Church and State in America

Critic and author who was born in Egypt and educated at Oxford, CHARLES J. ROLO has been responsible for the literary reviews in the ATLANTIC for the past twelve years. He is now on leave of absence, engaged in writing a book of his own, and we are happy to have him take the time for a thoughtful scrutiny of Paul Blanshard’s controversial book GOD AND MAN IN WASHINGTON, recently published by Beacon Press.

PAUL BLANSHARD is so well known as a warrior wild, battling the papist dragon, that one would expect his God and Man in Washington to be a campaign tract, pinpointed on the dangers of putting a Roman Catholic in the White House. But such is not quite the case. Only one fifth of the book is devoted to the question of a Catholic’s candidacy for the presidency, and the discussion is not entirely one-sided. Blanshard observes that Kennedy has displayed “the kind of independence that apprehensive non-Catholics had been hoping to see in a Catholic candidate.”

God and Man in Washington is “a popular survey of the most important interactions between government and religion on the whole national church-state frontier, with emphasis on the current conflicts along that frontier.” The book is a more balanced affair than its predecessors, and its tone is temperate. Blanshard, to be sure, has not changed his opinion that certain policies of the Catholic Church are a threat to American democracy. Granted this bias, one can credit him with occasionally making a stab at being fair. When he is discussing the Supreme Court, he emphasizes that the Catholic justices have not voted as Catholics, and he documents some occasions on which they have written or concurred in decisions that brought upon them the reproaches of their church’s hierarchy. He reports approvingly that Catholicism has lately been more sympathetic to labor than Protestantism, and he puts in a good word about its support for slum clearance and its official stand on desegregation.

Blanshard is not a profound thinker, and for a study in depth of the church-state problem students will continue to turn to Canon Stokes’s three-volume Church and State in the United States, published in 1950. The importance of the Blanshard book is that it covers a highly significant area ol our national fife which is by and large treated both scrappily and blandly in the press. Blanshard compactly presents a sizable body of information about religion in American politics, some of it fascinating, some of it odd, and all of it interesting. His central concern is the doctrine of the separation of church and state, which Tocqueville, Bryce, and others have rated America’s most distinctive contribution to modern statecraft.

Blanshard’s first topic is the boom in religion or religiosity of the 1950s. The men who drafted the Constitution of the United States made no reference in it to God. But when Dwight Eisenhower was first inaugurated President in 1953, a contrivance called “God’s Float,” designed not to look Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish, was placed at the head of the inaugural parade, and on it were displayed the mottoes “In God We Trust” and “Freedom of Worship.”The float was the symbol of a marked change in the religious climate of American politics. A plan for the construction of a prayer room for congressmen, defeated in the Senate in 1952, was successfully sponsored in 1954. A resolution was passed by Congress which changed the words “one nation” into “one nation under God” in the traditional pledge of allegiance to the flag. In 1955 the phrase “In God We Trust” (used on coins as early as 1865) was made mandatory for all currency, and twelve months later it was adopted as our national motto without floor debate or a single dissenting vote. A more clear-cut challenge to church-state separation is a curious legislative proposal which has appeared in Congress for ten years in a row. It seeks to add to the Constitution a twenty-third amendment, committing the country to “the authority and law of Jesus Christ.” The Senate Judiciary Committee has voted against it, but it continues to be resurrected and reburied yearly.

During the 1950s, church membership was conspicuously on the rise. Today, three Americans out of five belong to a church or synagogue; in Lincoln’s day, according to Blanshard, the proportion was one in live. Of the 68 million Americans who are not attached to a specific church, many would call themselves either Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. But nonbelievers or secularists must be numerous in a country where large areas of the culture are dominated, or strongly influenced, by ideas and values derived from psychiatry. Blanshard argues that the proreligious orthodoxy of the Eisenhower era has placed secularists in the position of an underprivileged minority, which is seldom included in any discussion of the rights of religious groups. (The legal definition of religion, established by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, does not require belief in God but only “devotion to some principle; strict fidelity or faithfulness.”) The secularist minority has no spokesman for its interests in Congress. Its views are almost completely excluded from the newspapers, television, and radio, especially if it seeks to say anything negative about a powerful religious organization. And though it dominates many of the leading universities, this intellectual dominance goes unrecognized in Washington. To bring this analysis into proper focus, Blanshard should have noted that the secular camp no longer has the militancy of a Robert Ingersoll or the skeptical gusto of a Mencken; it seems to be permeated by the bland spirit of togetherness characteristic of the age. A Blanshard eager and willing to scrap with organized religion is not typical of the secularist spirit today.

Nonetheless, religion is a live issue in American politics: a Catholic is a leading contender for the presidency; Sunday blue laws are being challenged in several states; the UN has raised the question of supplying birth control information to countries that request it; and the conflict over interpretation of the First Amendment continues. Blanshard finds that the prevailing attitude of Congress is to be effusively friendly toward organized religion and to shun religious controversy. It reminds him of the British M.P. who, after the debate in the Commons on the Revised Prayer Book, came out of the House muttering that he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. “Surely,” he said, “we all believe in some kind of something.” Blanshard argues that reluctance to engage in forthright discussion of questions involving religion is widespread, possibly because the image of America as the defender of faith against “atheistic Communism” makes it seem almost treasonable to criticize organized religion. In this climate of religiosity and retreat from criticism, the separation of church and state, Blanshard warns, runs heightened risks of being compromised.

THE great source of controversy in the relations between church and state is sixteen words in the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” There are two distinct issues involved here. One is the use of public money for sectarian institutions. The other is the use of public institutions for the promotion of religious ideas.

In three famous decisions of the 1940s, the Supreme Court established the principle that no tax funds, federal or local, may be used for the central activities of sectarian schools. It ruled, however, that a state could, if it wished, provide bus transportation to parochial schools, the Court’s reasoning being that transportation is a “welfare” service to the child. Blanshard believes that the decision in the Everson bus case made a dangerous concession, since it could be argued that almost any feature of a school system is a welfare service. A Catholic journal used precisely this argument when it published an open letter to the President claiming public funds for the building of new parochial schools.

The financial challenge to the First Amendment is primarily a Catholic one. The religion-inpublic-schools challenge is Protestant. Indeed, Protestant encroachments on the neutrality of the public schools in the nineteenth century were a major factor in persuading the Catholic hierarchy to establish a separate school system. In 1948, the Supreme Court’s decision in the McCollum case barred the use of public school classrooms for (voluntary) religious education under the “released-time” system; and it rejected the theory that non preferential aid to religion could be considered constitutional. Four years later, in the Zorach case, the Court adopted a softer line and approved as constitutional the New York plan for one hour a week of released-time religious classes outside of public school buildings. A survey made by the National Council of Churches has shown that the Court’s ruling against the use of school buildings for religious education has been widely defied. Moreover, the Zorach decision has encouraged both Protestant and Catholic spokesmen to reassert that the First Amendment does not bar nonpreferential aid to religion.

Blanshard, though he recognizes that “Americans are a predominantly religious people,” seems insensitive to the deep and widely felt concern over giving religion its due in our educational system. This blind spot may encourage the impression that his opposition to concessions to sectarian interests is simply the expression of a hostility to organized religion. But Blanshard’s dedication to what Elihu Root called “the great American principle of eternal separation” is founded on the respectable and persuasive argument that we owe to it our greatest blessings. Under it, freedom of belief and tolerance have flourished; Europe’s age-old scourge, strife between church and state, has been averted; and cleavages have been kept to a minimum in our pluralistic society. Blanshard rightly cites as a cautionary case the experience of the Netherlands, where the policy of equal treatment for sectarian and public schools has had the effect of segregating Protestants and Catholics in their respective schools and anticlerical socialists in the public schools. This three-way cleavage has spread throughout the whole life of the nation, to the point where even chess clubs are denominational or socialist. Some provinces of Canada support both public and “separate” schools, and here, too, the result has been a dismaying accentuation of existing cultural divisions. “The United States,” Blanshard writes, “with a greater diversity of religious and ethnic groups, is in far greater need of neutralism in public education and government than are most European countries. Our ethnic divisions need to be softened and neutralized in the amalgam of a cultural institution which includes all creeds — as well as all races.”

“Two great potential disasters,” says Blanshard, “are involved in a campaign for and against a Catholic contender for the Presidency. The first is the defeat of an able Catholic candidate simply because he . . . bears the Catholic label. The second is the election of a Catholic candidate without facing squarely the question of his relationship to [the] policies of his Church. Of course, the current discussion of Catholicism is centered almost entirely on Disaster One.”

The horrors of the Hitler era have made bigotry so infamous to most to us that many people, fearful of lapsing into intolerance, have settled for a concept of religious tolerance which amounts to silencing the critical intelligence. Blanshard rightly rejects the cant notion that a political candidate’s religion is, irrespective of circumstances, a private matter with no bearing on his qualifications for office. The fallaciousness of this cliché becomes self-evident when one applies it to a couple of hypothetical cases. Obviously a Quaker unreservedly committed to pacifism or an Orthodox Jew who observes the Jewish calendar and Kosher dietary laws would have drawbacks as President of the United States. In the case of a Catholic, Blanshard argues, the voters have the right to ask what stand he would take on an issue involving what Blanshard calls — somewhat inaccurately — the six “basic teachings of the Church.” Of these, the most relevant in the present situation are the prohibition of contraceptives, the obligation of the state to support Catholic schools with public funds, and the order to parents to boycott the public schools unless they receive exemption from their bishop.

Senator Kennedy has vigorously stated his belief in the First Amendment: “There can be no question of Federal funds being used for support of parochial schools.” He has declared himself opposed to appointing an ambassador to the Vatican. And he has affirmed, contrary to Catholic doctrine, that nothing would take precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution.

One of Blanshard’s worries is that Kennedy’s Catholicism would influence his attitude toward such Catholic dictators as Franco and Salazar; but I doubt that he could treat them with much greater benevolence than recent Protestant Presidents and Secretaries of State. However, under a Catholic President, American ambassadors might be likely to become more closely involved with the Church in their respective countries and to take sides in its battles, a policy which could earn us no end of unpopularity. The most crucial issue, in the final analysis, has to do with Russia. Broadly speaking, enlightened Protestantism, though it does not broadcast the fact, is reconciled to coexistence and willing to accept compromises in order to achieve it. The Catholic Church is hostile to compromise: its view is that the Christian world is engaged in a crusade to rid humanity of atheistic Communism. If this attitude were to have a decisive influence on an American President, it might destroy the precarious improvement in U.S. relations with Russia which has caused the nightmare of war to recede.