Tuesday, February 12, 2008

More on E.J. Dionne Jr.

2/12/2008--Well, now I have an essay by E.J. Dionne, Jr., recently published in Commonweal magazine (2/15/2008). The essay is described as “adapted” from his new book, “Souled Out".

Dionne does understand that we are in a third phase of the relationship of church and state in which religion is more in the mainstream of the public square—mainstreamed, he calls it—than during the period that banned prayer in the public schools. He also says that in this third phase, politics will not attempt to totally bracket religion and morality. Whether or not religion and politics should mix, he writes, they inescapably do mix.

But Dionne has not moved at all from the fundamental 1960’s commitment of government religious neutrality. All that has changed is that students in public school, for example, now have the right to their own individual religious expression.

This is precisely the wrong way to go. It used to be at a high school graduation that the school board would ask a member of the clergy for a nice, bland non-sectarian public prayer. After that, religion would be politely excised from the rest of the ceremony.

Now, after Lee v. Weisman (1992) banned such invocational prayers, and with the new emphasis on individual student expression that Dionne likes so much, religious minority believers and atheists have to suffer through 18-year-olds praising Jesus for their high school diplomas. As I wrote in American Religious Democracy, “The Court has not eliminated religion in public high schools. It has only eliminated adult leadership.”

The underlying problem in the relation of church and state is the assumption that there are secularists/atheists on the one hand and religious believers on the other. While this is true in a sense, the real question is, what does a secularist/atheist believe that a religious believer does not? The word God may mask basic similarities concerning the reality of the good in our lives and in history.

One nation under God may turn out to include more people than we now assume. That would be a real third phase.

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