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Debate Probes Wall Between Church and State


NEW YORK— Whether it’s the battle in California to remove “God” from the Pledge of allegiance; a fight in Alabama to remove  a Ten Commandment’s monument from the rotunda of the state’s judicial building or the extension of President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative to federal funding in the wake of hurricanes Rita and Katrina—centuries-old issues regarding the separation of church and state have continued to divide the nation in the 21st century. That debate took center stage at a Constitution Day event held Sept. 15 in Flom Auditorium on the Rose Hill campus.

“I believe the wall between church and state can never be high enough,” said Mark S. Massa, S.J., professor of theology and co-director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” he added, quoting the First Amendment.

According to Father Massa, government ties to religion can be toxic and can make religious groups lazy and corrupt. He also pointed to Northern Ireland and Iraq, where political instability and social unrest are directly related to the larger role religion has in their respective governments.

John Hollwitz, a Fordham College at Rose Hill junior and president of the Fordham Debate Society, said that most faiths in America are mainstream and reasonable, and that fears of religious extremists gaining political control, even if the wall is lowered, are unfounded.

But Father Massa said extremists were not what concerned him.

“Watered-down moderates can be frightening. If we make churches do what we expect government to do—educate and feed people—we’ll have churches involved in areas in which they don’t have expertise,” he said, noting that most religious leaders don’t have master’s degrees in education or social work.

Lowering the wall between church and state, he added, would let the government off the hook with regard to social problems.

Hollwitz, however, argued that lowering the wall would benefit society because religious organizations are better suited to respond to the needs of the poor and disenfranchised than politicians. He called the current system of financing public schools with local property taxes “unfair” because students who grow up in low-income neighborhoods are being short-changed.

“[Low-income students] don’t get help and can’t get out of the cycle. We can count on religious organizations to do the right thing because they don’t answer to voters,” Hollwitz said. “The government is bad at providing to people who need it the most.”

The debate “Separation of Church and State: Should the Wall Be Higher?” was sponsored by the Office of Academic Affairs and the Fordham Debate Society in celebration of Constitution Day. Last December, President Bush signed a law designating every Sept. 17 Constitution Day.


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