The plight of the Right in American public life is evident in the manytwists and turns its editorialists and policymakers have to make and take.Often conservative Christian leaders reflect discontents and uncertaintiesin the nation's non-Right religious elements.The current case: let's assume that Deputy Managing Editor Timothy Lamerspeaks for or out of the heart of World magazine, the glossy conservativeweekly. His featured full-page editorial "Abolish the Chaplaincy" (February26) calls for doing away with the chaplaincy for the House ofRepresentatives in Washington, D.C. Whether or not the office and roleshould be abolished is definitely not the theme of the following commentary.But the issue has recently become controversial, as the House leadershippassed over the most highly recommended candidate, Catholic priest TimothyO'Brien, in favor of Presbyterian pastor Charles Wright. The "why" behindLamer's call for abolition is the theme that illuminates the larger picture.So, why? "How can [Speaker Dennis Hastert] select one pastor to spirituallyshepherd a body that includes everyone from conservative and liberal RomanCatholics to conservative and liberal Protestants to Jews to ChristianScientists to Mormons?" A good question, made not in criticism of retiringchaplain James David Ford--testimonies are lavish that he well-served thoseconstituencies--but made with a genuine theological, intellectual and, yes,political character.Here, however, is the corollary to the World argument: if it is difficult tofind someone to minister to the many faiths in public places, how can wepicture one set of religious symbols speaking to the many religiousconstituencies and not offending some? Cases in point: the creche on thecourthouse lawn and the Ten Commandments on the classroom wall.
Eight or nine of the commandments are generic, and not a problem fornon-Jews, non-Christians, and nonreligious alike. But there is that firstcommandment. It is the voice of God, a self-described "jealous" God,witnessed to by a specific faith tradition, and there is to be "no otherGod" before this one. That does not speak to large and growing minoritiesand is offensive to sub-minorities among them. Affixing the commandments tothe wall, as much of the religious Right would do--we have not asked Mr.Lamer's view on this--in effect says, "We belong and you don't."Today's column is not written to settle anything about chaplaincy orreligious symbols on courthouse and public classroom walls, but to show howdifficult the issue is. Lamer says "the pastoral office is too important forit to be trivialized (or politicized) by anything less." Agreed. So arereligious symbols.