The following comes from an August article by Gloria Romero, an education reformer and former Democratic state senator from Los Angeles:
Gov. Jerry Brown rarely speaks about his religious faith. But, while at the Vatican recently, he expounded on how his religion influenced his outlook on life. Invited by Pope Francis – the first Jesuit pontiff – to address world leaders on climate change, Brown – a former Jesuit seminarian – told them, “The formation that I’ve undergone growing up in the Catholic faith, the Catholic religion, puts forth a world that’s orderly, that has purpose and that, ultimately, is a positive.”
Over the years, the Vatican has taken positions on climate change and its disproportionate impact on poorer nations. The pope issued an encyclical to Catholics, declaring that acting on climate change is essential to their faith. In his speech, Brown spoke of nature and “the interconnectedness of all beings,” adding, “Religion teaches people to take care of the poor, and the pope has taken the role to be the modern leader for the planet.”
I, as a former legislator, raised Catholic and a onetime professor at a Jesuit college, found it inspiring to hear Brown’s exposition on faith. Unlike some politicians, who seemingly brandish faith as a weapon against others not sharing similar spiritual foundations, Brown articulated his public service based on a faith in service to others, a mission on behalf of the dispossessed.
Brown’s words on Catholicism, faith and service resonate at a critical juncture in our nation’s history. On June 17, inside a Charleston, S.C., church known for an historic association of faith and politics, a white supremacist murdered the church’s pastor, Clementa Pinckney and eight parishioners, simply because they were black.
The killings reignited debate over the Confederate flag flying outside the South Carolina state Capitol as a symbol of bigotry and racism. During debate, legislators seemingly wrestled with their very faith in voting to finally remove that flag.
The South Carolina vote fueled debate over California’s own symbols of bigotry, including whether a statue of missionary Father Junipero Serra should stand in the U.S. Capitol or whether names of Confederacy leaders and military officers should be removed from their namesake public schools. Last year, California prohibited selling items in the state Capitol that are emblazoned with the Confederate flag.
But why limit discussions of bigotry in the Golden State to school names and statues?
Embedded in the California Constitution are two clauses of a sort that have provoked national debates over whether they are inherently bigoted. Known as “Blaine amendments,” the laws were passed primarily in the late 1800s, stemming from nativist, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiment. Named for Congressman James Blaine of Maine, they excluded from government funding schools that taught “sectarian” faiths (mainly Catholicism), while allowing funds to the “common schools,” which taught the “common” or “nonsectarian” faith (i.e., nondenominational Protestantism).
New York and Massachusetts were first to enact state versions, corresponding to waves of immigration from Europe and the Catholic Church’s role in aiding immigrants. Although Blaine’s effort to enact a federal constitutional amendment failed, 38 state constitutions retain similar bans on public funding for private sectarian schools.
Some argue that Blaine amendments reflect concerns over the separation of church and state. Others argue they were motivated by bigotry, targeting for special disadvantage the faiths of immigrants, particularly, Catholicism.
Slavery, immigrants and Catholics all significantly shaped our nation. John F. Kennedy was elected president despite “concerns” over his Catholic faith. Discussion over faith, bigotry and symbols – be they statues, flags or words – is timely. If South Carolina could banish a symbol of bigotry, perhaps California might similarly erase laws based on bigotry.