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Issue Date:  April 23, 2004

From the Editor's Desk

Mixing and mingling

Richard Rodriguez’s essay (see story) about the impact of the American neighborhood, “officially secular; informally tolerant of many faiths,” made me think back about a decade when I lived in New Jersey and my youngest son’s best friends were an Indian boy and a Muslim boy.

What I also recall is that in a three-square-block area around our house there were several Jewish households, at least one Jewish-Christian couple, a conservative Baptist, a row of homes where mostly African-Americans lived, assorted Presbyterians and Catholics, and a plumber who studied Zen Buddhism. The high school friends of our older children gave our living room in after-school hours the aura of a junior U.N. gathering.

The American neighborhood has been in some kind of evolution for years. Rodriguez’s synthesis of this “browning” of America and the church is fascinating and leads in surprising directions.

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I don’t know the relationship between the two, but there certainly is irony in the fact that while such mixing and mingling is going on in our neighborhoods, at the national level we appear determined to conform our national purpose to some manner of Christian Crusade. Rosemary Radford Ruether’s call for a new Barmen Declaration ( see story), one that would reject “Americanist Christianity” just as the original denounced the “German Christianity” of the 1930s, is provocative and timely. And given the tone of President Bush’s convictions at the end of his April 13 news conference, when his language turned religious to explain the purpose of American militarism, some might consider it an urgent matter as well.

Whether one disagrees with the particulars, Ruether’s call to a critical analysis of this big picture theme should be top of the list for American churches, for it would surface the difficult questions about the United States’ place in the world and the role of Christian believers within that context.

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Unfortunately, at least in the Catholic world, it appears that the election season will become another struggle over how to select the staunchest antiabortion advocates. Not discounting the importance of the abortion issue, it will be unfortunate, as Fr. Richard McBrien points out ( see story), if bishops place Catholic politicians in the impossible position of having to behave like spiritual leaders who possess absolute truth when they operate in an arena where compromise is the modus vivendi.

McBrien revives “the distinction that the late Jesuit theologian, John Courtney Murray, and others had made between the moral law and the civil law.” A distinction, which also runs to the difference between state and church, that is in need of revisiting.

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The distinction must be understood not in the common use of that phrase -- that state and church are to be kept separate, never to mix -- but in the broader sense, that they work in different ways and under different rules.

Religion has an obligation to try to shape public discussion and public policy. But to dismiss too quickly discussion of any other issues for the sake of a single strategy on limiting abortions is a shortsighted use of political capital that, if history teaches us anything, ultimately will backfire.

The distinction was lost in the case of Ono Ekeh, the employee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who was fired because he maintains a Catholics for Kerry Internet forum. Look in on Ekeh’s explanation (see story) of how he proposes to diminish abortion and his explanation of the “demand side” approach to the problem.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 2004

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