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Of Bishop Tobin, Governor Chafee, Roger Willams and President Kennedy

January 7, 2011

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.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Len Levin permalink
    January 7, 2011 9:37 pm

    Terrific piece, Scott, but you still haven’t learned how to spell “similar.”

  2. ken fish permalink
    January 7, 2011 11:16 pm

    excellent!! let us know if you get a response…..

  3. Jim Mitchell permalink
    January 7, 2011 11:55 pm

    Scott you are too funny.

    Definition of ELOQUENT
    1: marked by forceful and fluent expression
    2: vividly or movingly expressive or revealing

  4. jason permalink
    January 9, 2011 1:10 am

    Not only was Gov. Chafee speech poorly delivered it was poorly researched. In fact in his reference to Roger Williams’ doctrine on separation of church and state Chafee attempts to rewrite history once again. He quoted only the firts half of Williams’ remarks engraved over the south door of the state house. Chaffee states, Williams’ founding of Rhode Island “to hold forth a lively experiment that a most flourishing civil state may stand.” He did not finish the quote which reads, “to best be maintained with full liberty in religious concernments.”

    Any half-qualified Historian would know that Williams was advocating tolerance in all faiths’ participation in Government, not the banishment of religious participation.

  5. Jim Mitchell permalink
    January 9, 2011 12:37 pm

    It’s pathetic for MacKay to claim separation of church and state as the reason for his virulent attack on Thomas Tobin and the Catholic church.
    No venom dripped from Scott’s mouth when the Bishop and several other religious leaders injected themselves into the illegal alien debate and publicly clashed with Gov. Carcieri.
    Not one word from hypocrite Scotso when that issue rolled around.
    Liberalism is a mental disorder and its’ on full display with the venomous hypocrisy filled ramblings of Scott MacKay.

    PS – MacKay’s “version” of the Patches Kennedy/Bishop Tobin public scrum on abortion IS an abortion. What lies Scotso spins…..

  6. Leonard permalink
    January 11, 2011 2:56 pm

    Hurrah for separation of church and state! Free, equal, and indiscriminate political policy is in the best interest of all. Cheers to the brave and courageous champions of public liberty, the Kennedys and Chaffee’s and many others of RI.

  7. Marc permalink
    January 15, 2011 7:53 pm

    This article smacks of liberal propaganda. I’d need to take a day out of my life to properly rebut both the factual inaccuracies and mistaken analysis put forth here. (No wonder NPR is the only media outlet Chafee will speak to).

    Freedom of religion is not freedom FROM religion, and the beliefs of all faiths have a place in our public discourse and policy development. Should only the godless be allowed to make public policy? The author seems to think so. It’s quite ironic how the liberal element wants to push people of faith (especially Catholics) INTO a closet on this issue.

    I for one admire Bishop Tobin for speaking his mind on important issues – even though he knows his position will invite an avalanche of clumsy character assassination attempts such as this one.

    • January 15, 2011 9:11 pm

      Actually Chafee is talking to reporters from all media outlets. The only people he isn’t talking to are the talk show hosts.

  8. Giuseppe Butera permalink
    January 15, 2011 8:19 pm

    I find it ironic that the writer should lecture Bishop Tobin on how to do his job after criticizing the good bishop for daring to voice his opinion on an issue that lies outside his area of professional competence. As to the substantive issue of the separation of Church and state, my understanding is that its purpose is to promote religious freedom, not limit it. But that is precisely what the writer and others propose when they criticize Bishop Tobin and other religiously-minded folks for bringing their faith into the public square. If you don’t agree with their views, your free to say so. But don’t pretend that your efforts to silence religious talk in the public square is anything other than a very illiberal attempt at censorship.

  9. Ansabesa permalink
    January 15, 2011 8:46 pm

    In fact the bishop is correct. There is no statement in the Constitution which insists on the “separation of church and state”. As is well known, the First Amendment purely states that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion etc.” Unfortunately, this has been interpreted to mean there should be no governmental expression of religious principles or display or religious symbols.
    Kennedy’s admonition to the Southern Baptist was not to vote against any candidate because of his religion or lack of religion. He correctly stated that no president should be told what to do by a prelate or minister. However, it would be a wild stretch to interpret this to mean a prelate or minister can’t speak out on an issue which they deem important.
    No less a president than George Washington in his farewell speech to the citizens of this country said: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” These are prophetic words. As we see religion and its influence in our society diminish, we see a concomittant increase in violence, hatred, exploitation, misogyny, and a lack of civility. Our cultural values are adrift and the culture of death is becoming more and more prevalent.
    Thank God Bishop Tobin has spoken out and pleads for us not to abandon the cultural values which have made this country great. We must not abandon our definition of marriage which has always been between one man and one woman since the beginning of humanity.

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