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Ambassador to the Vatican?

Four false assumptions are operative in your Public Square comment “Reopening Wounds” (March).

The first is that those who oppose the United States sending an ambassador to the Vatican do so because they want to drive religion from the public square.

The second is that Evangelicals who oppose our sending an ambassador to the Vatican harbor anti-Catholic sentiments.

The third is that Evangelicals who oppose our sending an ambassador to the Vatican ignore the fact that Evangelicals are often on the same side as Roman Catholics in the culture wars.

The fourth is that Ronald Reagan’s appointment of the first United States ambassador to the Vatican should have settled the issue permanently.

The truth is that there are many Americans who want to see more religious influence in the public square, who harbor no anti-Catholic sentiments, who realize that Evangelicals and Roman Catholics have a great deal in common, and who believe that, Mr. Reagan notwithstanding, this issue is still an open one, who are nevertheless passionately opposed to our having an ambassador at the Holy See. Our reason is that appointing an ambassador to the Vatican is an unnecessary entanglement of our government with a religious body, it achieves nothing that cannot be achieved in other ways, and it is a small but real infringement of our religious liberties to be taxed to support such an ambassador.

What you had hoped was settled during the administration of Mr. Reagan, we had hoped was settled during the administrations of Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Madison.

Fisher Humphreys
Beeson Divinity School
Samford University
Birmingham, AL

I was disturbed and saddened to read “Reopening Wounds” regarding our efforts (along with the National Association of Evangelicals) to convince President Clinton to sever diplomatic relations with the Vatican. I would like to assure you and your readers that “reopening wounds” was not at all our intent in pursuing this matter.

Southern Baptists have opposed the exchange of ambassadors with the Vatican for well over fifty years. Resolutions have been adopted at six annual meetings opposing this policy. We oppose diplomatic ties with the Vatican as a matter of principle, not having anything to do with the particular religion in question. We regard this as a clear violation of the separation of the institutions of church and state provided for in the First Amendment.

Indeed, the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention has “challenged the notion that the separation of church and state requires the separation of religion from public life.” We will continue to do so. However, on this matter the violation is absolutely clear to us. The Holy See of the Roman Catholic Church is an ecclesiastical entity. Exchanging ambassadors with the Vatican clearly gives preference to one religion. In asking President Clinton to end relations with the Vatican, we are standing with the mainstream of Baptist (and Protestant) tradition.

This is not to say that the Pope or Roman Catholics in the United States should not attempt to influence public policy and public opinion on a wide array of ethical and social issues. Our agency attempts to do the very same on behalf of Southern Baptists. Attempting to influence policy and exchanging ambassadors, however, are entirely different.

Of particular concern and distress to me is the charge: “Perhaps evangelical leaders are resuscitating [this issue] to demonstrate to their old-guard constituencies that the ecumenical spirit has not entirely overcome their vestigial adherence to a requisite measure of anti-Catholicism.” Nothing could be further from the truth. This suggestion is inaccurate, offensive, and counterproductive.

Whether in joining with the Religious Alliance Against Pornography and the Pope regarding international anti-pornography efforts or filing with the United States Catholic Conference (and the National Association of Evangelicals) an amicus brief before the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey or in writing a favorable review essay of Centesimus Annus for National Review , the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention under my leadership has repeatedly demonstrated our commitment to public policy ecumenism with Roman Catholics.

This record of cooperation should be well known to Richard John Neuhaus and also to George Weigel, whom Father Neuhaus quotes. Apart from anti-Baptist or anti-Evangelical bigotry, only ignorance of my advocacy and practice of Evangelical/ Catholic cooperative efforts would explain this opprobrious charge. Thus, I am delighted to take this opportunity to once again illumine the public record on this matter, as I have often done privately as well.

Additionally, I must say that I am shocked to see Father Neuhaus advocate one of the things which has resulted in America’s “naked public square”—namely politicians who do not practice their faith. He takes umbrage at our request of President Clinton to act on this matter “in light of your Baptist heritage.” He says: “One can imagine the public outcry—not least of all from Baptists—were Catholic bishops to urge a Catholic President to make policy ‘in light of your Catholic heritage.’ “ To be sure, some Baptists would complain. However, not us.

Mark Shields, noted Washington pundit and advocate of the “naked public square,” has observed (and I paraphrase) that in Washington politicians are expected to be members of a church; they are not, however, expected to practice their faith. Regrettably, Shields is on target. I long for the day when politicians (including our current President), be they Baptist, Catholic, Jew, or whatever, truly would practice their faith. After all, is that not what Catholics desire of Ted Kennedy, Mario Cuomo, and other Catholic politicians? Surely, America would be far better off if this were so . . . .

I will not allow this unfortunate comment to stand in the way of my efforts at achieving Evangelical/ Catholic cooperation in rolling back the present state of moral decline in America. As Charles Colson asks in his recent book, The Body : “While we may never achieve perfect doctrinal agreement on all points, shouldn’t we at least make common cause in defense of our common orthodox faith in Christ and belief in absolute truth?” My answer is yes, and my actions have demonstrated this.

However, the maturity of this ecumenism must recognize our differences. As Colson says in The Body , true unity is not sought by pretending that there are no differences, as modern ecumenicists have done, but by recognizing and respecting those differences while focusing on the great orthodox truths all Christians share.

Finally, as I said in an article for Policy Review (Winter 1993), “I remain hopeful that the prospect of a President intent on using his office to promote radical cultural and moral changes will awaken conservative evangelicals of all parties and backgrounds and energize them for the nonpartisan interdenominational struggle that lies ahead for the nation’s ‘soul.’ “

Richard D. Land
Executive Director
Christian Life Commission
Southern Baptist Convention
Nashville, TN

Richard John Neuhaus replies:

With great respect for Dr. Land’s forthright leadership of the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission, I would make three points. The Holy See is, as he says, an ecclesiastical entity. As was pointed out in my commentary, it is also a juridical entity with official ties to most countries in the world, including officially Muslim nations. Surely that does not indicate that they are giving preference to one religion over another. The question of preference would only arise were there other entities similarly constituted—Baptist, Lutheran, Buddhist, whatever. There are no others. It is as a civil entity with singular access to the networks of world diplomacy that the U.S. wisely maintains official ties with the Vatican. Second, Dr. Land need not be reminded that it was to Baptist ministers in Houston in 1960 that President Kennedy had to make his pledge that his conduct in office would not be affected by his being a Catholic. Anti-Catholicism is not what it was among Baptists thirty-three years ago, but it is more than “some Baptists” who support an extreme separationist position resulting in the separation of religious commitment from public responsibility that Dr. Land, and we, deplore. Third, in no way is the “opprobrious charge” of anti-Catholicism directed at Richard Land personally. To the contrary, he has been and continues to be a champion of the authentic ecumenism and cooperation described in his letter. I am pleased to offer this public assurance that Dr. Land continues to be a cherished friend and colleague.

A Blessing to Others

Thank you for publishing James Andrew Miller’s article “Other Plans: Journal of an Illness” (March). I have passed his words along to two members of our congregation who likewise find their days altered (altared) by the diagnosis of terminal cancer . . . .

Mr. Miller has used his singular ability to write . . . to become a blessing to those who share his condition but lack the ability to express their feelings in such clear words. I hope the opportunity is given to him to pull that book he mentions out of his desk drawer and complete his dream.

(The Rev.) Robert M. A. L. Miller
Grace Lutheran Church
State College, PA

James Andrew Miller’s courage in sharing openly his personal battle with cancer is to be commended. It takes great inner strength to deny denial, to refuse the refusal to accept reality. Cancer is indeed a “violation,” a calculating and exploitative enemy that thrives on hope, devours faith, leaves meaninglessness in its wake. I applaud Mr. Miller especially for his self-identification as “terminal.” It is perhaps the most difficult, yet most universal, label any of us will ever own. As every premature death reminds us, we are all “terminal, between countries, emigres.”

As I write this, my mother, fifty-six, lies two floors above me in a mechanical bed on loan from the hospital. She is dying of metastatic breast cancer that has migrated to her bone marrow, liver, spinal fluid, and uterus. She is strapped to an oxygen tank, hydration bag, morphine pump, and urination catheter. Home care nurses sit by her bed around the clock. Eight years ago she was first diagnosed with a malignant lump. After painful rounds of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, she has been given less than two weeks to live.

She too, like Mr. Miller, is handling her fate with the beauty and dignity of one who has embraced the depths of the mystery that is life, who loves God, who, in the midst of inexplicable and undeserved pain, still loves God. When she dies she will leave behind a legacy larger than her short span, the message and meaning of which will grow with time . . . .

Thomas K. Carr
Springfield, VA

The Declining Mainline

The article “Mainline Churches: The Real Reason For Decline” (March) by Messrs. Johnson, Hoge & Luidens is a fine contribution to the analysis of the slow wasting disease that afflicts the traditional Protestant churches in America. Although on a world-historical scale the slow slide into irrelevancy of a very small segment of worldwide Christianity merits at best a short footnote, many of us caught in the event see real tragedy.

Although I am generally in agreement with the authors’ observations and analysis, their position amounts to a description of the problem rather than an explanation of why it occurred. They may be quite right to define that problem as “the weakening of the spiritual conviction required to generate the enthusiasm and energy needed to sustain a vigorous communal life.” This is not an explanation, however, any more than is Dean Kelley’s definition of mainline churches as “weak” religious bodies, which is the closest the authors come to supporting any of the theories of decline . . . .

The authors reject what they label as the conservative theory of decline (“people left in protest . . . at the support . . . given left-wing causes”) because they do not find in their interviews many people who care much about such issues. In my view this misses the point. The problem with the overtly political, left-wing, social agenda that the leadership of these churches adopted and to a large degree continues to sustain is that once this agenda dominated the church’s life ordinary people slowly lost their reason to remain members. It is not that the average churchgoers knew about the activity of the World Council of Churches, the depiction of Russia and the U.S. as morally equivalent, the nuclear freeze movement, the liberation theology, the lack of appreciation and indeed ridicule of capitalism, etc. Most people neither knew or cared about church positions on these issues, but unfortunately the very acceptance of these matters as issues forced discussion of traditional religious questions such as sin, living a Christian life, responding to the different aspects of the Gospel, etc., out of General Conventions, out of seminaries, out of many churches, and eventually out of church members’ lives . . . . I would argue strongly that loss of vitality in mainline churches tracks directly with the shift in agenda from “living as the Body of Christ” to “declaring social, political, and economic policy for the larger society.” . . .

Michael H. Kenyon
Canton, MA

Fighting the Gnostics

My personal experience as a public critic of the employment of women and homosexuals in the military confirms the effectiveness of Arthur Leff’s “the grand sez who,” mentioned in your March issue by Phillip Johnson (“Nihilism and the End of Law”). Against all military reasons for admitting women and homosexuals, feminists and gays will invoke a moral imperative that the military simply must make room for both. This is usually expressed as a “right to serve.” Rather than attempting a rational argument about which rights we have and don’t have, I have found the most effective response is to question the source of all rights: “Where do you get this ‘right to serve’? Where is it written in stone? What god has handed this down from on high? No god that I know of. What god do you worship?” The effect can be devastating . . . .

It is becoming plain that on this and many other issues over which our world is now at war, the question at the heart of it all is, what is the name of your god? The arguments we apply to the issues depend entirely upon our theological assumptions. As Johnson shows, against “modernists,” who might better be called “gnostics” la Eric Voegelin, reason is ultimately ineffective, always trumped by their gnosis, the belief they hold anterior to reason . . . .

I am afraid that the impotence of reason outside a religious context, as explained by Johnson, means that the alliances that form between members of different faiths will always be ad hoc. There can be no fundamental agreement between fundamentally different religions, say, Christianity and Judaism. The apparent agreement between them on some issues is merely accidental. Christians and Jews might agree on a particular position, but the arguments they employ to advance that position will proceed from different assumptions. Insisting, in the name of the alliance, that both sides give up reference to the religious underpinnings of their argument will hobble all arguments. Dragging religion into the argument may dismay those who wish to see the triumph of “conservatism” without seeing the triumph of any particular religion, but against the gnostics we have no alternative.

I do not agree with Johnson that Christians should, whenever possible, justify political choices on secular rather than religious grounds. If a man’s principal reasons for advocating a policy are religious, he should say so. It is disingenuous for Christians to argue for Sunday blue laws for the sake of “rest and recreation,” as Johnson suggests, when they really want blue laws because such laws permit (but not encourage) church attendance. A more honest and probably more effective argument would be for Christians to declare plainly, “I go to church on Sunday and do not want to be obliged by my employer to work on that day.” In a time when children’s soccer games and other public events are more and more often scheduled on Sunday morning, this argument must more and more often be made, else Christians will find their Sundays taken from them. We should also remember that it is because of our habit of arguing from the least offensive grounds that religion has passed out of our political discourse. The courage and grace to express religious beliefs publicly comes with practice, and we Americans need the practice . . . .

Brian Mitchell
Alexandria, VA

Christian Persecution

I read Richard John Neuhaus’ “The Ruling ‘We’ of the American Jewish Congress” (Public Square, February) with some interest. However, what Neuhaus did not say is just as important as what he said.

One of the most important points he failed to include was that of religious and ethnic discrimination. Conveniently enough, he fails to mention that Jews, who have resided in a supposedly “Christian” society since the seventeenth century, and who have made numerous contributions to American culture, have been repeatedly subjected to Christian bigotry, including anti-Semitism, despite the First Amendment. All the colonies—even such tolerant ones as South Carolina, Maryland, and Pennsylvania—refused Jews the right to hold political office, and this continued after the establishment of the United States and the passage of the Bill of Rights. Jews were regularly subjected to discrimination in public life. As only one of many examples: Before banning of prayer in public schools in 1963, Jews and other non-Christians were forced to participate in listening to prayers and Bible-readings not within their traditions. If this is not a denial of freedom of worship, what is it? Why must non-Christians accept having their First Amendment rights violated? . . .

Carol Bodenheimer
Winston-Salem, NC

How Many Episcopalians?

In “More Galluping” (Public Square, March), you suggest that the common claim that there are more Muslims in America than there are Episcopalians is untrue. My suggestion is that you take a closer look at the numbers that the Church provides. For example, the Episcopalian Church annual for 1992 (the 1993 annual is in the publication process as I write) does not use the figure of 2,000,000 members to which you refer. It uses two-year-old figures compiled by parish reports which reveal that at that time—three years ago—there were 2.4 million Baptized Members. There were 1.69 million Confirmed Communicants in Good Standing, which represented a decline of one per cent over the previous year’s statistics.

One problem is this: what does that mean? It used to mean something, because many years ago priests were obligated to abide by the Prayer Book rubrics which said that only Baptized Members in Good Standing were to receive Communion. That is no longer true, so this statistic is not taken seriously anymore.

A more recent statistic is more relevant—my source is my former Pastoral Theology Professor at Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary, Dr. Charles Caldwell. On the three highest Holy Days of the year the average total attendance at Episcopalian parishes was 800,000. I would suggest that on any given Sunday in America, based on this statistic, there are fewer than 500,000 Episcopalians in the pews. I would say that that constitutes the minimal standard of Church affiliation. I would argue that the Muslim population is probably larger than the Episcopalian population, and undoubtedly far more committed.

(The Rev.) Owen Jones
Rose Hill Foundation
Aiken, SC

Revisionist History

I enjoyed reading “The Compleat and Authentick Historie of the Conquest of New Spain” (Public Square, February), but as you suspect, an inauthentic note has crept into the text. Your version reads: “The principal industry of the colonialists was making lewd remarks at the Indian maidens and exporting the reactions to the mother country in exchange for tattoos of Pope Innocent VIII.” Surely, given the tone of this document as a whole, the original wording must have been “father country.”

Anthony Low
Ridgefield, CT

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