Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Tammeus: Keep Government Out of Sanctuary

Bill Tammeus, faith writer for the Kansas City Star, graced St. Paul's adult Sunday school class last Sunday. He came to talk about matters of church-state relations.

I cannot hope to duplicate his humor and wit here; his is a refreshing and often amusing voice. I recommend his blog as regular reading and for a first-hand sample of his work. And, of course, his weekly column in the Star. My account of his talk, of necessity, reflects my words and understanding. I also need to say St. Paul's and the United Methodist's positions on these issues are made public elsewhere, but not on this blog.

He started the serious portion of the program with a few remarks sketching the history of church-state relations. Western culture long held that the king embodied sovereignty. The people followed the religion of the king, not by choice, but because the law of the land compelled obedience.

When the American Revolution began, the emerging nation already had a population of diverse religious faiths, albeit mostly different kinds of Protestantism. Our revolution consisted of more than the mere overthrow of an oppressive monarchy. We added the novel idea that sovereignty flows upwards from the people. Given the diverse population and the different notion of sovereignty, a state religion would have been impossible for the newly formed government.

In modern times, as in the early days of the republic, the "wall of separation" between church and state serves to keep government out of religion, not religion out of government. Mr. Tammeus observed that no one expects a judge, Congressman or president to discard his faith simply because they serve in public office. The real issue is keeping public authority out of private, personal matters of faith. We do not protect government from religion; rather, we protect ourselves from an intolerable intrusion into those affairs that matter most.

Mr. Tammeus stopped his prepared remarks early, inviting questions after having given us just enough material to serve as the basis for a healthy dialog.

In response to a question, he told the following story. Newly elected Congressman Emmanuel Clever said the first bill he would introduce would regulate how Holy Communion would be served. This would illustrate the absurdity and the danger of government support of specific faith based ideas, such as defining who churches are allowed to unite in marriage.

He said Kansas will very likely regret the amendment to the state constitution that embodied the "conservative Christian" narrow definition of who can marry. The group being discriminated against often supplies proportionally large numbers of creative and artistic people. By making those folks unwelcome in Kansas, we reduce the creativity that we will need to sustain a competitive economy in the face of globalization.

One man remarked on the inconsistency of prohibiting prayer in schools while printing the phrase "In God We Trust" on all our paper currency. Mr. Tammeus ran with the question and made several points. If the choice had been his, the phrase would never appeared on our money in the first place. But we must carefully pick and choose our battles. The phrase on the money, while not trivial, is certainly less important than almost every other issue facing the nation. Moreover, there is such a thing as "civic religion." We honor traditions anchored firmly in our history that reflect the religious impulse of the people, but in such a non-specific way that it avoids promotion of any particular beliefs at the expense of others. The "God" referred to on the money is not named, and could be the God of any religion; Jews, Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians or whatever.

When asked about his job, he described some of the projects he works on. He noted the "Faith" coverage of the newspaper has been reduced from a full section to the back page of the Saturday "F.Y.I." The Star covers faith and religion with just two writers. The sports section, by way of contrast, has dozens of reporters. He said people do not demand full coverage of developments in religion, so they don’t get it. The issues and progress in theology generally do not make the news. A large number of newsworthy stories go unreported in the paper as a result.

When asked how people could get coverage of religion, he mentioned Christianity Today, our own Methodist publications and website, BeliefNet.com, and GOOGLE, among others.

One woman voiced optimism that dialog and genuine exchanges of ideas have increased in just the last year or so. Mr. Tammeus agreed. He said we really need to listen to each other, and try to work together to address these issues. The current administration, by pushing faith based initiatives of various kinds, succeeded in bringing this issue to the forefront. As a result, discussion increased.

When asked for an explanation of the differences between Methodists and Presbyterians, he said they were not very significant. He did talk about different emphasis in worship and traditions, and pointed out subtle distinctions between the two denominations.

For me, the most thought provoking moment came when he suggested Christians should begin talks on unification of all denominations. Because of recent agreements between Lutherans and the Catholic Church, Mr. Tammeus believes the most significant doctrinal differences that keep us apart have been resolved. Thus, now is the time to begin talks on some kind of meaningful unification of all Christianity.

Mr. Tammeus delighted and informed his audience. Many people spoke to me about the excellence of his presentation. On behalf of St. Paul's, I thank him for giving us his Sunday morning.

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