Revisiting Benedict XVI's Visit

And Taking a Look at His Praise for the US

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JAN. 15, 2009 ( Last April, Americans basked in the glow of Benedict XVI’s visit. His gentle charm won them, his direct confrontation of serious issues in the Church impressed them and his message of «Spe Salvi» rallied them. Americans were also startled to hear themselves praised by the Holy Father. After two centuries of being the new kids on the block, they were stunned to hear the Pope suggest that Europe could learn from the American model of Church and state relations.

When curious Europeans asked about this exemplary model, however, Americans were perplexed. As of late, it seems that the U.S. has been trying out several different models.

U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon picked up the Pope’s challenge to rediscover the American model of religious liberty and in her final conference of a richly packed year leading the U.S. mission to the Holy See, she set out to examine that model.

On January 13, a star-studded international conference presented to Americans and Europeans alike what the Holy Father found praiseworthy, but also the real challenges and pitfalls facing Church/state relations in America.

Historical tug-of-war

On the plane to the U.S., Pope Benedict made the following comment to Italian reporter Andrea Tornielli, «What I find fascinating in the United States is that they began with a positive concept of secularism, because this new people was formed by communities and people who had fled from the state churches and wanted to have a lay state, secular, that would open possibilities to all confessions, for all the types of religious exercise. In this way, an intentionally secular state was born: They were against a state church.»

The first speaker, Dr. Phillip Hamburger of Columbia University, gave a succinct explanation of the development of the American experiment on how to combine government and religion. Pointing out the specific circumstances of founding fathers of the 18th century, Professor Hamburger emphasized that the «positive secularism» of the newborn American state was designed to protect religion from the state and not vice versa.

Having left Europe to escape Churches imposed by the state, as in England, or a state hostile to the Church, as in France, the Constitution of the United States tried to form a climate where the myriad of different peoples joining the new nation would be able to practice diverse religions without interference by the government.

Despite lack of any reference to God in the Constitution, this notion of religious liberty made America a land where many different religions could flourish side by side in relative peace.

Tensions existed from the beginning however, Professor Hamburger noted. Some wanted a state blind to religion, while others looked for exemptions from law for religious reasons.

This tug-of-war has contributed to what Professor Hamburger describes as the decline of the U.S. model, which has taken place during the second half of the 20th century. On the one side, demands for religious exemption from laws has spawned the notion that if «some religious freedom is good, more is better.» But Professor Hamburger believes that indeed «more is less» as it creates inequality and discrimination in favor of those with religious beliefs.

At the same time, a re-reading of the First Amendment out of its original context has also caused a misunderstanding of the meaning of disestablishment. The First Amendment intended to prohibit the state from forming a religion, but as the years wore on, a new meaning of separation of Church and state came into play.

Professor Hamburger explained that the founding fathers intended a vertical separation of government and religion so that the state could not reach down into the religious sphere. Today it has been misinterpreted as a wall between Church and state and glossed with prejudice and intolerance.

A fascinating historical nugget presented by Professor Hamburger recounted the beginnings of the Church-state separation mantra in the anti-Catholic slogans of the 1840s against the immigrant Irish. Those slogans were picked up by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Catholics were painted as ignorant, mindless followers of a foreign despot, while Protestants were intellectually independent and acted according to conscience.

Understandably, Americans at the dawn of the 21st century are confused between these two interpretations of Church/state relations. Professor Hamburger closed on a positive note, saying that that the «old model lives on,» but the American people need to rediscover its original meaning and luster.

A gritty snapshot

When addressing the U.S. bishops conference last April, Pope Benedict illustrated some weaknesses of the American model, saying, «Perhaps America’s brand of secularism poses a particular problem: it allows for professing belief in God, and respects the public role of religion and the Churches, but at the same time it can subtly reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator. Faith becomes a passive acceptance that certain things ‘out there’ are true, but without practical relevance for everyday life.»

Dr. Richard Garnett of Notre Dame Law School addressed the modern threats to positive secularism with a candid portrait of the state of religious liberty today.

He outlined three models of religious freedom at play in the United States. The first is a freedom from religion that tries to exclude religion from public life as if it were «just another hobby.» The domestication of religion creates a boundary that prevents people from living their religion in every aspect of their lives.

The second is freedom of religion that recognizes religion cannot be simply put aside, but treats it with a «benevolent evenhandedness.» This model refuses to acknowledge the specialness of religion.

The third model is the ideal, freedom for religion, in which man’s «search for truth is recognized as an important human activity.» This model, which reflects the spirit of the founding fathers, does not impose religion but understands that man needs to look for truth.

Professor Garnett also shed light on the tremendous amount of litigation over religion that steers and drives these models. The stakes are very high between these models; questions of education, the liberty of religious institutions to govern themselves, bioethical issues all have an interest in which model will prevail.

While presenting a sobering picture of a very real battlefield, Garnett saw hope for the model of freedom for religion in that «our laws still think religion is good thing.»

The agent provocateur

On the White House lawn, Pope Benedict offered a challenge to the American people. «Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility. Americans know this from experience — almost every town in this country has its monuments honoring those who sacrificed their lives in defense of freedom, both at home and abroad. The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility toward the less fortunate. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate.»

The last talk, given by Dr. Joseph Weiler of New York University, brought the responsibility of religious freedom out of courts, Congress and churches and placed it squarely on the shoulders of citizens.

«Between the government sphere and the private sphere, there is the huge sector of civil society,» Professor Weiler noted. «Citizens cannot break the First Amendment, only governments; it is a shield, not a sword.»

Professor Weiler pointed out that when Americans consent to the sterilization of speech from religious content, the «naked public square» and the willful misunderstanding of the separation of Church and state, they are allowing their own religious freedom to slip through
their fingers.

Furthermore, he pointed out the irony that Christianity introduced the concept of that which is Caesar’s and that which is God’s, creating a distinction between the realm of God and the realm of man, yet this great innovation is often manipulated at present to strangle the voice of religion.

An expert on European law, Professor Weiler, pointed out the essential element of religion in the identity of Europeans, making the purely secular American model an imperfect fit. «The Irish without the Holy Trinity and the British without God Save the Queen lose a crucial part of what defines them as a nation.»

Provoking the Church and state separation question further, Professor Weiler announced that the «deepest religious freedom is that of being able to say no to God.» Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, man should be free to choose to defy God. Therefore, the true acceptance of religion would be to put man in a position to refuse religion, instead of hiding religion from him.

Professor Weiler placed a strategic burr under the saddle of the harmonious proceedings, by alluding repeatedly to a Franco-American model of Church/state relations at work in the United States.

For many it seemed like an oxymoron — the French having legislation against religion and the Americans legislating for religious tolerance. But over the years and the intermixing of models, the French definition of laicism has begun to infiltrate American notions of religious freedom.

The attendees tried to shake off the French comparison with lively debate, but a few uncomfortable thorns stuck. The realization that America might be drifting toward a European model, with its attendant low birthrates, education problems and general malaise lingered as the conference ended.

On the eve of a new presidency, as Americans enter a new era, the momentum begun by Pope Benedict on his trip to America took on clarity and direction in this last great conference held by Ambassador Glendon, organized by the U.S. embassy to the Holy See and made possible by the Knights of Columbus.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. She can be reached at

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