Of Bishop Tobin, Governor Chafee, Roger Willams and President Kennedy
So Bishop Thomas Tobin, Roman Catholic bishop of Providence, is at it again, using his bully pulpit and the views of his faith to try to influence political issues in Rhode Island. In a column in yesterday’s Rhode Island Catholic, the newspaper of the diocese, Tobin asked, “Has our state lost its soul.’’
Then Tobin decided to become a constitutional scholar, asserting somehow that the doctrine of the separation of church and state isn’t really a part of American constitutional development.
The phrase “separation of church and state’’ isn’t found anywhere in the Constitution, Tobin asserts, but was a principle that evolved later. Nor should the “so-called separation of church and state be used as a weapon to silence the faith community or restrict its robust participation in the the debate of important public issues,’’ the bishop wrote. “I’ve found that whenever I’ve spoken out on public issues, e.g, abortion, gay marriage or immigration some irritated souls, arguing the separation of church and state, will insist I am out of line. In fact, religious leaders have every right, indeed, the duty to speak out on public issues.’’
Tobin has been aggressive in asserting that Rhode Island, the state with the largest percentage of Catholics of any state, should follow church teachings against legalizing gay marriage. And Tobin has been outspoken in demanding that Catholic politicians obey church teachings, most notably in threatening to deny former Congressman Patrick Kennedy communion because of Kennedy’s support for abortion. Now he is calling Governor Lincoln Chafee’s support for gay marriage immoral.
(Never mind that at the time Kennedy was facing difficulties with substance abuse and likely needed pastoral support more than a lecture on how to do the job Rhode Islanders elected him to. Kennedy’s stance on abortion and health care is precisely the same as that of the state’s most prominent and influential Catholic politician, Sen. Jack Reed, but Tobin pretty much gave Reed a free ride at the same time he hammered away at a medically vulnerable Kennedy).
Chafee’s inaugural address was an eloquent, albeit not so well-delivered, defense of the separation of church and state. Tobin didn’t attend the speech, in which Chafee cited Rhode Island founder Roger Williams ‘famous doctrine of…. you guessed it, the separation of church and state.
Bishop Tobin is not a son of New England so perhaps he doesn’t understand the long history of church-government relations in our corner of America or the sordid history of discrimination against Catholics in our region.
Williams, of course, set up a colony with complete freedom of conscience. “Forced religion stinks in the nostrils of God,’’ Williams famously said. There was a strong barrier between church and state; there deliberately were no religious tests for holding public office.
Williams genius was to figure out that if the state supported, or established, no religion, then no faith would be placed above another in the eyes of the law. Williams thus established the doctrine of religious tolerance for the first time in the political history of the western world.
This was a sharp break from the European tradition, in which nations and states often had established state churches; in most of them the established church was Roman Catholic.
But it wasn’t only Chafee’s Protestant forebears who were so strong in their defense of the separation of church and state. Perhaps Bishop Tobin is not aware of the beliefs of one of those “irritated souls’’ he so disparages.
Well, it may be time to reintroduce Rhode Islanders with the thoughts of the last New Englander to become president, John F. Kennedy. As everyone knows, Kennedy was also American’s first Roman Catholic president. Kennedy’s views on the separation of church and state were obviously informed by Williams and were exactly the same as…you guessed it, those of Lincoln D. Chafee.
In a 1960 speech to a group Texas Baptist ministers, Kennedy eloquently, and in very plain and forceful language, with vigor (pronounced vigah, of course, in JFK speak) defended the erection of a strong wall of separation between church and state.
“It is apparently necessary for me to state once again – not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me – but what kind of America I believe in,’’ Kennedy said.
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president – should he be Catholic – how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him,’’ JFK said.
“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant or Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all,’’ said Kennedy.
“For while this year it might be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been – and may someday be again- a Jew, a Quaker or a Unitarian, or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers that led to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you, until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a great time of national peril,’’ said JFK.
“I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end, where all men and all churches are treated as equals, where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice, where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, bloc voting of any kind, and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and the pastoral levels, will refrain from attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood,’’ said JFK.
So there you have it, Linc Chafee and JFK on one side and Bishop Tobin far away on another. Chafee, of the Episcopal faith, is beyond the reach of Tobin’s Eucharist police squad. As is Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts, another same-sex marriage supporter, who is of the Congregational faith.
Some Catholics and other religious conservatives dismiss JFK’s speech as nothing more than campaign rhetoric. He didn’t really mean what he said, goes this trope, he was only saying these things to get elected. (This is the position advanced by Sarah Palin in a recent book). A similiar argument can be made against almost any landmark presidential utterance in American history. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was politically motivated; it was designed to rally Abolitionist sentiment in the North during the Civil War. It didn’t even free all the slaves, only those in the Confederate states that were “in rebellion” in 1863. Does any of that make it any less relevant as a powerful icon of American democracy and freedom?
Which is why we include such long JFK excerpts; the beauty of our form of government is that we get to make up our minds on these issues ourselves.
The Roman Catholic church is not a democracy. Rhode Island is. Bishop Tobin surely understands this fundamental distinction.