Public Religion

Not around here, says Ellen Willis

In a recent article in the Nation ("Freedom from Religion," February 19), Ellen Willis, director of the cultural journalism program at NYU, makes a candid, straightforward, and wrong-headed argument about church and state, religion and culture. Her immediate complaint is Bush II’s establishment of a White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and the bipartisan political support it has received. More appalling, in her view, is the burgeoning emergence (or reemergence) of religion in public life, which gives a basis of support to these faith-based initiatives. She insists not only that the wall separating church and state be impenetrable, but that religion be kept out of the public square, because "a genuinely democratic society requires a secular ethos."

It does not take much to elicit from me-and possibly many other Catholics and Christians-some sympathy for her plea for "freedom from religion" in opposing government funding for faith-based initiatives. Many will recognize in the Bush initiatives a potential danger to the public weal (is this yet another Republican effort to shrink government?), as well as a danger to religious institutions themselves. Her broader argument, however-religion out of public life-deserves critical scrutiny.

Begin with Willis’s version of recent history. In the sixties, she argues, secularists and believers worked together for civil rights, against the war...

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About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.