John Boehner?s brief opening remarks as the new Speaker of the House were ominous in their religious insensitivity. In the first minute of his speech, after some thank-you?s and applause, he referred to his Catholic Church?s practice of the imposition of ashes on the first day of Lent, which signifies human mortality. (It is also a ritual observed by Anglicans, Episcopalians and others, which Boehner did not mention. Lent, incidentally, begins on March 9 this year.)
On the face of it the reference is quite impressive. Here a powerful political figure declares openly an awareness of his mortality. Who cannot applaud such humility? On the other hand, the reference exhibits a tin ear. Boehner?s Catholic religion is after all a powerful religious minority in the context of simmering religious wars both at home and abroad.
Leaders of Boehner?s own church, including popes, have publicly castigated Islam. Our own troops in the Middle East have been supplied rifles whose scopes are inscribed with Bible verses, which is suggestive of killing Muslims for Jesus. Both the country and the world are a tinderbox ready for religious war, and the new Speaker of the House signals in his first minutes of office that he is a devout Catholic, one of the parties in that strife.
This is not to criticize Boehner for his personal religious devotion, but it is to criticize him for calling specific attention to it in his first few minutes of his term of office.
Now suppose the new Speaker were a Muslim, and suppose his first remarks referenced the edifying character of the Hajj to Mecca. Would this not be considered offensive to non-Muslims, if not alarming?
Or suppose the next Speaker of the House were an Evangelical Christian, and he or she made reference to the edifying nature of having been saved at an Evangelical revival meeting. Would this not sound a note of alarm among all those who are not Evangelicals?
If the Speaker of the House were a Jew, would it not be divisive – at least – to make reference to the daily study of the Torah?
There are some important points of agreement that all the major religions of the world share. They can and do speak generally with one voice on such matters as the requirements of justice and equity in human society. If leaders of the nation opt to cite religion publicly, they would do well to emphasize these points of common ground. This might help defuse some of the current urge to religious competition and strife.
The American revolutionaries who founded this country were virtually all escapees or children of escapees from religious persecution and religious wars in Europe. With one voice they sought to keep organized religion out of the political and governmental arena. While our founding fathers espoused important religious values such as justice and equity, and even publicly acknowledged their belief that God commanded that such values be sustained, they assiduously kept religious organizations and movements out of the political and governmental arena. They were wise to do so. They knew what we seem to have forgotten, that religious organizations almost invariably dream of universal domination and control.
Speaker Boehner sounded a sour note in his first few minutes of office in signaling that he is a faithful member of a minority religious group, and one that is currently picking a fight with Islam. The innuendo is ominous.
RAYMOND J. LAWRENCE is an Episcopal cleric, recently retired Director of Pastoral Care, New York Presbyterian Hospital, and author of numerous opinion pieces in newspapers in the U.S., and author of the recently published, Sexual Liberation: The Scandal of Christendom (Praeger). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org