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With the state on the cross

U.S. Catholics under pressure

November 27, 1999
Der Tagesspiegel

Robert von Rimscha

Pompano Beach lies a god 50 kilometers north of Miami right on the beach. The water of the Atlantic Ocean is warm, the area is flat, the houses in the residential areas are humble and surrounded by much greenery. Pompano Beach has 19 churches and a large bone of contention. The third eldest of the churches has been prohibited from sounding its bells on Sunday by the district government. An exception ruling in favor of the church which had exempted it from Florida's strict noise policies was said, in the basis of the decision, to be a violation of the separation between church and state.

Or: the college football association has recently prohibited its players, after scoring a touchdown, to kneel down or cross themselves. That would be too much religion in a public, tax-subsidized stadium. Or: after the 13 murders at Columbine High School in Colorado in April, the school board forbade parents of the killed students to select religious themes for the plaques which were to be mounted on the memorial. A cross, a dove or even a Bible verse would violate the separation between church and state, reasoned the administrator.

For years politicians and executive officials in Washington have been criticizing the German nation for discriminating against Scientology. If one asks a growing and increasingly bitter minority of Americans, the worst religious persecution takes place in the USA itself. The ones who regard themselves as victims are traditional Christians in general and conservative Catholics in particular.

Critics mainly complain that hair-raising contradictions have come about when freedom of opinion is as radically interpreted as is the separation of church and state, two principles which coexist together peacefully only in the U.S. Constitution. Also in Colorado, students successfully protested their expulsion: in the morning before classes they were giving the "Heil Hitler" salute to each other. Unlike Germany, symbols of constitutionally hostile organizations are not forbidden in the USA.

America's conservative Christians have felt mocked by modern art for a long time. There is still contention about the "Sensation" New York exhibition with works of the British Avant-garde. The most offensive, for conservative critics, is Chris Ofili's presentation of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by elephant dung. "Putting the Holy Family in a town square is forbidden; defacing Mary with dung is not only permitted, but financed with tax dollars," scolds Gary Bauer, a former domestic politics advisor to Ronald Reagan and today Republican presidential candidate for the religious right.

Bauer has published a list of anti-Catholic works of art. One gallery in New Hampshire shows a painting in which frogs in swimming trunks are participating in the Last Supper. A high school in Pennsylvania owns a painting which shows an SS man and a minister standing on a Jewish Holocaust victim. The rock band "Rotting Christ" is on Bauer's list, along with a theater play called "Corpus Christi."

Bauer's central argument runs: "Jewish or Islamic symbols would never be made the laughing stock in a similar way with excrement or by pornographic presentations." The small man with the bug eyes sees radical secularists and the liberal elite at work. William Donohue, President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, has diagnosed a similar fluctuation: "Anti-Catholic fanaticism is not being carried out by the same groups as it was before. It is not just the fringe groups like the Ku Klux Klan or Protestant radicals. Today, anti-Catholicism is the consensus of the establishment and its institutions."

Evangelical Christians and traditional Catholics see anti-Catholicism as the last officially sanctioned prejudice which exists in the USA. And they are not timid about drawing drastic parallels. "Derision of Catholicism has turned into the anti-Semiticism of the liberal elite," Bauer believes. He compares the situation with the suppression of religion in China and in the former East Bloc.

Barely 30 percent of the 270 million US citizens are Catholics. Probably the most important battlefields of the future meaning of faith are the 230 Catholic colleges and universities at which 670,000 young Americans are currently studying. On November 17, the cultural struggle over the education of the academic Catholic prodigies escalated. The USA Bishop's Conference decided to review the doctrinal purity of all theology professors in the future, as the Vatican had demanded.

Most of the institutions of higher learning were against that. There was talk of a "public threat to our academic freedom" in the Jesuit Georgetown University in Washington D.C. Archbishop Rembert Weakland from Milwaukee agreed. "The tension between church hierarchy and theology professors is greater than it has been in 36 years," he thinks. One thing the bishops and the university presidents know for sure: if the church exercises stricter control, it will be inviting complaints from the opposition. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) will now take action against any Catholic university which receives tax money.

The religious right, which includes evangelical Protestants and comprises about a third of the population, feels under pressure. That also has to do with the circumstance that their political representatives are fighting an uphill battle. Republican top candidates George W. Bush and John McCain neglect moral questions. Both are following the "Big Top" rule: the republicans have to address abortion opponents and supporters to an equal extent. Otherwise the pre-election campaigns would be a jubilee for the Bible faithful of the right.

In case Gary Bauer, the sole banner bearer of the religious right, against all expectations, should actually become president, he wants to kill two birds with one stone. Bauer has one solution for both Catholic self-assurance and youth violence: he wants the Ten Commandments posted in every classroom.

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