Voices Online Edition
Lent - Easter 2001, Volume XVI, No. 1
by Donna Steichen
Daring to Hope
Pope John Paul II has long promised that the third millennium will see a new flowering of Christianity. Most of the time, he seemed to be speaking so directly against the evidence that only a message from Heaven could explain his saying it.
But history is full of surprises. As the new millennium dawned, American believers, Catholics and others, encountered one worth marking down. It could signal the rebirth the pope has predicted.
George W. Bush, for whom some voted merely as "Not Gore", began his presidential term by acting like a man of his word. His manner has been poised and amiable, but purposeful without apology. His rhetoric has blended religion and politics, and he seems to mean it. After years of listening to vitriolic defamation of the "religious right", conservatives find it heady stuff.
At his inauguration, President Bush took the oath of office with tears in his eyes, and his hand on the same Bible George Washington used. His inaugural speech incorporated frequent references to God, and they rang true. On our social obligations, he quoted Mother Teresa: "Sometimes in life we are called to do great things. But as a saint of our times has said, `every day we are called to do small things with great love'". Later that day, he welcomed a telegraphed blessing from Pope John Paul II. (1)
President Bush also marked the day the 28th anniversary of Roe v. Wade with an executive order reinstating the "Mexico City policy" that prohibits tax funding of any organization that commits or promotes abortion overseas.(2) Established by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, that policy was overturned by President William Clinton on January 22, 1993, as the initial and quintessentially representative gesture of his presidency.
Bush's opening initiatives made it evident that adults are back in charge. While the ears of the abortion faction were still ringing over his policy reversal, the new president moved on serenely to other agenda items.
He had the Oval office steam cleaned, and redecorated with more restrained furnishings from White House storerooms.
He observed January 21 as a day of prayer, asking God to grant wisdom, grace and protection to his new administration. Joining in the ecumenical service at Washington's National Cathedral were Cardinal-elect Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, Rabbi Samuel Karff, Protestant The Rev. Franklin Graham, Greek Orthodox Bishop Demetrios, and The Rt. Rev. Jane Holmes Dixon, Episcopal bishop of Washington. (3)
On January 25, President Bush and his wife Laura accepted an invitation to dine with the archbishop of Washington at his residence a presidential first. They were joined by James Cardinal Hickey, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, papal nuncio to the United States, and Bishop William Lori, who had been appointed bishop of Bridgeport two days earlier. (4)
During his campaign, Bush had said he opposes using federal funds for medical research on tissue from abortion victims. On January 26, he reaffirmed his opposition to such research, and mentioned adult stem cell research as a morally acceptable alternative. (5)
On January 29, the president signed another executive order, establishing a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, to assist religious groups in obtaining federal funding for social services, to be headed by John DiIulio, a political science professor from the University of Pennsylvania.
The project provoked predictable objections from those who seem to know nothing about the history of hospitals or orphan homes and think it a dangerous novelty that religious organizations should work to alleviate social problems. Answering such critics, Bush explained, "We will not fund the religious activities of any group, but when people of faith provide social services, we will not discriminate against them". (6)
On January 31, Bush discussed the plan with 35 prominent Catholics, including prelates Cardinal Francis George, Cardinal designates Edward Egan (New York) and Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop Charles Chaput (Denver), NCCB president Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza; and Ken Hacket of Catholic Relief Services; Tom Monaghan of Ave Maria Foundation; and Father David O'Connell, CM, president of Catholic University of America. Attendees met John DiIulio, and Stephen Goldsmith, chairman of the new Faith-Based office's national advisory board. Deal Hudson, of Crisis magazine, organized the meeting. (7)
On February 1, at a crowded National Prayer Breakfast, President Bush asked Americans for continuing prayer "that everyone in my administration finds wisdom, and always remembers the common good". For himself, he said, "I ask only to be a good and faithful servant of my Lord and my people". (8)
Mr. Lynn not pleased
Needless to say, none of this presidential activity pleased Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State [AU]. A minister in the ultraliberal United Church of Christ, the former attorney for American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU ] is an ubiquitous presence on television news networks, where he rails with puritan zeal against mere government recognition that religion exists. Nothing suits him but a stark-naked public square.
Founded 50 years ago primarily to combat Catholic influence in government, AU today opposes the entire "religious right", Protestant and Catholic, especially in regard to tax exemptions and political activities. One of its chief targets has been church distribution of voter guides. AU works in coalition with an array of organizations including, among others, the ACLU, National Organization for Women [NOW], Planned Parenthood, People for the American Way, the National Education Association [NEA], and several homosexual lobbies.
Lynn has been AU's executive director since 1992. Despite his televised protestations of concern for the damage state funding may do to religion, AU's real aim is clearly to keep religion from affecting government in any way. The most telling evidence of that bias is a statement by a former AU trustee, John Stevens, who resigned from its board in 1993 with the observation that AU's "interest in free exercise is virtually non-existent". (9)
Lynn's remarks about Bush's Office of Faith-Based Action were thus not surprising. But they were strikingly revelatory of the mind set he represents and advocates.
"This is a radical change in the way that social services are delivered, and one that violates constitutional principles", said Lynn. `It appears more and more like a gigantic conglomerate of church and state sitting next to the Oval Office".
Bush, Lynn continued, "believes that the government can fund these programs that's fundamentally wrong constitutionally".
Lynn also said he fears that Bush's program may permit government funded religious groups to discriminate in employment on the basis of religion.
"George Bush seems to believe that religious conversion is the answer to every social problem", Lynn said. (10)
This identifies the hostile opposition. It seems doubtful, however, that Lynn's scolding will do serious harm to the president. AU's extremist constituency, like those of its allies, probably includes few Bush supporters. The accusation that Bush, like Alexis de Toqueville, regards religious belief as foundational to representative government, can only build his credit among more moderate citizens.
Major media provided another surprise. Even while John Ashcroft, Bush's mild-mannered evangelical nominee for Attorney General, was being flayed as a "religious and political extremist" by Senate bigots, the new president was treated with relative mildness. Outside the camp of pro-abortion extremists, he has not been slandered for his public signals of religious faith and fellowship.
President Bush has a light, unpretentious touch with reporters, and it is clear that holding presidential office means he is being treated with greater respect than a candidate garners.
Another factor: after eight years of fawning indulgence, the media has finally lost patience with the Clintons.
The unprecedented excess of Clinton's last minute pardons to relatives, collaborators and financial benefactors somehow tipped the balance, and the New York Times, (11) the Washington Post, (12) and, tardily, even the Los Angeles Times, (13) began to denounce the departed presidential couple.
Is the national nightmare over?
Long unaccustomed to good news from Washington, Catholic pro-lifers hardly know how to respond to the religious sympathy they are encountering there. Are our prayers being answered? Is this the real Bush? Is our long national nightmare over at last?
If next week brings us political betrayal and disillusionment, it will be something for which bitter experience has prepared us. All is not yet entirely well. Americans are still paying for abortifacient-based population control programs across the world, and at home they are paying for direct abortions.
There's more. Hollywood is still targeting the Catholic Church as the historic enemy of freedom, in loathsome films like Chocolat. And another scurrilous denunciation of the Church by yet another renegade priest Constantine's Sword; The Church and the Jews: A History, by James Carroll is being treated as a serious and important publication. Carroll accuses the Church of intrinsic "Jew hatred", maintains that the crucifixion marked Christ's failure, and proposes that "the world remains unredeemed".
On January 10, the Interfaith Center of New York did interfaith harmony a disservice by presenting a panel featuring Carroll, "Catholic" novelist Mary Gordon, a Women Church feminist, Jewish novelist Cynthia Ozick, and a videotaped greeting from Elie Weisel praising Carroll's book. Alas, they drew an overflow audience. (14)
Admittedly, many political and religious fissures remain to be repaired in our social fabric. These are early days for the new administration, and the road to a society compatible with religious belief will be arduous at best. Nevertheless, while we can, let's dare to hope that God is giving this nation another chance to achieve its great potential.
1. "Pope and Cardinal-Designate McCarrick Pray for New President, National Catholic Register, Jan 28, 2001, 2.
2. "Blocks Aid for Overseas Abortions", National Catholic Register, February 4, 2001, 1.
3. "Pope and Cardinal-Designate", op.cit.
4. "Historic First: Dinner With D.C. Bishops". National Catholic Register, Feb 4, 2001, 1.
5. Richard M. Doerflinger, "Human Embryo Research: We've Been, Where We Should Go", National Right to Life Online; Feb 9, 2001.
6. Deborah Charles, "Bush Meets Catholics, Discusses Faith-Based Plan", 2001 Yahoo, Inc, Thurs, Jan 25.
7. ZENIT, 30 U.S. "Catholic Leaders to Meet With Bush", Jan. 30, 2001.
8. "Bush's Words at National Prayer Breakfast", Catholic Educator's Resource Center Report, Feb 9, 2001.
9. Mark D. Tooley, "The Man Behind The War Against Religion", Crisis, Feb 2001, 28.
10. Deborah Charles, "Bush Meets Catholics", op.cit.
11. Editorial, "The Pardons Look More Sordid", New York Times, Feb 9, 2001.
12. Michael Kelly, "Exit the Abusers", Washington Post, Jan 31, 2001, A21.
13. Editorial, "Clinton's Unpardonable Action", Los Angeles Times, Feb 11, 2001, M4.
14. "In the News", Catholic Eye, Jan 31, 2001, 1.
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