Church-state wall should be 'porous'

''Religious values are an intregal part of human experience. But we cannot impose sectarian values and standards [on the general public].''

So says Bishop James Armstrong, the spiritual leader of the United Methodist Church in Indiana and the president of the National Council of the Churches of Christ.

In an interview, Bishop Armstrong posited that religion should be ''exposed--but not imposed'' in the public sector. The bishop says he is a staunch defender of the constitutional separation of church of state. But he believes that the so-called ''wall'' of separation was meant to be a ''porous'' one--not an impenetrable one.

''Neither [church nor state] should dominate the other,'' he insists. But, he adds, throughout American history religious leaders have addressed themselves to important political and social issues.

''There were outspoken antislavery voices from the pulpit during the Abolitionist movement,'' he says, ''The religious community also played a key role in the 1960s [over civil rights]. Billy Graham addressed lawmakers on the application of religious consciousness.''

Churches also have a responsibility, he says, to speak out against poverty and to champion a ''stabilizing of the American home.''

But Bishop Armstrong finds himself in sharp disagreement with the Moral Majority and other Christian fundamentalist groups.

''They have a perfect right to speak out. But I disagree with an arrogance that says: 'If you don't agree with me, you are neither a patriot nor a Christian,'' he says.

The bishop also disagrees with those who advocate tuition tax credits for private and parochial schools.

''This would be an indirect subsidy [to specific churches],'' he explains. He says he is also concerned that such an incentive would weaken the public schools.

The bishop says he also opposes plans to reinstitute prayer in the schools. Bishop Armstrong says it would be legal to set aside a ''time for silence.'' But he says he opposes formalized prayer, adding that it is the ''role of the home and family''--not public schools--to instill a desire for prayer in young people.

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