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Religion and America

The whole Pope situation is a case study in American weirdness about religion. Here's a major -- and majorly controversial -- figure. Nevertheless, everyone even remotely connected to the mainstream feels the need to treat him with kid gloves. Abroad, major papers in Ireland (via Maria Farrell) and the U.K. are happy to offer truly biting criticism. At the same time, American liberals who can't bring themselves to really say a cross word about the man are capable of getting all upset that Bush has ordered flags to be flown at half-mast as if this imperils the entire concept of secular government and we're just a hop skip and a jump away from theocracy.

In some ways, it's two sides of the same weird coin, some kind of inability to comprehend religion as falling within the large domain of serious subjects that serious people have serious disagreements about. I don't think the Catholic Church is a very admirable institution, nor do I believe John Paul II was, on balance, much of an admirable person, though he was certainly less-bad than many of his predecessors. But, clearly, I'm in the minority. If Bush thinks he's an admirable man and wants to honor his life with half-mast flags, I have no real objection to that. It's of a piece with Bush and I disagreeing about a lot of contentious issues. But he's the President and he has every right to honor the people he deems worthy of honoring. Not every frankly aired difference of opinion about religion is going to start the Thirty Years' War.

April 5, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

okay, but can we still defenestrate somebody?

Posted by: praktike | Apr 5, 2005 4:11:14 PM

Hell, I think I'll make an obvious point. Bush has said he believes governments of all countries in the world should be democratic. But the government of the Vatican is a government of a country. So Bush should believe the government of the Vatican should be democratic ie the Pope should be chosen democratically by the people of the Vatican. But does he?

Posted by: Dan the Man | Apr 5, 2005 4:32:04 PM

(defenestration is cool)

it's like one of those little ecapsulated toy games where you have to get the little silver bearing into the little hole, but the sides leading up to the hole are angled randomly and there's not much room to work with. that is, Americans ability to comprehend serious subjects that serious people have serious disagreements about. there are so many angles that want to drag you away from the focal point.

as usual people are having difficulty overcoming their emotions to deal with the pope's death rationally. I think it's great, like getting a new car. can't wait to try on the new Pope, etc. and of course the politicians are going to milk the emotional cow for all it is worth, so long as the majority of Americans care about the Pope. and Bush isn't even fucking catholic.

how often do you get to see, live on tv, some poor old dead guy paraded around, throngs of people milling about to catch a glimpse?

emotion(s) sell(s).

Posted by: adam s | Apr 5, 2005 4:34:37 PM

Personally, I'd be happy to get back to the days when Evangelicals' views of the Roman Catholic church were limited to Jack Chick tracts "revealing" that the church was a crypto-satanic cult, offering as evidence the IHS on hosts, which supposedly stood for Egyptian deities: Isis, Horus, and Seb.

As someone raised Catholic, I am far more comfortable with the above than having John Paul II co-opted by the likes of George W. Bush.

As far as American weirdness goes, I think the weirdest part is for Americans to act as if this is about us at all. It's not. The R.C. Church is one of the few significant international organizations that the US really doesn't have a lot of power to push around. I'd list that as its major selling point.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Apr 5, 2005 4:44:05 PM

I don't view the flying of the flag at half-mast across the nation as something that is at the whim of whomever is occupying the White House. The flag is one of the most visible objects of government in most parts of this country and by showing favoritism to one religion in this way (I don't think anyone would argue that W would be similarly honoring a deceased Ayatollah or Hindu leader) he's muddying the church/state separation. And why confine the issue to religion? Suppose Bush wants to fly Confederate flags across the land? Or Yale's? The issue might be trivial but symbolism is important to alot of people, wrongly or rightly, and should not be played with casually.

Posted by: Quiet Storm | Apr 5, 2005 4:45:33 PM

Well, I suppose it's cool that you're ok with the flag being at half-mast, Matthew, but once he's opened that door, he's really opened it.

What about (as others have already alluded to) when leaders of other religions pass away? Since I haven't seen the flag at half-mast when another religious leader/head of state has died, then it's safe to assume this is a special occasion. But then isn't playing favorites when it comes to religions? Or religious leaders?

One of the reasons separation of church & state exists is to remain neutral in matters such as this. We don't one-up a religion against all others. It sounds corny to say, but people's feelings get hurt and, when it comes to touchy subjects such as religion, when people's feelings get hurt, it can sometimes lead to more serious issues.

It's just bad policy to do what Bush has done.

Posted by: Matt (not MY) | Apr 5, 2005 5:01:32 PM

(Not MY) Matt has a point, but really, who cares? With all the things Bush has done, will do, and has neglected to do, can this one possibly excite much concern?

Posted by: Brooklynite | Apr 5, 2005 5:04:45 PM

Bush is falling all over himself to praise the Pope but of course being the hypocrite he is, he forgets to mention that the Pope was staunchly against both wars with Iraq and the death penalty.

And as an Episcopalean I am going to be pissed when if the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury don't get flags at half staff for them when they die.

Posted by: Freder Frederson | Apr 5, 2005 5:15:14 PM

No fan of the Pope here, but he was also a head of state and head of government. Doesn't that qualify for half-staff?

Any issue with half-staff for Tony Blair were he to die in office? How about the Queen?

Posted by: KipEsquire | Apr 5, 2005 5:15:19 PM

While I hope and expect that the Dalai Lama has many years ahead of him, I have to admit I'm curious whether he'd be honored with a flag at half mast. When it comes to rock star religious figures, he's definitely high on the list, so it seems a fair comparison.

Leaving aside the issue of antagonizing the Chinese government, I just have a feeling that a US administration would not feel the same need to honor a non-Western religious person.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Apr 5, 2005 5:21:44 PM

Oh, and the Dalai Lama is also considered head of state by many (but now you'd really be antagonizing the Chinese government).

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Apr 5, 2005 5:23:33 PM

Flying the flags at have mast is not condoning a certain religion as another commentor pointed out he was the head of state. What bothers me is the lack of criticism in the US of the pope and his anti-birth control ideals. Another problem i see is that Bush has attached himself to the pope like a leech, when there relationship was fairly contentious. Because as Americans it is so taboo to critisize the recently deceased, Bush is getting a "free-ride" on the back of a popular man (at least at this moment in time) who most likely would not have approved.

Posted by: Jake | Apr 5, 2005 5:24:02 PM

We not only lowered the flags in honor of the Reverend Martin Luther King, but we actually assigned him a national holiday (and rightly so). Was that wrong because he was a religious minister?

You could try to say that we honor MLK for his secular achievement but JPII for his religious position, but that won't work. MLK's entire program was based on his religious beliefs; he saw himself as a person with a religious mission. Contrariwise, JPII clearly had some major "secular" effects, notably the fall of communism (which is, after all, one of the main things that makes him rather popular among political conservatives).

There's just no way to separate someone's "religious" achievements from his or her "secular" achievements. So unless you're going to make a blanket rule that no religious figures can receive public honors -- Wojtyla, King, or Al Sharpton -- I don't see what there is to object to here.

Posted by: Christopher M | Apr 5, 2005 5:25:54 PM

I keep trying to post a link to Crescat Sententia, wherein lies the post by Will Baude that prompted my last comment, but the comment spam filter won't let me.

Posted by: Christopher M | Apr 5, 2005 5:29:33 PM

This seems to be a generation gap issue. Lowering the flag was once a really big deal... Now they do it for football players.

Posted by: segi | Apr 5, 2005 5:30:47 PM

I just have a feeling that a US administration would not feel the same need to honor a non-Western religious person.

It has nothing to do with whether the person is Western/non-Western. It has to do with the person being important to our country.

Really, I don't understand the people who say "if he did it for the Pope, then he'd have to do it for X". There is no requirement that we lower the flags on the death of all heads of state/religious leaders/whatever. We lower the flag for persons who are important to America. And the Pope was important to a great number of Americans in particular - and the country in general. Sheesh.

Posted by: Al | Apr 5, 2005 5:34:15 PM

What about (as others have already alluded to) when leaders of other religions pass away? Since I haven't seen the flag at half-mast when another religious leader/head of state has died, then it's safe to assume this is a special occasion. But then isn't playing favorites when it comes to religions? Or religious leaders?

The President is empowered by law to such discretion when it comes to foreign dignitaries, which would include ones like the Queen of England or the Pope that are heads of state and heads of churches (both being both).

Posted by: cmdicely | Apr 5, 2005 5:43:22 PM

Most American Catholics quietly ignore the Pope, as does Bush. The flag-lowering stunt is just another play for a few votes.

As such, it demeans us and the Presidency. This may be a good thing, it may be a necessary thing, it may be a timely thing. It is not a wise thing.

We've invested a lot in the Presidency. To some extent this may be a mistake, but the best way to correct the mistake is NOT to put a child in the White House and guffaw as he takes down the institution.

Oh well, I guess you change history with the President you got, not the President you want to have.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 5, 2005 5:57:19 PM

serial catowner --

The President is a politician. Most of what politicians do is, in significant part, a "play for a few votes." That's how democracy works.

No one is going around praising the President's great moral stand in ordering the flags lowered, so you're attacking a straw man. Who cares why Bush did it? The point is, it's just no big deal.

Posted by: Christopher M | Apr 5, 2005 6:16:04 PM

It's not religion, it's old dead people. Remember when Nixon died? He was like a national hero...

Posted by: tps12 | Apr 5, 2005 6:31:33 PM

>> ...nor do I believe John Paul II was, on balance, much of an admirable person...

I disagreed with a number of positions taken by the late pope and, like almost everyone, I didn't know him. But, even if we don't admire the positions a person takes, that's a long way from not admiring the person. There's a lot more involved in sizing up each of us than our stands on assorted political issues.

Posted by: billg | Apr 5, 2005 6:44:28 PM

Well, I care why he did it. Call me an old fart, but I think the flag should be treated with respect. There wouldn't be much point in burning it if it's just a refigerator magnet.

But maybe liberals will always be "losers" until they learn to manipulate whatever toehold they can get in the great Sleaz-o-phonia of the Media.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 5, 2005 6:47:56 PM

Well, it could be argued that this particular pope was a major political figure as well as a religious one. Having read Drum's post on this topic, I learned we lowered it for Churchill, Sadat, and Rabin as well.

Posted by: hamletta | Apr 5, 2005 7:23:45 PM

Assuming this information is accurate: http://www.ushistory.org/betsy/flagetiq.html

Flag Code. Section 7-m.

The flag, when flown at half-staff, should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. The flag should be again raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day. On Memorial Day the flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon only, then raised to the top of the staff. By order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory. In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential instructions or orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law. In the event of the death of a present or former official of the government of any State, territory, or possession of the United States, the Governor of that State, territory, or possession may proclaim that the National flag shall be flown at half-staff. The flag shall be flown at half-staff 30 days from the death of the President or a former President; 10 days from the day of death of the Vice President, the Chief Justice or a retired Chief Justice of the United States, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives; from the day of death until interment of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a Secretary of an executive or military department, a former Vice President, or the Governor of a State, territory, or possession; and on the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress. The flag shall be flown at half-staff on Peace Officers Memorial Day, unless that day is also Armed Forces Day. As used in this subsection -

1. the term "half-staff" means the position of the flag when it is one-half the distance between the top and bottom of the staff;

2. the term "executive or military department" means any agency listed under sections 101 and 102 of title 5, United States Code; and

3. the term "Member of Congress" means a Senator, a Representative, a Delegate, or the Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico.

Posted by: bjd | Apr 5, 2005 7:38:02 PM

Salon.com has at least a few non-kids glove essays. But you can't really call them MSM.

http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2005/04/05/mother/index.html

http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2005/04/04/pope_legacy/index.html

Posted by: bjd | Apr 5, 2005 7:40:17 PM

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