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A New Conversation about Religion and Public Life

By Gustav Spohn, Director of Communications and Publications and Frank Brown, Assistant Director, Publications

E.J. DionneIn the view of Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, there has "never been a better moment" for a new conversation about religious engagement with public life, especially a conversation that recovers some of the broad themes laid out in American social and theological movements of the last century.

For Dionne, who delivered the keynote address at a May 3-4 Faith and Citizenship conference at Yale Divinity School, that means engaging the theologies of justice developed in the civil rights movement and African-American church; the rich tradition of Catholic social thought; aspects of the Protestant Social Gospel with important corrections offered by Reinhold Niebuhr; and the new evangelical Protestant enthusiasm for environmental stewardship and connections with the poor.

Said Dionne, " It is my view that there has never been a better moment for a new religious conversation, especially one organized around the theme of community. We meet at a moment when the religious winds are changing."

The dominant public voice of Religious Right leaders such as Pat Robertson, James Dobson and the late Jerry Falwell has subsided, according to Dionne, challenged by what he termed "new religious voices" that are "rising to challenge stereotypical views of religious faith." On the evangelical side, he pointed to leaders who have staked out territory historically perceived to be in the liberal domain: Richard Cizik of the National association of Evangelicals, who has taken strong public stands favoring environmental stewardship, and Rick Warren, the conservative megachurch pastor who has called on Christians to care for the poor.

The conference, which drew more than 100 participants, was held in conjunction with the spring meeting of YDS's Board of Advisors and drew participants from across the country.

"In recent years religion increasingly has become a major factor both in politics of our nation and around the world," said John Lindner, director of external relations at YDS and organizer of the conference. He said the event was aimed at a discussion of faith and politics that examined "the synergy between our identity as people of faith and our identity as citizens."

Former Senator Gary HartSaid Lindner, "This is not simply an American question, this is a discussion requiring examination in a global perspective. We offered this conference as an invitation to a new public conversation that we hope might change the discourse about religion in the months leading up to the 2008 elections." He noted that the Divinity School plans to continue the faith and citizenship discussion in various forms, including a special issue of the school's theological journal, Reflections, devoted entirely to the topic.

Dionne's keynote address set the stage for other parts of the conference, including two panel discussions - one on the global aspects of the faith and citizenship question and the other focused on the domestic aspects - and a luncheon conversation between Dionne and former U.S. Senator Gary Hart.

Serene JonesModerating the global panel was Harold Koh, Dean of Yale Law School. Panelists include Jennifer Butler, Executive Director, Faith in Public Life; Heidi Hadsell, President, Hartford Seminary; James Joseph, U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, 1996-99 and Professor of the Practice of Public Policy, Sanford Institute of Public Policy, Duke University ; Paul Lakeland, Director of Catholic Studies Program, Professor of Religious Studies and Aloysius P. Kelley SJ Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University; James Laney, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, 1993-97, and President Emeritus, Emory University; and Emilie Townes, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology, Yale Divinity School.

The second panel was moderated by Harlon Dalton, Professor at Yale Law School and Adjunct Professor of Law and Religion, Yale Divinity School. Panelists included Randall Balmer, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of American Religion, Barnard College, Columbia University ; Serene Jones, Titus Street Professor of Theology, Yale Divinity School ; Michael Kieschnick, President and Co-founder, Working Assets; Peter Laarman, Executive Director, Progressive Christians Uniting; David Price, U.S. Representative, North Carolina, Fourth Congressional District; and Amy Sullivan, Contributing Editor, The Washington Monthly.

The global panel included activists, academicians and former diplomats representing points of view ranging from that of a globe-trotting expert on Muslim-Christian relations to that of a retired U.S. ambassador who once helped keep the peace on the Korean peninsula. The panel covered subjects including the international community's inability to intervene in Darfur, citizenship in the face of globalization and to what extent religion informs U.S. foreign policy.

Panel on Global Perspectives

Professor Townes, who is slated next year to become the first African-American female president of the American Academy of Religion, helped frame the discussion in broad terms by posing such questions to the panel as "Can we truly have a democracy if we are going about the business of empire building globally?" Townes spoke eloquently of the transformative experience of witnessing the Kent State shootings 37 years ago on television while finishing her first year of high school in Durham, North Carolina.

"It was the first time I began to see the linkages between what we do here at home and global realities. There were young black men in my neighborhood who went to Cambodia and Vietnam and came home in coffins," said Townes.

James Laney, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 1993 to 1997, described his experience as a key player during the brinksmanship between the two Koreas under the Clinton administration. Most poignantly, Laney, a Methodist minister, recalled how his faith helped during some of the tensest moments in the standoff.

Panel on U.S. Perspectives

"My office in the embassy had a very big bathroom, really a big bathroom and it was carpeted," Laney related. "Occasionally, I would go into that bathroom, lock the door, get down on my knees and pray. Now, I realize that what I was praying for was a continuation of clarity of vision, that I would not be confounded by or overwhelmed by anxiety, or just see the thing in skewed terms. . I never told anybody in the embassy that, anybody in the government that. I'm sorry that it is on some sort of tape today."

The second panel examined domestic dimensions of faith and citizenship and sparkled with a lively interplay between participants. Speakers alternately bemoaned progressive Christianity's sluggish response to the political ascendance of conservative Christians, spoke hopefully of new evangelical Christian values that emphasize fighting poverty and global warming, and talked about the need for Christians to engage other Christians.

"At this time in history, I think Christians need to take care of their own house.

Harlon Dalton and Michael KieschnickI used to focus on interfaith issues. That is not where I spend my time now. Liberal Christians talking to Buddhists about the war is not the problem. It really truly isn't. Christians in the United States are the problem and, of course, they are an opportunity as well," said Kieschnick.

During the Dionne-Hart luncheon exchange, which took the form of an interview of Hart by Dionne, Hart challenged the nation to rededicate itself to its foundational principles - the rule of law, justice, an open and free press, opposition politics, an independent judiciary.

"What people around the world respect about this country, or respected about this country, are its principles," said Hart. "They envy our lifestyle and our material wealth, but they really respected what this country stood for, or it's supposed to stand for.

Warning against the kind of hypocisy that he said permeated the Cold War, Hart said, "I think we regain the respect and admiration of the world by living up to our own principles."

Hart also called on mainstream churches to recover the moral high ground vis à vis the Religious Right, which he said has usurped the definition of "faith and values" so that the words are code for conservative positions on issues such as birth control and the death penalty. Railing against what he termed the Religious Right's "rigid, doctrinaire" version of Christianity, he said, "Where is the mainstream church for the last 20 years on standing up to the Religious Right?"


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