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Yale Forum on Faith and Politics feature Obama and new film on faith and culture

By Leslie Ann Brown ’10 M.Div.
Michael O’Loughlin ’09 M.A.R.

A series of three events on the Quad last month sponsored by the Yale Forum on Faith and Politics engaged the Yale Divinity School community on issues ranging from the campaign of Barack Obama and the current state of American conservatism to a preview of a new documentary film, Lord Save Us from Your Followers.

The film, directed by Dan Merchant, features interviews with comedian and Minnesota senatorial candidate Al Franken, former Senator Rick Santorum (D-PA) and evangelical Tony Campolo. Merchant, a veteran of the children’s television show “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” spoke after the April 23 showing about the genesis of the film.

Merchant described how, before beginning work on the project, he had been growing increasingly frustrated with the level of rancor surrounding the discussion of Christianity and public life. Witnessing how Christianity was portrayed in the media and appalled at the increasing divisiveness on faith and politics, Merchant decided to travel throughout America in search of some civil discourse.

Lord Save Us from Your Followers follows Merchant across the United States as he engages in conversation about the role of Christianity in modern America using a person-on-the-street interview style. The film also features extended interviews on the subject with a myriad of cultural figures.

Ultimately, Merchant told about 50 students, he made the film in order to start a dialogue. “I’ve been continually surprised by who wants to talk, and it turns out most everybody, surprise, surprise. My goal is for it to be a conversation starter,” he said.

Given that Lord Save Us from Your Followers devotes considerable attention to Evangelical Christianity, one viewer asked Merchant if he had received any negative feedback from the Evangelical community. “A small percentage,” Merchant answered. “I keep wondering, where are they? I expected more…. The pushback has been very, very, very minor.”

On April 21, the YFFP series at YDS featured a highly topical lunchtime discussion, led by Yale professor of sociology Philip Gorski, that touched on how the candidacy of Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) fits into the sociological notion of “civil religion.”

Gorski’s discussion followed in the tradition of renowned sociologists Robert Bellah and Emile Durkheim, who are both credited with elaborating on the idea “civil religion” first coined by eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In this context, civil religion is a natural outgrowth of social community. This form of civil religion is what Gorski argues is the substance of Obama’s narrative and is also the direct antithesis of the now infamous remarks delivered by Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, pastor emeritus of Trinity United Church of Christ, where Obama is a member.

Gorski, the author of The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe, said that Wright’s comments “violated the norms of civility.” He added, though, that what is called normative in politics is not always the same for the pulpit, particularly within the prophetic tradition of African-American church preaching.

During his talk, Gorski further categorized Obama’s approach to politics as “radical pluralism.” He explained that this means that diverse political players “can agree on policy without agreeing on the motive to get there.”

Finally, the YFFP brought former U.S. Rep. Mickey Edwards to the Quad on April 23 to speak about his new book, Reclaiming Conservatism: How a Great American Political Movement Got Lost. Edwards, a 16-term Republican from Oklahoma, spoke about his sense of the betrayal of conservatism caused in part by a mangled understanding of America’s separation of church and state.

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