Thomas Jefferson’s letter advocating “a wall of separation” between church and state has echoed down two centuries.
Now that idea is under attack. Secularism is on the defensive. The Republican Party’s agenda is increasingly driven by the Religious Right. The Terri Schiavo case, the battle over judicial nominations and the ongoing debate about “moral values” all, in different ways, illustrate the degree to which religious beliefs — or, more specifically, fundamentalist Christian beliefs — have been injected into public discourse in this country.
Just this past weekend, the Senate majority leader Bill Frist took part in a telecast that suggested Democrats were “against people of faith.”
There are good reasons for all Americans to mourn these assaults upon Jefferson’s metaphorical wall. But Americans of Irish heritage have particular cause to be alarmed at the fusion of religious ardor with political activism.
Ireland has, in many ways, followed exactly the opposite trajectory to the U.S. on church-state issues. For much of the 20th century, Irish politicians quaked in fear of offending senior members of the clergy.
Some shameful episodes resulted. Noel Browne, the man who almost single-handedly eradicated tuberculosis from Ireland, was abandoned by the government of the day when his Mother and Child health program incurred the wrath of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the 1950s. The same decade saw a parish priest incite an infamous anti-Protestant boycott in the County Wexford town of Fethard-on-Sea.
The influence of the church on Irish politics lived on for decades. Contraception-on-demand and homosexuality both, absurdly, remained illegal until the early 1990s.
Times have changed. Most religiously inspired legislation, with the exception of the ban on abortion, have now disappeared from Ireland’s statute books. The change has not been fueled by disrespect for religious beliefs; instead, it has represented a belated acknowledgement that those beliefs are essentially a private matter and that they should not, therefore, form the foundation of public policy.
The most renowned of all Irish-American politicians, John F. Kennedy, understood that as well as anyone. In a historic speech delivered in Houston just months before he became president, he declared, “I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.”
It is America’s loss that so many of today’s politicians take a very different view.