Separate for a Reason
The crucial line separating church and state was blurred last week in Missouri when Pope John Paul II came to St. Louis to preach against the death penalty and Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan listened too carefully, commuting the death sentence of triple murderer Darrell J. Mease.
While I am deeply opposed to capital punishment and thus pleased that one fewer inmate (however deserving of the penalty he may appear to be) will be executed as a result of the Pope's intervention, this whole story leaves me a little queasy. It brings religion and politics in this country a little too close together for comfort. Here's the thing: Carnahan still supports the death penalty and has signed off on 26 execution orders since becoming governor in 1993.
The Pope's plea didn't change Carnahan's mind on any philosophical level, just on a particular one: On this day, regarding this criminal, he'd make an exception because the Pope was so persuasive. How does that work out? It's Carnahan's prerogative to change his mind, I suppose, but shouldn't he base that change of mind on new legal evidence brought up on appeal or a basic reversal of philosophy regarding capital punishment, not on the admittedly convincing words of the leader of the Catholic Church? Of course, there is always the question of whether the many Catholic voters in Missouri will remember this one-time acquiescence to a papal request favorably come election time. The governor can probably count.
Meanwhile, back on the East Coast, it seems that a majority of American women might also have their erasers at the ready to continue the blurring of the line between church and state. In a survey of 1,000 women taken by Princeton Research Associates on behalf of the Center for Gender Equality, 76 percent said that they believe religious leaders and groups have a "somewhat" or "very positive" effect on the country. 50 percent said they felt "religion and politics shouldn't mix," down from 63 percent who felt that way when a similar survey was taken in 1992. Fifty-three percent were in favor of strict limits on abortion (i.e., unless it was a case of rape, incest or saving the mother's life), up from 45 percent in a poll done two years ago. Perhaps most disturbingly to those of us with a liberal-minded bent, 2 out of 3 respondents thought the Christian Coalition's agenda had a positive impact on the lives of women.
The simplest response to this poll is that the 1000 women surveyed are not representative of the mood of the entire female population of the country. I really want to believe that. But for the sake of argument, let's imagine that this poll does represent a shifting attitude on the part of women towards religious influence on political life in America. Let's imagine that there really are lots of people who watch "Touched by an Angel" every week. It's time to start paying attention to that shifting attitude.
The numbers on abortion are most troublesome on an immediate level, for as popular opinion begins to turn away from the principle of allowing women free and legal access to abortion without restriction, the easier it will be for conservatives in Congress to push legislation putting ever-tighter regulations on the procedure.
Furthermore, as The Crimson noted on this page in January, now is the time when vocal support for freedom of choice is more important than ever. The number of abortion providers in America has plummeted and continues to fall as more doctors become targets of extremist pro-life organizations. (Tuesday's huge punitive decision in Oregon against the creators of the "Nuremberg Files" Web site, which posts a "wanted list" of abortionists, is one sign that the courts are beginning to take action, though the judgment will most likely be overturned due to First Amendment considerations.)
But the more general statistics reveal a startling complacency with the blurring of the line between church and state and, more than that, the erasing of the line of separation so that religious influence on political life (which has always existed on the perimeters) will become a mainstream expectation. Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council may run for President. Dan Quayle has already announced that a main plank of his presidential platform will be the ever-popular--and incredibly vague--"family values." When he used that phrase in reference to "Murphy Brown" in 1992, many of us recoiled at the thought of such an issue taking center stage in our political debate. Now, he's returning to it in triumph. Though I don't mean to suggest for a minute that either one of these conservative members of the Republican party will end up as the presidential nominee, it's nonetheless necessary to understand the implications of their campaign rhetoric.
The Pope's intervention in the Missouri death row case was to be expected--John Paul II has made opposition to the death penalty one of his priorities during his tenure--and the sentiment was admirable. But the Pope also opposes abortion and is at best weak in his support of the rights of women and gays. Gov. Carnahan made the wrong decision as a politician when he allowed himself to be influenced by a religious leader instead of by legal argument or genuine moral reversal. As a country, we'll be making the wrong decision if we allow the trend shown in the Princeton poll to continue. Church and state are separated with good reason--and women should know that better than anyone.
Susannah B. Tobin '00 is a classics concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.