The Semipermeable Membrane Between Church & State

October 1993By David Hartman

The Rev. David Hartman is the Minister of the Harrodsburg Chris­tian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.

A Bridging of Faiths: Religion and Politics in a New England City.  By N.J. Demerath III and Rhys H. Williams. Princeton University Press. 358 pages. $28.50.



Someone once defended the prolixity of Aquinas by saying, "God is in the details." But some­one examining Supreme Court decisions in the last 30 years could discern the devil in the same locale. As sociologists Jay Demerath and Rhys Williams so ably demonstrate, details matter. That's why they have chosen to take a microcosmic view of a single city in their study of how "the wall between church and state" is actually maintained in America. Following the trail blazed by pioneering sociological studies like Middletown, they examine the ways in which the churches of Springfield, Massachusetts, interact with city government. This is an impres­sively researched and eminently readable piece of work, free from jargon and more than a little reminiscent of Studs Turkel's oral histories.

As an old New England town whose founding predates the First Amendment by over 150 years, Springfield (like most old towns in Massachusetts) was christened at its birth. Founded by Congregationalists in 1636, the original Articles of Agreement stressed its religious purposes. For almost 300 years Springfield's Yankee and largely Congregationalist mandarins dominated the political arena. But over the last half-century, the descendants of Irish and Italian immigrants — members of the once despised Catholic community — have moved into political ascendancy. This is partly due to the vitiation of the previously dominant mainline Protestants. But it is also due to the persistence, prudence, and forbearance of a host of lay and clerical Catholic leaders. This is not to say that Catholics have made a new political establish­ment on the order of Springfield's 17th-century theocracy; it is to say that in matters of civic policy, their voices can be compelling.

Demerath and Williams fo­cus on issues where the interests of church and state intersect and sometimes conflict: race rela­tions, homelessness, the civic economy, and abortion. The ways in which these conflicts are re­solved (or not) are the marrow of the book.

For example, before 1981 the city annually mounted a rather splendiferous crèche on Court Square. A lower court rul­ing outlawing a similar municipal display in Pawtucket, Rhode Is­land, compelled its removal. The city resolved the issue by leasing the crèche to adjacent First Church for a dollar a year, with the understanding that it was to be displayed during the Christ­mas season. It is stored by the local newspaper; city employees are given an afternoon off and a case of beer to transport and set it up. A menorah has been raised on the crèche's original spot in Court Square. No legal purist has protested its placement, evidently out of fear of being charged with anti-Semitism. Thus, Springfield quietly and amicably resolved a church-state issue of potent symbolic importance.

Other issues are more consequential. For example, in the early 1980s the city needed a new high school. Simple demo­graphics indicated that it should be built in a predominantly Afri­can-American neighborhood, but many whites were opposed to its construction, and the proposal was defeated in consecutive ref­erenda. The mayor eventually en­listed the support of the Catholic bishop. As one local politician re­called: "We did a study of the de­mographics of the high school opposition, and it was clear that the elderly and the Catholics were the most hostile: ‘Why build a school for blacks that my kids won't use?' But the new bishop turned it around. The Catholics who voted, voted for it; the ones who were opposed stayed home."

The public and parochial school systems have co-operated in a host of ways. For example, the Catholic high school accepted non-ambulatory students tu­ition-free because the public schools weren't equipped to accommodate their needs; because there was no parochial middle school, many Catholic students attended public schools for three years before going to Cathedral High. Informal but close communications between administrators and teachers have kept the two curricula in line. The public system has supplied paro­chial schools with textbooks it had declared "obsolete." One in­cident is especially illustrative of the way in which the two systems co-operate. Until a lower court ruled that they could no longer do so, public school teachers had taught special-needs parochial students under church auspices on church grounds. A bemused parent reflected on the way that judicial bombshell was defused: "Well, the kids and the Title 1 specialists don't exactly meet on neutral ground despite the Court decision. After all, the Hope Cen­ter is in the basement of Our Lady of Hope Church, which the bishop rents to the city for a dol­lar a year. Of course, they keep church and state separate — ha! ‘Hey, Father, turn up the heat!'"

Or consider the issue of homelessness. The mayor had pledged to open a public shelter, but a series of delays made it ap­pear as if the city was foot-drag­ging. At a press conference called to explain the delays, the mayor was confronted by a nun whose soup kitchen, Open Pantry, had been feeding the homeless for years. Though her remonstrances were mild, the mayor, a product of parochial schools, was prodded into celerity. As a local Catholic politician noted, "You'd think you can only say, ‘Yes, Sister,' so many times, but the instinct never leaves." Or, as a non-Catho­lic reporter observed, "In this city, you don't mess with nuns." In due course the public shelter was opened — and staffed by people from the sister-director's Open Pantry.

In contrast to the relative success enjoyed by Catholics in civil policy, Protestant activists made successive missteps in their attempts to open a homeless shel­ter and to revitalize a decaying business area. Part of the failure had to do with the mainline Prot­estant churches establishing ecu­menical agencies whose employ­ees were largely secular in out­look; part of it had to do with a proclivity to alienate the people in government and business who had the funds and acumen to succeed. For example, a pre­dominantly Protestant group of clergy formed an ad hoc com­mittee dubbed "The Covenant" to spearhead revitalization of a sec­tion of town known as Win­chester Square. At a meeting with the mayor and the publisher of the local newspaper, one Cov­enant minister called the pub­lisher "a weasel." The publisher responded by threatening to quit as co-chair of a development task force, saying he had suffered as much oppression as anyone else in the room. "Bull- - - -, Jew-boy," another minister replied. It was that kind of genius at squan­dering moral capital that cost the already divided Protestants what­ever political influence they might have otherwise enjoyed.

A 1991 poll sponsored by the authors found that 46 percent of Springfield's general population agreed with the statement that "Catholics have more influence than non-Catholics around City Hall." Interestingly, 82 percent of Protestant-Jewish clergy agreed, while only 27 percent of Catholic clergy did. The Catholics may have been disingenuous in their denial (and the Protestants para­noid in their affirmation), but the amicable relationship between the Catholic Church and the city is undeniable. Perhaps it can be best explained by a principle in Catholic social doctrine known as "subsidiarity," which holds that nothing should be done by a higher agency that can be done as well, or better, by a lower. That principle becomes incarnate in places like Springfield. There's a long way between the lofty pronouncements of the Supreme Court and the messy, compro­mising, consensus-building lives of the citizenry. The Court may decree; a coalition of Protestant clerics may fulminate; but it is a nun remonstrating a former parochial student-cum-mayor to do the right thing that expedites a shelter for the homeless. In Springfield (and, I suspect, in thousands of other American municipalities), the so-called "wall between church and state" is more like a semipermeable membrane.



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