THE INVISIBLE CHRIST
By James Schall
The day before President Obama spoke in Georgetown’s lovely Gaston Hall on April 14, the university community received an e-mail from the university president about the event. Tickets were to be assigned by lottery. The topic was the economy.
Immediately, I received e-mails that equated this situation to Notre Dame, and others designed to deny as much. Perhaps, but it sounded to me, at least on the university’s part, more like Arizona State, which explicitly invited President Obama to speak but did not award a degree of honor. The president just needed yet another place to speak (though there are plenty in Washington). Gaston Hall is the loveliest academic hall in the city, often used for speeches by domestic and foreign potentates.
The day following the speech, a student asked if I had noticed that the usual pendant over the stage of the hall, the cross under which are the letters of the Jesuit motto, IHS, the Latin letters symbolizing Christ, were covered over. Subsequently he sent me two graphic photos, one scene in the hall when the president was there, one when he was not. Sure enough, the Christian symbols were covered over by a background cloth, never to appear in the media coverage.
What we did not know was who did the cover-up? Did it come from the office of the U.S. president or the university president? Nor did I recollect what happened when other major figures talked there. Did they always cover it up? I doubted it. Did the university have a policy that says: “Speak here in the hall as it is, or not at all?” I doubted it also.
Public relations folks think they can improve venues for media and other purposes. In any case, I received a report from a generally reputable source. Indeed, the request to cover the Christian symbols did come from the White House. The source asked the White House for a confirmation, but no response. What a good request! Why no response, as the issue goes to the heart of what this country is or was?
What interests me here is this: If this president speaks at a synagogue, or a Baptist church, or the Crystal Cathedral, or the mosque on Massachusetts Avenue, the Ravens Stadium, the George Washington University, the headquarters of Planned Parenthood, or the hall of the local atheist society, will the same policy be followed? Will all signs of what the place actually is and stands for be covered over? If so, it represents equitable treatment, but is it wise? Is the president never to appear in any venue with obvious particular commitments, and why choose religious and not secular signs? Should, say, a university seal be exempted, but a crucifix not?
Will presidents be able to appear anywhere outside government buildings if the rules are really equally applied to both religious and secular? And this raises a real question: Is it American? George Washington once talked before our New North Hall; so did President Clinton. I guess a porch does not need much cover-up. But is the American understanding of state and religion designed to hide any religious or cultural sign whatsoever? If a president is buried at a local church, as Woodrow Wilson is, must the funeral be covered over so that no signs of a church are seen?
This country does not hide its religious presence. If a president does not want to speak in a given place, fine. Don’t ask. But if he does, it should not be on condition of the place’s ceasing to present what it historically is. Much ink has been spilt on the churches that the president went to in his earlier life, likewise much controversy on whether he “bowed” to a Saudi prince.
Father Martin Casey, who died here, was pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown when John Kennedy was president. Casey was often pictured after Mass with a cassock and biretta. He used to tell me delightful stories. He would get irate letters from people about his wearing a hat in front of the president. Kennedy had no problem with it. The point is pretty obvious. The Jew wears his yarmulkes in the public square and in his home. That is where the biretta probably came from. Sheiks seem to wear their headdress everywhere.
The “lesson” of Obama in Gaston Hall is evidently that this president covers over at least all Christian signs. Why? He expects, of course, that Christians will not be offended by this little restriction. Just as, on the same principle, he expects Muslims, Jews, Presbyterians, Anglicans, atheists, Ravens fans, Masons, Planned Parenthooders, evangelicals, and any members of our society when he, carrying out the logic learned here, covers all their identifying signs?
This approach used to be called, not the separation of church and state, but the establishment of a new vision in which the only thing allowed to be visible is the state.
James Schall, S.J., is a professor at Georgetown University, and one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America.
SECRET MEMO: Making Vatican City Safe for Obama
By Mary Eberstadt
“Georgetown University says it covered over the monogram ‘IHS’ — symbolizing the name of Jesus Christ — because it was inscribed on a pediment on the stage where President Obama spoke at the university on Tuesday and the White House had asked Georgetown to cover up all signs and symbols there.” -Christian News Service, April 16, 2009
April 17, 2009
TO: Msgr. Fortunatus Nwachukwu, Chief Protocol Officer, Secretariat of State, Vatican City
FROM: Office of the Chief of Protocol, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
SUBJECT: Advance Work for President Obama’s Visit to Rome in May
Dear Sir or Madam:
Buongiorno from your amici americani! We hope you share our enthusiasm about our president’s forthcoming visit to the “Eternal City” (we mean “eternal” in a purely figurative sense, of course!).
As you may know, President Obama has deeply engaged Catholics and Catholic issues and Catholic institutions in the United States for months now. Given that record, a successful and invigorating exchange of ideas during his visit to Vatican City is guaranteed!
A few small protocol items will really help us get that exchange off the ground;
We therefore propose that the basilica photo op take place in a visually neutral place – on the walkway outside the dome, pigeons and blue sky and view of the city as backdrop. N.B.: any stray crucifixes appearing in the skyline can easily be photo-shopped out.
Fortunately, we have what we think is a fantastico solution here. How about just covering them up with some of those blue shawls that you keep on hand throughout the square for tourists? Such creative recycling, we submit, both fixes the statue problem and has the added benefit of demonstrating our mutual commitment to re-using items in the environment. Something for everyone there, non e vero?
–Your amici americani
P.S. On a more personal note, please don’t let that unresolved ambassador business get you down. We just know our president will find somebody to send to the Vatican who’s less enthusiastic than he is about abortion! Between us, we suggest you keep your silent about the a-word. Our president is many things, but used to moral criticism isn’t one of them – especially coming from Catholics.
Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a contributor to The Catholic Thing.