THE CHARLEMONT FORUM SUMMER 2011
The Use and Misuse of Religion in American Political Life
In the interest of creating an informed citizenry, we intend in three forums to examine the causes of and possible solutions for one aspect of the current divisions in American political culture. That aspect is the use and misuse of religion in political life. Committed as we are to inquiry not advocacy, we will engage humanities scholars from various fields, including religious studies, American history, literature, and media studies.
Addressing the use and misuse of religion in political life presupposes that standards exist for drawing the distinction. Part of our inquiry is aimed at deciding what these standards are.
Although current religiously-colored political divisions are not unprecedented in American society, they are, by all accounts, particularly intense at present. Arguably, they are fast approaching a crisis point that gives rise to conflicting forms of collective action, to recall the special focus of the Massachusetts Humanities Grant Guidelines. Any assessment of such collective action must, as the guidelines indicate, “be informed by an understanding of the root cause of the crisis and its possible solutions”.
While the divisions in American culture have many facets, religion is important both historically and currently. From the colonial period on, Americans have been in conflict over the scope and status of religion in the political order. Intense controversies over establishment of religion have continued from the 1630s right up to the recent national election.
Likewise, opinions have differed sharply concerning how religiously inclusive our society is or should be. President Obama has stated, “We are no longer just a Christian nation. We are a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of unbelievers.” In contrast, the late political scientist, Samuel P. Huntington, asserted that “America is predominantly a Christian nation. Non-Christians may legitimately see themselves as strangers because they or their ancestors moved to this ‘strange land’ founded and peopled by Christians.” These opposing claims, often fueled by the media, illustrate one of the deep tensions that characterize current political life in this country.
Among other things, these differences over the religious character of the United States have inspired contemporary political action groups, such as the Tea Party movement and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. One Tea Party candidate in the recent election challenged the constitutionality of the separation of church and state, while anti-religious groups “are trying to marshal secularists at a time when the religious right and politicians say America is a ‘Christian nation” (New York Times, Nov. 10, 2010).
We project: The Contemporary Situation, the Historical Background, and The Role of the Media for a three-part series of forums during the summer months of June, July and August of 2011. In all three of the programs, the humanities scholars represent different disciplines and approach their topics with unique perspectives that are especially relevant to the Massachusetts Foundation’s theme: Crisis, Community, and Civic Culture.
I. The Relation of Religion to Contemporary Political Divisions: We will address questions such as these:
· What are the standards for evaluating political discourse and what is religion’s appropriate role?
· Given legal restraints in this country on political advocacy by religious bodies, how much room is there for political discussion? How ought religious bodies, in preaching, public statements, and other forms of expression, address subjects of political importance?
· President Obama noted: “Scrub language of all religious content and we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice. Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address without references to ‘the judgments of the Lord,’ or King’s ‘I have a Dream” speech without reference to “all God’s children” (Audacity of Hope, 214) Is he right and what are the implications for political discourse?
· Is there a uniform fundamentalist or evangelical perspective? If not, what differences are there, and what are the implications of the differences for political life in this country?
The speakers who will address these questions are Stephen Prothero, Professor of Religion, Boston University and Kathryn Lofton, Assistant Professor of American Studies and Religious Studies, Yale University. Prothero has written a recent book, God is Not One: The Study of Eight Religions and been the host for the PBS documentary, God in America. Lofton’s first book, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, uses the work of Oprah Winfrey to explore the formation of religion in modern America.
II. The Role of Religion and the Historical Background of our country’s political divisions. Some of the questions to be addressed are:
· Have there been certain periods of history similar to our contemporary period? If so which have they been? Why?
· Are there precedents in American history for some of the religious controversies/debates and division of opinion present in contemporary discourse? If so, what are they?
· Have there been periods of American history where religion has provided constructive contributions to political discourse, as for example, in the Civil Rights movement? If so, what accounted for that?
· What impact do non-Protestant and non-Western religions have on American political life?
The humanities scholar who will explore the historical role of religion is Professor David Wills, Winthrop Smith Professor of American History at Amherst College. His current course offerings “American Religious Thought: From Edwards to Emerson” and “From Martin Luther King Jr. to Barack Obama” will give a unique and important perspective about our religious heritage. He will help us understand the past as it influences our present day discourse in politics.
III. The Role of the Media in understanding religion in political life. Some of the questions to be addressed will be:
- How do we define what is good or bad religion in the media?
- Does contemporary American religion, as it is expressed in the media, encourage civil communication? If so how? If not, why not?
- Do the media overdramatize the extreme religious points of view? If so, how can the middle view be represented?
- Does the prominence of the media in contemporary American society exacerbate religious and political differences? Or does it clarify?
- Does it make a difference to our subject which form of media we are discussing, e.g. print, TV, radio, internet blogs, etc.?
For this third program we will draw upon the expertise of Professor Gustav Niebuhr, Professor of Religion and Media, Syracuse University, NY. He has, for a long period, been the religion editor for the New York Times and was also on the staff of the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. The Niebuhr name is well known in the hill towns because Niebuhr’s granduncle, Reinhold Niebuhr, and his grandfather, H. Richard, summered in the towns of Heath and Rowe.
In this program we have engaged local journalist Richie Davis, Senior Writer of The Recorder, to respond to Mr. Niebuhr's talk.