when barry met sally

So Sally Quinn thinks that Barack (Barry, get it?) and Michelle Obama should attend the National Cathedral while they’re in Washington. Why? Because it “transcends politics and even the separation of religions. Though nominally an Episcopal church, it welcomes everyone.” (Indeed, this could be said of most Episcopal churches: they are but nominally episcopalian, and but nominally churches. And another day I might go into Quinn’s claim that the way you “transcend” something is by reducing it to nothingness. But not now. Not now.) If the Obamas attended the Cathedral, says Quinn, “They would be sending a message to the rest of the country, as they did during the inspiring election campaign, that this is a pluralistic nation where everyone is invited.”

This makes perfect sense if you’re Sally Quinn, and cannot imagine that churches — or if it comes that what whole religions — have any purpose other than to support the American civic religion. (Though interestingly, she doesn’t expect the Rev. Jeremiah Wright to do that: he gets an opt-out card.)

Meanwhile, on another planet, Pope Benedict XVI has aroused the consternation of the New York Times by appearing to “cast doubt on the possibility of interfaith dialogue.” The Vatican has been making soothing noises every since, but in fact Benedict was stressing a point that he has been making for a very long time: that the whole ecumenical movement of the twentieth century — which was originally focused on creating better understanding among various Christian groups but later morphed into “interreligious dialogue” — has never made much progress, and has never made much progress because it has assumed that the way you have to talk about people you disagree with is by talking largely, or wholly, about points of agreement. “Can we agree that Jesus is the only Son of God? Ummmm, okay . . . Well, can we agree that Jesus is important? Can we agree that there is a God? Wow . . . um, let’s see: Can we agree to support the U.N. Millennium Development Goals? Moved, seconded, passed!

Benedict, having watched all this going on for many fruitless decades, wonders if we shouldn’t try holding the stick at the other end: what if we try talking about where we don’t agree, and see where that leads us? This violates every tenet — or perhaps the only tenet — of the ecumenical movement, so it’s not going to gain any traction among the professional ecumenists, but still, it’s an interesting and hopeful gesture.

Of course, Sally Quinn and Pope Benedict have different points of view because they have different concerns: Quinn thinks the most important thing is for us all to get along, and that requires (she believes) papering over every religious difference; whereas Benedict believes that the most important thing is that what we believe about God is true. What would you expect from a journalist and a Pope? Still, the comparison is potentially instructive, and I wonder what the Pope would say in response to Quinn’s notion that religious believers — at least, Presidential ones — have to Keep America First even during the Sunday morning worship hour?

(P.S. Sorry about the headline, I just couldn’t resist.)