A timely conversation from 1958

Just came across this while looking for something else.*

Mike Wallace interviews Reinhold Niebuhr, April 27, 1958:

WALLACE: Dr. Niebuhr, the first question I’d like to put to you is perhaps a very obvious one, but I would like a kind of a capsulized answer, if I may. We hear about the necessity for a separation between church and state. If religion is good, why should our society be based upon a separation between the church and the state?

NIEBUHR: Your “if” is a very big one — if religion is good, it may be very good and it may be bad. The separation of church and state is necessary partly because if religion is good then the state shouldn’t interfere with the religious vision or with the religious prophet. There must be a realm of truth beyond political competence, that’s why there must be a separation of churches. But if religion is bad and a bad religion is one that gives an ultimate sanctity to some particular cause, then religion mustn’t interfere with the state. So one of the basic democratic principles as we know it in America is the separation of church and state.

WALLACE: Well, now this brings us to the issue of possible religious infringements on freedom here in the United States. I’m going to talk about several. First-off: The Roman Catholic Church opposes birth control and divorce and there is no doubt that this opposition has blocked the spread of birth control and easier divorce laws; not merely for Catholics, but for non-Catholics as well. Do you consider such measures an infringement on the rights and liberties of non-Catholics?

NIEBUHR: When you say not merely for Catholics that is the crux of the matter. A church has the right to set its own standards within its community. I don’t think it has a right to prohibit birth control or to enforce upon a secular society its conception of divorce and the indissolubility of the marriage tie.

WALLACE: When you say enforce upon a society how does the Catholic Church enforce? It suggests and enforces for Catholics.

NIEBUHR: No, that’s the point. Whenever a church does anything for its own group, it has that right.

WALLACE: Surely.

NIEBUHR: But when it reaches up beyond its group and tries to enforce its standards upon a society that doesn’t accept these standards, and perhaps for good reason, perhaps for bad reason, but anyway this is the problem we face in pluralistic society, that not necessarily every standard that every church tries to enforce upon the society is from the society’s standpoint a good standard.

Seemed timely.

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* Mike Lux has a thoughtful post about the dream of America as a “(Shining) City on a Hill.” Lux contrasts the communal spirit of John Winthrop’s original vision — “we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities” — with the self-centered individualism of conservatives these days. (Go read the whole thing.) I was looking for a riff from Niebuhr in which he knocks down the hubris of “City on a Hill” nationalism, but found the above interview instead.

  • Tonio

    Here’s Fred four years ago explaining that the problem is not “religious beliefs” in arguing for public policy, but sectarian beliefs:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2012/05/01/a-timely-conversation-from-1958/

     

    the usage of contraception demonstrably PREVENTS abortions by preventing
    pregnancy, there is no good reason why good Catholics should not be
    supporting the lesser evil (contraception) in order to prevent the
    greater one (abortion).

    And there’s no secular argument behind the Church’s opposition to contraception, just sectarian claims about ensoulment and divine purposes for procreation. Anyone who indeed believes that reducing abortions is a moral imperative should support not only access to contraception but also better sex education so women have the tools and information they need to control their fertility. And should also favor better support for women who do want to give birth. It’s about addressing the reasons why some have abortions. Making abortion illegal, and coercing women with mandatory ultrasounds and waiting periods – those aren’t about reducing abortions, they’re about punishing women who don’t want to be mothers, as if that in itself was deeply morally offensive.

  • Lunch Meat

    When someone claims my religion to tell me I’m going to hell unless I support something morally repugnant to me, that’s wrong.
    Why?

    Because it’s religious bullying.

  • BrokenBell

    The Catholic Church considers abortion murder.  It cannot, by its tradition and theological positions, stand idly by if fetus’s are being murdered.  It cannot do anything but push for legislative protection of the unborn.  I always point out that if one is to truly understand the abortion issue, put in any other event of genocide (Armenian, the Holocaust, Rwanda); that is how the Church views such a struggle.

    Wait, but… That’s not true? I mean, the Catholic Church isn’t actually doing much to stop abortions, last I checked. They’re doing plenty to try and stop abortion from being legal, but that’s not even remotely the same thing. If their position was one of prioritising abortion first and foremost, even if that means taking some hits on less pressing issues, then they’d be doing things that actually reduce the abortion rate. Encouraging better sex education, for a start. Supporting rape awareness and prevention, perhaps. I’m not saying that they should hand out free condoms at Sunday Mass, but maybe they could put a little less focus on how evil and abhorrent contraception is, at least until number of unintended pregnancies drops a bit? Sure, they don’t want to contribute towards a slightly more sex-positive world, but shouldn’t that be, like war, or the death penalty, a relatively inconsequential price to pay if the alternative is a markedly higher rate of baby murder? 

    But they’re not doing anything like this. Rather, while they pay lip service to abortion being the equivalent of genocide, they simultaneously support attitudes and policies that have the practical effect of making abortion more likely. Which leads me to being somewhat skeptical about their claimed view of abortion being an atrocity of Nazi Holocaust proportions. 

    Well, that said, I’d already raised an eyebrow at the idea that the Catholic Church is guided by a hard set of moral rules that they can’t help but follow. This is the same church that supports rapists within its ranks, uses its power to silence and denigrate victims, has a history of obfuscating investigations from outside judicial systems, and is currently cracking down hard on nuns and priests for being too liberal, yes? I’m not exactly convinced, to be honest. Rather, it seems somewhat more likely that the Catholic Church is guided by a number of old men who’s foremost priority is protecting their own power and privilege, and would probably be more than happy to have a different opinion (or should that be “find a different message in scripture”) on abortion, if they thought it could further entrench their authority. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    those aren’t about reducing abortions, they’re about punishing women who don’t want to be mothers

    And forgetting about all the women who are already mothers and can’t, for whatever reason, deal with another child.

  • aunursa

    Funny how concern for their tax-exempt status hasn’t stopped more than one Bishop from instructing priests to read letters from the pulpit telling congregants to vote against marriage equality bills and also hasn’t stopped many of the priests from doing as instructed.

    Because the clergy did not advocate for or against a specific candidate.  And the IRS has concluded — quite reasonably – that their advocacy for legislation is not a significant part of the Church’s overall activities.

  • aunursa

    When someone claims my religion to tell me I’m going to hell unless I support something morally repugnant to me, that’s wrong.

    I don’t belong to your religion.  But others have told me that I am going to hell unless I believe in something that I don’t believe in.  Is that bullying?

  • EllieMurasaki

    others have told me that I am going to hell unless I believe in something that I don’t believe in.  Is that bullying?

    Whatever gives you the impression that it might not be?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Because the clergy did not advocate for or against a specific candidate. 
    And the IRS has concluded — quite reasonably – that their advocacy
    for legislation is not a significant part of the Church’s overall
    activities.

    If that isn’t the most weasel-wordy nitpicky way of skating by I’ve ever seen.

    Tax lawyers whose job it is to exploit loopholes ought to be jealous of the way these fellas can slice and dice definitions.

  • aunursa

    The idea that someone warning me that God was going to send me to hell unless I take a certain course of action — the idea that I was being bullied never crossed my mind.

  • aunursa

    Sorry you don’t like it, but them’s the rules.

    If you want to change the current policy, you’re certainly free to contact your representatives and ask them to have Congress instruct the IRS that any single instance of political advocacy for or against a single piece of legislation should cause an organization to lose its non-profit status.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Somebody tells you, do this or else a really big person whacks you repeatedly with a really big stick, and that’s somehow not bullying?

  • aunursa

    Somebody tells you, do this or else a really big person whacks you repeatedly with a really big stick and that’s somehow not bullying?

    Someone tells me: take route A, because if I take route B, I’ll be going through a very dangerous neighborhood and will surely get mugged.  That’s not bullying.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Not analogous situations, either–there’s no moral dimension to route A vs route B, and there is always, always a moral dimension to ‘do this and you’ll go to hell, do that and you won’t’.

  • aunursa

    What’s the moral dimension to a choice between “believe this” and “don’t believe this”?

  • Tonio

    It’s more like “If you take route B you’ll get mugged, which will be your just desserts for taking that route.” I don’t know if that’s bullying but it’s very humanly offensive. If there are any theologies about hell that don’t brand the concept as a just punishment, I’m not familiar with them. The idea that anyone who holds the wrong belief deserves to suffer for eternity is not even remotely just. The person advising against route B should condemn the muggers, or at least volunteer to accompany the person while carrying a defensive weapon.

  • aunursa

    I do not recall anyone telling me that I deserve to suffer for eternity for not holding the correct belief.

    Rather, suffering for eternity is the unfortunate consequence of my not holding the correct belief.

  • Tonio

    They don’t need to say it. First, deservedness is inherent in the concepts of heaven and hell, since the theology assumes that every act and decision by the god is a just one. Second, if the people warning you about hell really believed that you didn’t deserve it or that hell was an unjust concept, it would be reasonable for them to voice this belief. Their failure to explicitly condemn hell as unjust is disappointing, to say the least. What you describe is more like they’re warning others of some natural calamity, and we shouldn’t treat them as if they’re doing that. Has anyone tried challenging them directly? Something like, “If you believe that your god will sentence me to hell, do you think the god is justified in doing so? And if so, why?”

  • Tonio

    Hell seems like the theological equivalent of concern trolling, such as the claim that the outrageousness of gay pride parades enables homophobia.

  • Lori

     

    The idea that someone warning me that God was going to send me to hell
    unless I take a certain course of action — the idea that I was being
    bullied never crossed my mind.

    It has apparently escaped your notice, but it’s not all about you.

  • Lori

     

    Because the clergy did not advocate for or against a specific candidate. 
    And the IRS has concluded — quite reasonably – that their advocacy
    for legislation is not a significant part of the Church’s overall
    activities. 

    They did advocate a specific position on a specific piece of legislation. As for whether or not their lobbying is “significant” we’re back to the start of this discussion. “Significant” is open to interpretation. No one is ever going to say that lobbying is a significant’ part of the Church’s overall activities, whether it is or not. Things can, and have, gone differently for  smaller, less powerful, “weirder” churches.

  • aunursa

    The people warning me do believe that hell is a just concept.  They believe that everyone deserves to go to hell.

  • Lunch Meat

    I don’t belong to your religion. But others have told me that I am going to hell unless I believe in something that I don’t believe in. Is that bullying?

    As I said, I’m talking about people in my religion, and specifically people of authority in my religion* (which I thought would be obvious in context). When someone who has authority in my church and over my peers threatens me with loss of salvation, communion, or community, unless I fall in line with the prevailing beliefs (especially when those beliefs are not specifically biblical), then they are abusing their power to control me, and they are bullying.

    *Of course, it’s arguable whether there should even be people with power in Christianity, but that’s another story.

  • aunursa

    It has apparently escaped your notice, but you’re not the referee.

  • Tonio

    That’s almost like excusing a suicide bomber because of his death wish. It doesn’t matter what the people warning of hell believe about themselves. What matters is what they believe about others and how that belief influences their treatment of others. Lunch Meat has an excellent point about abuse of power.

  • aunursa

    I understand how threatening you with loss of communion or community constitutes bullying.  Those in authority have control over those parts of your religious life.

    What I don’t understand is how threatening you with loss of salvation constitutes bullying.  Those in authority have no control over your salvation — only God does.  Expression of their belief does not change your salvation status.

  • Lunch Meat

    What I don’t understand is how threatening you with loss of salvation constitutes bullying. Those in authority have no control over your salvation — only God does. Expression of their belief does not change your salvation status.

    Obviously I believe that only God has control over salvation. But I wouldn’t be in the church I’m in if I didn’t trust the people in authority, at least on some level, to have knowledge of it.. It causes serious doubt and pain to hear the people you trust and, in some cases, love (such as family members, for another example) tell you that what you’re doing is so morally terrible that you deserve hell.

  • Lori

    It has apparently escaped your notice, but you’re not the referee.

    That wasn’t “refeering”. If you don’t know that, that’s you’re problem.

  • aunursa

    Sure it was.  You were deciding that my response “was all about me”.  Which would be a ridiculous conclusion to any rational person who was following the discussion and reading it in context.

    Shame on you.

  • Dan Audy

    Are you actually capable of reading?

    You said

    the idea that I was being bullied never crossed my mind.

    Which is a entirely self-centered statement that implies that your personal experience should be a universal one.  Lori called you out on it which is not refereeing but pointing out that you are being a jackhole by discounting anyone elses experience.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    The use of public condemnation of Hell, however  much it may be irrelevant to the condemn-ee through lack of religious faith (i.e. I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell therefore cannot truly be threatened by it), is often intended as a public condemnation in order to marshal social forces against the condemnee.

    That is to say, it is a form of bullying by signalling to people who share similar beliefs that open season has now been declared on those being condemned and that there are people who will therefore sympathize with discrinination against QUILTBAG people or the like.

    This cuts both ways, unfortunately, but it is a truism that an unpopular act is often made more palatable if the person who wants to do the act believes that they are being supported by others, especially powerful people – Abu Ghraib being one of the most egregious examples in recent memory.

  • Tonio

     I doubt that really believe that.

  • Tonio

    Sorry, I mean I doubt they really believe that.


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