'Special pleaders,' church-state issues and the new Republican shape of the U.S. Congress

Good stories lurk in ideology-driven magazines and web sites on the religion beat, perhaps more so than with other fields.

For example, there’s often useful fare blended with the partisanship of Church & State, monthly house organ of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. This lobby and litigator closely monitors those it assails as “far-right religious conservatives,” provides some useful information and is always happy to brief reporters on its side of an issue.

Consider, for example, the cover story in Church & State’s current issue, “New Congress, New Challenges,” by assistant communications director Simon Brown. Republicans rode to victory on “fundamentalist support,” he says, so “2015 could be a cataclysmic year for church-state separation.” 

Stripped of the tendentious rhetoric and alarmism, Brown assembles some good tips.  As he observes, during the next two years the Republican-run Congress may revive hot-button religion bills that previously died in committee or passed  the G.O.P House but not the Democratic Senate. They would:

* Help underprivileged students pay for religious schools.

* Aid houses of worship hit by natural disasters.

*Exempt religious dissenters from the “Obamacare” individual mandate, an issue that the U.S. Supreme Court faces, as well.

* Recognize a religious right for adoption agencies and public accommodations to avoid serving gay clients.

* Let military chaplains express their specific creeds when praying at mandated events, and guarantee similar freedom of speech and action for all those in uniform. (Also see the separate broadside (.pdf) titled “Clear and Present Falsehoods: Debunking Claims About Religious Freedom in the Military”).

Nutshell: Americans United liberals contend that only strict church-state separation produces religious freedom. Religious conservatives take the opposite side on issues and claim that their policies honor that same freedom, by defending the free exercise of religion.

If Americans United itself might be worth a story, there’s some intriguing history. The organization  began life in 1947 with a longer name that began with “Protestants and Other Americans... ” Its founding fathers were indeed patriarchs of what we today call “Mainline” Protestantism, and the chief author of its founding platform was The Christian Century’s editor.  
In 1948, prominent Catholic thinker John Courtney Murray depicted  the newborn PaOAUfSoCaS  as a “political instrument of the Protestant churches,” writing for the Jesuits’ America magazine. He thought the organization’s “angry mutterings,” “scare-technique” and “nightmare-theory” were at least “much more civilized” than the anti-Catholicism of the American past. 

Father Murray, of course, was later the top theological brain behind the Catholic Church’s 1965 embrace of American-style religious liberty at the Second Vatican Council.

Stay tuned, as things turn, turn, turn.

Please respect our Commenting Policy