Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Christian nation and all that…


I must begin this posting by thanking Rob, Steve, and Michael S. for their contributions to the issue of inauguration events that will include, most assuredly, prayers.


If we consider the history of this country which quickly accepted an interestingly and obscurely worded amendment that speaks of the non-establishment of religion, we must take stock of how religion has played a role in the Republic’s history. Most presidents have at one time or another relied on an invocation to God for blessings, for victory, for meeting challenges, etc. This might be considered civic religion—rather non-descript, non-sectarian. Then there is also the need to consider the invocation of Justice Brewer about this being a Christian nation found in the Supreme Court’s decision in Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States. While we are at it, we must never forget the post-election letter sent by the recently elected Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in which he sought to comfort the Connecticut Baptists from their concerns and fears about their Congregational neighbors. And, we must never forget so many presidential addresses made in times of difficulty or crisis when the Chief Executive, be he Republican or Democrat, has concluded his address with the invocation of God’s blessing on the United States, etc. Generic Christianity and religion in many manifestations have played a prominent role in American politics just as the dictum regarding the wall of separation between church and state has played.


I am reasonably confident that the political events surrounding January 20 in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere in the Republic will offer much fodder regarding the perceived propriety or impropriety of invoking God’s name regardless of any denominational or confessional context. Regarding the inaugural ceremony itself, I think that it represents a multiplicity of celebrations for the newly installed president (which is personal), for the government or state (which is supposedly indifferent to religion), and for the nation or people (which tends to be religious in a rather broad sense). Each of these contexts provides different considerations regarding friendliness, neutrality, or animosity to a particular creed. But, if we are concentrating our discussion on the taking of an oath or affirmation, then I see more of the personal associated with the new or re-elected president coming into play. Should this person choose a Bible (think of the possibilities: King James, Douay-Rheims, Revised Standard Edition, New Revised Standard Edition, etc.—each of which could, I suppose, generate some mild controversy); the Tanak; the Koran (Arabic or vernacular translation, either of which could generate controversy on other fronts); the so-called Jefferson bible; or some other text that is viewed as sacred or something like that, largely depends on the belief tradition of the person taking the oath. And, I think most Americans would agree with this personal decision about the religious or spiritual texts used and the prayers offered by the office holder who is about to assume office even though the celebration goes beyond the personal achievement of his or her becoming the Chief Executive of the United States.


I see the real question for those of us involved in the project of developing a Catholic legal theory resting somewhere else. And where might that somewhere else be? Here I offer two points of reference: the first more general, the second more particular and of interest to Catholic (legal) academics. First, the more general: I think those of us who make the claim of being Catholic should recall that the Christian nation of which Justice Brewer spoke was certainly more Protestant than it was Catholic; but given this probability, which Protestantism? I doubt that either Justice Brewer or anyone from his time or prior to his time would have thought that the Christian nation was Catholic. After all, the sentiment against papists and popery was rather noticeable on the religious Richter scale of those times. But if some form of Protestantism were the common belief, there was certainly division amongst those Christians from the “reformed” tradition of Christianity as reflected in the historical development of New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies that would divide this “common” belief. Otherwise, there never would have been a need for a response to the Danbury Baptist Association. Religious toleration was not something that was well practiced if practiced at all in the early years of our country’s history. One notable exception was Maryland’s Act of Religious Toleration enacted in 1649 but repealed a few years later that afforded protection to all Christians, i.e., Catholics and all Protestants, during its brief life. Perhaps the Act was a savvy move on the part of the then Catholic establishment in political society to attract Puritans and other Protestants to Maryland, but it was more the exception than the rule in its day and for many generations to come. It did not reflect the standard European practice of the time which was still largely conditioned by the Peace of Westphalia—cuius regio, eius religio. But then Maryland was not Europe, it was a part of the beginning of a new country and a new nation. With a strong measure of humility, it can be said that the one temporary Catholic stronghold in the New World at that time was more tolerant of other religious perspectives than were the Protestant-dominated regions.


The second point I would like to offer for reflection is something that is the charge of the Catholic disciple (including the legal academic) who may find himself or herself engaged in some aspect of participation in public life. I do not think that it is wise for the Catholic citizen to forget that he or she holds multiple citizenships simultaneously. Because of this, the Catholic should not forget one’s personal responsibility to avoid cooperation with efforts designed to exclude religion, including the Catholic faith, from public life. In this context, I would like to offer for consideration these words of Fr. John LaFarge, S.J. (pastor, educator, author, and editor) penned in 1954 that provide much insight on this second point:



When things are definitely past, they seem like dreams. The troubling thought drifted into my mind: will our Catholic churches in the United States some day seem like a dream? Will our thousands of parochial schools, our glorious college and university campuses, our hospitals and institutions and national organizations seem to us, even in a few years distant, as remote as do today the Knights Templars of the Middle Ages? This could happen, if we relax an eternal vigilance for the Faith, or if we betray the Faith by lives that contradict its fundamental teachings. The Church of the future lies in the hands of the Church of the present… The Church is never secure in a too complacent society.



I am not too troubled by what prayers are or are not said at the inauguration on January 20, 2009. I am, however, very concerned about how Catholics in the United States and, for that matter the rest of the world, view their role in public life and their responsibility to shape the country and the world as the well-formed conscience (that necessarily reflects the wisdom of the Church’s teachings) ordains. If change is the order of the day, I, as one Catholic citizen, would like to have a say in the matter not simply because I am a citizen but because I am a citizen who is at the same time a Catholic.


RJA sj



Araujo, Robert | Permalink

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