The plight of the Right in American public life is evident in the many twists and turns its editorialists and policymakers have to make and take. Often conservative Christian leaders reflect discontents and uncertainties in the nation's non-Right religious elements. The current case: let's assume that Deputy Managing Editor Timothy Lamer speaks for or out of the heart of World magazine, the glossy conservative weekly. His featured full-page editorial "Abolish the Chaplaincy" (February 26) calls for doing away with the chaplaincy for the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. Whether or not the office and role should be abolished is definitely not the theme of the following commentary. But the issue has recently become controversial, as the House leadership passed over the most highly recommended candidate, Catholic priest Timothy O'Brien, in favor of Presbyterian pastor Charles Wright. The "why" behind Lamer's call for abolition is the theme that illuminates the larger picture. So, why? "How can [Speaker Dennis Hastert] select one pastor to spiritually shepherd a body that includes everyone from conservative and liberal Roman Catholics to conservative and liberal Protestants to Jews to Christian Scientists to Mormons?" A good question, made not in criticism of retiring chaplain James David Ford--testimonies are lavish that he well-served those constituencies--but made with a genuine theological, intellectual and, yes, political character. Here, however, is the corollary to the World argument: if it is difficult to
find someone to minister to the many faiths in public places, how can we picture one set of religious symbols speaking to the many religious constituencies and not offending some? Cases in point: the creche on the courthouse lawn and the Ten Commandments on the classroom wall. Eight or nine of the commandments are generic, and not a problem for non-Jews, non-Christians, and nonreligious alike. But there is that first commandment. It is the voice of God, a self-described "jealous" God, witnessed to by a specific faith tradition, and there is to be "no other God" before this one. That does not speak to large and growing minorities and is offensive to sub-minorities among them. Affixing the commandments to the 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 or religious symbols on courthouse and public classroom walls, but to show how difficult the issue is. Lamer says "the pastoral office is too important for it to be trivialized (or politicized) by anything less." Agreed. So are religious symbols.
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