and active commitment to Christ). Yet for institutions such as the numerous Catholic universities around the country, or the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the service provided to the country is overwhelmingly secular in nature, even if the organization’s mission is inspired by faith. Should the religious inspiration to such service-oriented organizations prohibit them from receiving funding for non-proseletyzing activities? That’s a tough call.
But when it comes to religious activity and speech in government-funded, civic institutions, we must say no. There is no room in public schools or courthouses for a civic, watered-down religion. Let’s leave religious matters to the religious sector. Government has too much to do to be getting into matters of religion.