By Stephen M. Ruckman
Joint Degree Candidate in Law and Ethics
Yale Divinity School, Yale Law School
Early last year, before the 2004 presidential race was in full swing, I had finally submitted my applications for law school and divinity school, and I had something on my mind. I had been writing and talking about both my policy and religious commitments for months—as people asked me why I was seeking to combine study in law and religion—and had found such discussions to be deeply engaging for all involved, particularly for my secular progressive friends who did not see how to square progressive policy and faith. Yet, in similar discussions in the national political arena, much to my frustration, there appeared to be no such engagement.
Certainly, there was religious discussion, but it was coming only from one side, as the conservative candidate was behaving and speaking as if he was president by divine right. On the other side, though, the reply from progressive candidates – many of whom professed to be religious – was resounding silence (candidate Kerry would change his tune in this area much later in the campaign, but by then it was largely a lost cause). Progressives, seemingly unable to talk comfortably about matters of faith, were simply refusing to engage candidate Bush on the level of religious rhetoric, choosing instead to challenge his use of such rhetoric at all. In essence, they were ensuring that there would be no religious debate, sending the message that, for progressives, religion needed to be kept out of the public square.
I found this reaction unconstructive, as it left many faithful voters with the impression that to be progressive was to be incapable of religious vision, and meant that many religious people with progressive inklings would become convinced that only one side of the political aisle respected their way of life. As a first effort at generating public discussion, I wrote a piece entitled “Restoring Religious Vision” for an organization I was working for at the time and the first sentence read, “Something important is missing from religious debate in the U.S. political sphere: debate.”
Indeed, debate on the merits would have been most helpful, as it would have challenged Bush to explain how he squared his faith with policies that often seemed violent and inequitable. The problem, though, seemed not just to be religious progressives' inability to express their response to Bush in religious language, but also to come to terms with what it means to be progressive and religious in the first place. After all, progressive policymakers are committed to separating church and state, so that the government does not establish an official religious ideology. But does this mean they must be silent about their faith when acting in their public capacity?
Wondering about that question myself, I looked to the answers provided by leading progressive organizations confronting faith issues. The first, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, had a clear answer: it is illiberal to suffuse progressive policymaking with religious views. The second, Sojourners, seemed to take the opposite approach: continuing injustice requires Christians to seek a public, progressive response. Hopeful that highlighting the sources of divergence in these two views could lead to discernment of a common progressive view, and tired of the failure of progressives to engage both with their conservative rivals and with each other on these matters, I thought it was high time for a constructive debate, and the American Constitution Society of Yale Law School agreed. Fortunately for us, the heads of Americans United and Sojourners—the Rev. Barry Lynn and the Rev. Jim Wallis, respectively—agreed as well.
On May 2, the two men debated each other publicly for the first time, to an assembled crowd of hundreds in Battell Chapel. The debate was often heated, ranging across such hot-button issues as discriminatory religious speech, federal funding of faith-based organizations, and abortion. In the end, they did not come to a consensus, but their sparring highlighted why it is important for progressives to engage these difficult issues with each other. Both men, due in no small part to their progressive religious convictions, shared many of the same ends, ends like greater policy focus on poverty relief. Both men also believed they, as public figures, should be vocal about the religious tenets influencing these views. What they could not agree on was the extent to which government officials should be allowed to voice their own religious convictions when defending policy choices on the Senate or House floor.
For me, the debate was profoundly helpful in its very demonstration of how one can persuasively, and publicly, articulate one's progressive religious convictions, a skill that many progressive lawmakers seem to lack. As one who expects to practice law and advise lawmakers while being true to my faith, and who hopes not to keep my faith silent, I plan to follow their example. President John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.” Religion is a source of the principle behind our laws, albeit one source among many, and in the practice of law and policy progressives would do well to know that they need not be afraid to point to that source.