“The secularist has always fought his battles under a banner on which is emblazoned his special device, ‘The Integrity of the Political Order.’ In the name of this thundering principle he would banish from the political order (and from education as an affair of the City) all the ‘divisive forces’ of religion. At least in America he has traditionally had no quarrel with religion as a ‘purely private matter,’ as a sort of essence or idea or ambient aura that may help to warm the hidden heart of solitary man. He may even concede a place to religion-in-general, whatever that is. What alarms him is religion as a Thing, visible, corporate, organized, a community of thought that presumes to sit superior to, and in judgment on, the ‘community of democratic thought,’ and that is furnished somehow with an armature of power to make its thought and judgment publicly prevail. Under this threat he marshals his military vocabulary and speaks in terms of aggression, encroachment, maneuvers, strategy, tactics.”—Fr. John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (1960)
We’ve already heard a great deal, courtesy of the GOP convention, about the proper place of religion in public life. Expect to hear a whole lot more by Election Day. It’s naïve to think that this election would not witness such a debate. It’s positively unhistorical to appeal to some point in the American past when religion did not figure into public evaluation of policy and of their leaders’ character--or when leaders did not walk uncertainly into this minefield. (E.g., Thomas Jefferson looked with horror upon the religious revival occasioned in the Second Great Awakening, but many members of that movement later supported the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements.)
A prior post of mine briefly explored the influence of John Courtney Murray in the life of the Roman Catholic Church (his work was key in Vatican II’s pronouncements on religious freedom) and in the election of 1960, when John F. Kennedy’s advisers could lean on Murray’s work to show that Catholic teaching was perfectly compatible with American pluralism.
But now it seems as if it’s back-to-school time for many people associated with the current election cycle, from Rick Santorum (whose comment that JFK’s speech in Houston on the proper place of religious belief in politics—“It made me want to throw up”—forever branded him as immature) and secularist progressives (who, in their exclusionary vision of a value-free politics, risk losing the activists who have fueled, among other things, the labor and civil-rights movements).