Churches, Government & Harvard Divinity School ex-dean Thiemann

Tom Boland (
Mon, 21 Jun 1999 19:13:21 -0700 (PDT)

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FWD  Los Angeles Times - Saturday, May 29, 1999


The ouster of Ronald F. Thiemann as dean of the Harvard Divinity
School comes ironically at a time when the ideas he has represented on
the interaction of religion and democratic society are having an impact
on the American political process. That we now have liberals, moderates
and conservatives shaping the debate on this issue is a healthy thing for
a diverse country on the verge of a new century. The discussion goes on,
with or without Thiemann, who lost his post over the discovery of
pornography files on his university-owned computer.

This week, Vice President Al Gore joined the chorus of politicians,
until now mostly Republican, calling for the government to work more
closely with religious charities to deliver social services to the needy.
It was the latest in a line of instances where the Clinton administration
sought to encourage the cooperation of religion and government, and it is
likely to ensure that the place of faith in American life will be part of
the public policy debate of the next presidential campaign.

Mainstream politicians of both major parties now are searching openly
for ways in which religious organizations in partnership with government
can address society's problems while still honoring separation of church
and state. This has been supported by the work of interfaith groups in
Washington and local communities in Southern California and elsewhere
that have sought to focus on the needs of welfare recipients, the hungry
and the homeless and on labor issues.

Until fairly recently, the debate about values in America was
dominated by conservatives seeking constitutional amendments on such
issues as abortion and prayer in public schools. These political
initiatives increasingly have been answered by moderates seeking to find
a constitutionally permissible role for religious values in what has been
called "the public square." The extent of interest in religious
expression on the political landscape was evident in the overwhelming
support in Congress for the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, later
struck down by the Supreme Court as a legislative intrusion on judicial

Mindful that the Supreme Court has been wrestling with how a diverse
nation can cope with faith communities under the umbrella of democracy
and the Constitution, Thiemann's 1996 book, "Religion in Public Life: A
Dilemma for Democracy," pointed up inconsistencies in the court's efforts
to apply such tests for government as neutrality toward religion. It
challenged the court to think in new ways about making a place for
religion in the delivery of education and other public services.

Two years ago, a two-day seminar at Fuller Theological Seminary in
Pasadena attracted a group of religious thinkers in an unusual
juxtaposition: Thiemann, a liberal, and Rabbi A. James Rudin of the
American Jewish Committee exchanged views with religious conservatives on
pluralism in the future. Their work together on this panel was a good
sign for harmonious religious diversity.

There are many other examples of a bubbling debate. We have ferment
over religious and civic life in the three branches of government, in
local communities and in academic centers. This is a mark of a confident
democracy reconsidering how civil life is to be conducted.


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