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When politics and religion collide

Experts weigh in on the ‘taboo’ topics

 The date is April 19, 2012. The location is Dubourg Hall, Sinquefield Stateroom. The event is Religion & Politics: Election 2012. Roughly 52 people attended.The speakers included Marie Griffith, distinguished professor in the Humanities at Washington University; John C. Danforth, former U.S. Senator from Missouri,; Diana Bartelli Carlin, associate vice president for graduate education and professor of Communication at Saint Louis University; and Joel Goldstein, Vincent C. Immel professor of law at SLU’s School of Law.

Fr. Paul Stark opened the symposium with what he called “taboo” and “converging” topics: religion and politics. Fr. Stark discussed the conflict of the two intertwining, especially with the upcoming election and noted that when politics become involved, “We become distracted of what really matters in our faith.” Fr. Stark concluded his intro with the three purposes of the evening: “to engage in thoughtful reflection & dialogue, to learn from scholars and different perspectives and to respond with action.”

Griffith began the discussion by stating that the “joining of religion and politics in elections has never been a more pressing concern than it is today.” Griffith introduced the topic by asking the audience, “Why has religion become ever more apparent in elections in recent history? Who/which constituents care the most about candidates’ religious affiliation and practice? When is it fair to discuss a candidate’s religion?”

This question of relevance was apparent throughout the symposium. Griffith used presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign as an example of a religious and political collision. Griffith brought up the fact that Romney is a Mormon and that this supposedly has hurt his campaign. According to Griffith, “fear of Mormons still exists.”

However, in contrast, Gingrich’s religious background was as an asset to his political campaign. According to Griffith, Gingrich used his background of religious conversion to his benefit.

“Americans love stories of conversion,” she said. Griffith also included previous successful candidates who had conversion stories, including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and the current President Obama. Griffith went on to discuss how people of faith do, in fact, play a “major” role in all aspects of public life. Griffith cited the recent contraceptive debate as well as conflict over accusations that President Obama is a Muslim. According to Griffith, Americans are “hungry for moral language,” and she is hopeful for a future of separation of church of state.

Goldstein then highlighted many instances of how this recent debate of religion in politics “raises some very easy questions about right and wrong.”

“Religion speaks to essential matter of right and wrong,” Goldstein said

Carlin went on to say that “38 percent of Americans think that the talk of religion & politics is too much.” In closing, Carlin said that achieving “civil discourse” would be best achieved by engaging in dialogue about the issues at hand.

Carlin followed with the insight that in order to improve the viewpoint of Americans on religion and politics we need to find ways for citizens to engage in constructive ways. Questions were raised of how ignorant Americans are of politics and how we can make a difference. According to Carlin, “We, as citizens, are the answer, not politicians.”

A Q&A session from the audience followed. The question was raised, “How do we get the next generation to accept diversity?” Carlin responded with a story of her own children and how they performed acts of service and pointed out that “students do not make the connection between soup kitchens and political decisions that were made that got those people into those soup kitchens.”

“[Following politics] matters. In ways we cannot see. The right to vote, especially for women, people do not take advantage of the privilege to vote…it is sad….people do not feel empowered. Voting makes a difference,” Carlin said.

This event was co-sponsored by Saint Louis University and the Michael and Barbara Newmark Institute for Human Relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council.

The speakers included Marie Griffith, John C. Danforth, distinguished professor in the Humanities at Washington University, Diana Bartelli Carlin, Associate Vice President for Graduate Education and Professor of Communication at SLU, and Joel Goldstein, Vincent C. Immel professor of law at SLU’s School of Law.

The symposium opened with an introduction of the, according to Fr. Paul Stark, “taboo” and “converging” topics: Religion and Politics.  Fr. Stark discussed the conflict of topics intertwining especially with the upcoming election and noted that when politics become involved, “We become distracted of what really matters in our faith.” Fr. Stark concluded his intro with the three purposes of the evening, “to engage in thoughtful reflection & dialogue, to learn from scholars and different perspectives and to respond with action.”

Marie Griffith then took the floor. Griffith started off by discussing how the “joining of religion and politics in elections has never been a more pressing concern than it is today.” Griffith provided those in attendance with a few key questions on the current state of electoral politics by asking: “Why has religion become ever more apparent in elections in recent history? Who/which constituents care the most about candidates’ religious affiliation and practice? When is it fair to discuss a candidate’s religion?”

This question of relevancy was apparent throughout the symposium. Griffith related the question of religion and politics for current candidate, Mitt Romney’s campaign. Griffith brought up the fact that Romney is a Mormon and that this supposedly has hurt his campaign. According to Griffith, “fear of Mormons still exists.”

However, in contrast, Gingrich’s religious background is as an asset to his political campaign. According to Griffith, Gingrich uses his background of religious conversion to his benefit. “Americans love stories of conversion.” Griffith also included previous successful candidates who had conversion stories including: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and the current President Obama.

Griffith went on to discuss how people of faith do, in fact, play a ‘major’ role in all aspects of public life. Griffith cited the recent contraceptive debate as well as conflict over accusations that President Obama is a Muslim. According to Griffith, Americans are “hungry for moral language”; and she is hopeful for a future of separation of church of state.

Joel Goldstein then highlighted many instances of how this recent debate of religion in politics, “raises some very easy questions about right and wrong.”  Goldstein included the concept of “democratic pluralism.” According to Goldstein, religious values shape how some people view public policy.

“Religion speaks to essential matter of right and wrong,” Goldstein said.

Like Griffith, Goldstein also included information Romney’s campaign and how his religious background became an issue in his campaign. Diana Carlin followed. Carlin opened up with discussing how in order to examine where we are, we need to look backwards in history. Carlin also mentioned how many presidents included God in their inaugural speeches. To be specific, it was a trend among Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and GHWB.

She continued with other political issues that have been under religious debate including: women’s right, civil rights, abortion and stem cell research. According to Carlin there is a “continued need for wedge issues.” Americans are always going to look for something to criticize in the media and lately it has been religion & politics.

Carlin went on to say “38 percent of Americans think that the talk of religion & politics is too much.” In closing, Carlin asked the question: “How do we achieve civil discourse?” Her response: Our task is to best engage in dialogue.

After the three speakers presented their remarks, the three panelists spoke amongst themselves. Goldstein opened up with referencing the speech of JFK and said, “Kennedy invoked religion to inspire.” Part of the recent controversy is that religion is a taboo topic in politics; however, as Goldstein mentioned, JFK did not see it in that way.

Carlin followed with the insight that in order to improve the viewpoint of Americans on religion & politics we need to find ways for citizens to engage in constructive ways. Questions were raised of how ignorant Americans are of politics and how we can make a difference. According to Carlin, “we, as citizens, are the answer, not politicians.”

Goldstein followed with the comment of Americans have lost commitment to a pluralistic society. Americans are not committed to accepting a variety of religions. Goldstein emphasized balance among the democrats and republicans in the sense of identifying religious issues in politics but also acknowledging a pluralistic society. “We can’t have a dialogue if one is speaking from God and the other from human experience.”

A Q&A session from the audience followed.  The question was raised, “How do we get the next generation to accept diversity?” Carlin responded with a story of her own children and how they performed acts of service and continued with “students do not make the connection between soup kitchens and political decisions that were made that got those people into those soup kitchens.” Dialogue and knowledge was a main solution to the next generation accepting diversity.

When asked what she would say to students who do not follow politics because they feel politics does not affect them, Griffith responded, “It matters. In ways we cannot see. The right to vote, especially for women, people do not take advantage of the privilege to vote…it is sad….people do not feel empowered. Voting makes a difference.”

This event was co-sponsored by Saint Louis University and the Michael and Barbara Newmark Institute for Human Relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council.

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