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Role of religion in public affairs explored at Yale forum

By Danielle Tumminio '07 M.Div.

John Danforth '63 B.D. and Joseph Cumming, director of the Reconciliation Program at the YDS-based Yale Center for Faith and Culture, were among the featured speakers at an Oct. 25 forum entitled The Role of Religion in Public Affairs, held at Battell Chapel and sponsored by the university's Political Science Department.

Students, faculty, and New Haven residents gathered at Battell to hear Danforth, the former Senator from Missouri and an Episcopal priest, Cumming, and Sister Aischa Al-Adawiya, an African-American Muslim activist, executive director, and founder of Women in Islam, Inc. Each speaker was allotted 25 minutes to discuss current issues in religion and politics, followed by a question-and-answer session.

Danforth initiated the conversation by charting what he sees as a trend in the relationship between American politics and religion. He said he first noticed this trend during the Terri Schiavo controversy in 2005, when his own Republican Party attempted to take legal action on behalf of Schiavo. Danforth was troubled: "My party does not tend to make governmental choices for individuals. My party is not in favor of extending jurisdiction over federal courts." The Republican ideology was overthrown in the Schiavo matter, he observed, so that Republicans could gain support from the Christian right. It was then, explained Danforth, that he concluded his own party's values had been cast aside in the pursuit of power. He now sees that as a trend: American political parties, instead of appealing to the center for voters, are increasingly appealing to the extremes of religious ideologies, thereby dividing the country along religious lines.

Danforth argued that the primary problem with America's attitude toward faith is that faith has become contaminated by a "degree of certainty." He believes no human is entitled to such an absolutist, confirmed ideology. "If you think that God's truth is larger than our ability to get it," he said, "then it's not that religion has no effect on politics, but none of us quite get it right." To correct for the divisiveness that currently corrupts the political machine, Danforth suggested, Americans must return to more centrist ideologies to find common ground.

Cumming argued that the primary problem facing the religion/politics relationship is a lack of understanding, and reconciliation, among the three Abrahamic faiths. Like Danforth, he cited the need to find common ground as grounds for reconciliation. "The resources of faith can build bridges," he said, but faith leaders, not just political leaders need to be involved in the process. According to Cumming, all too often the presence and influence of these leaders is ignored: "So often society wants to bypass those religious leaders and go to the political leaders."

Instead of elucidating current issues, Sister Aischa Al-Adawiya offered an autobiographical sketch of her own journey to the Muslim faith and how it intersects with her role as a political activist, presenting a kind of model for how Americans can utilize their faith for social change. In her own case, her faith journey led to social activism on behalf of African-Americans and Muslims. She also urged Americans not to judge all Muslims by the standards of Al-Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalists. "Many Muslims don't have oil," she said. "Many of them aren't involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict."

From the perspective of all three speakers, the effects religion has on the American political arena are great and cannot be ignored. But each of the three also recognized that the influence of religion on politics should be used in a healthy way, for the unity of American society rather than its division. Said Cumming, "Faith properly understood can transform our torn, divided world for the better."


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