RELIGION thrives in this country as in few others in part because the Constitution shields public policy from sectarian power struggles and in part because, learning from that experience, most religions understand the value of respecting other faiths.
But we've been hearing lately just what a tin ear some over-eager religionists have for the harmonies that are necessary to keep this religiously diverse nation humming.
Especially egregious is the declaration of a proselytizing war by Southern Baptists on Jews during this season of the Jewish high holy days. Some 40,000 churches have received guidebooks with prayers and how-to tips for Jewish conversion.
It has proved difficult over the years to explain to Southern Baptist institutions -- though happily not to all Southern Baptists -- just how offensive such aggressions are.
Many faiths have evangelical missions. Most perform those discreetly and with sensitivity to other faiths.
The Southern Baptists, however, have pulled this stunt before, and mean to pull it again. They issued similar guides for converting Muslims during Islam's holy Ramadan season two years ago and plan guides for Buddhist conversion and for Hindu conversion during the Divali festival.
The targeting of Jews raises unique anxieties. Jews have paid over the centuries in millions of lives for an anti-Semitism born of such Christian intolerance of their faith.
Meanwhile, some Texas high schools are defying a self-evident federal court ruling that, no, of course they may not lead pre-game crowds in prayers to Jesus.
These faux pas come on the heels of the decision by the Kansas board of education to drop the study of evolution from state education standards, first fruit of a successful election campaign by religious conservatives last year to take control of the board.
The majoritarian misuse of power in Kansas was intimidating beyond the state. It figured Texas Gov. George W. Bush would like it, and he does. "Creationism" is nearly a Republican cause. Ronald Reagan spoke well of it, and Mr. Bush's fellow Texan, House GOP whip Tom DeLay, blamed the Columbine high school massacre in part on the teaching of evolution.
But even Democratic Vice President Al Gore was cowed by the Kansas vote, saying local schools should be able to opt for creationism. In one craven dive, Mr. Gore forfeited the credentials he had spent a career acquiring as a rare politician who understands science.
And given their impatience with other religions, you have to wonder just how the Southern Baptists would use their numbers as the largest Protestant denomination if the church-state wraps were off. Baptists historically were fierce advocates of separation, but the Southern Baptist Convention has instead been battering it in recent years.
The political wall of church-state separation not only must be constantly patrolled, but also the etiquette of mutual accommodation that flows from it has to be constantly relearned. Call it choir practice.
Tom Teepen is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers. His e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pub Date: 9/14/99