The Library of Congress is one of our nation’s most prestigious institutions. It is a shame, therefore, to see this venerable national treasure providing a platform for the views of the Religious Right on church-state separation.
On Feb. 13, the Library hosted Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George, who argued in an evening lecture that “aggressive secularism” is jeopardizing religious liberty in America.
George’s speech was essentially a rant against the very idea of an officially non-religious state. Among other things, he criticized the Supreme Court for decisions that “have threatened religious freedom and, therefore, democracy itself.” He railed against the Court for holding that tax funding of religion promotes discord among denominations.
“Well, that our society is so fragile, that it needs such protection, would be surprising to the citizens of other countries,” George said. “Great Britain and Australia, New Zealand and most of the Canadian provinces, France, Italy and most of the European democracies, the state of Israel and even Iraq under the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, which was a secularist regime, have given financial aid to the parents of Catholic school children.”
Citing Saddam Hussein as a role model on church-state relations instead of Thomas Jefferson seems like a bad idea, but the cardinal didn’t stop there.
Calling the Supreme Court’s church-state rulings “admittedly incoherent,” George said, “In the United States, the primary danger to democracy comes not from religion, but from philosophical secularism.”
This is all boilerplate anti-separationist folderol we have been hearing for some time from a gaggle of TV preachers and a wing of the Catholic hierarchy that still pines for the Dark Ages. These folks have never managed to reconcile themselves to religious pluralism and religiously neutral government.
George’s views are highly controversial, and the Library, as a taxpayer-supported, public institution, has an obligation to present other points of view.
Unfortunately, this is not the only time the Library of Congress has lashed out at church-state separation. In 1998, James Hutson, chief of the Library’s manuscript division, issued a paper that attempted to undermine the importance of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. (This is the 1802 letter in which Jefferson noted that the American people through the First Amendment had constructed “a wall of separation between church and state.”)
Given the prestige of the Library of Congress, the paper received some attention before it was undercut by a rebuttal written by 24 of the nation’s leading scholars on church-state history and law.
The Library of Congress contains more than 29 million books, 58 million other types of manuscripts, more than 1 million government publications, 2.7 million recordings, 4.8 million maps and numerous other publications.
It would be best if Library officials stuck to maintaining this impressive collection and ceased trying to adversely influence the course of church-state relations in America.