Religion and politics -- that perilous, yet inevitable, combination -- were the topic of intense debate at a March 2 panel entitled "Is Religion Political?" Featuring four panelists from a variety of religious and professional backgrounds, the event marked the inauguration of Columbia's new program series "Religion in the Public Sphere," sponsored by the Kraft Family Fund for Interfaith and Intercultural Awareness. Click to view the video of the event.
Moderator Marianne Hirsch, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, got the debate off to a rousing start by posing the question: "What is gained or lost when religion and politics intersect?"
Catherine S. Roskam, bishop suffragan of New York and a longtime advocate of cultural, racial and gender equality in religious life, responded that she was in favor of continued separation of church and state while also believing in the need for continuous dialogue between the two. When religion and politics intersect, "we are impoverished," she said, going on to note occasions in history when religion has been used to justify immoral acts for political gain.
David Allen White, a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy and a devout Catholic, offered a different view: "Lord Byron said that man is half divinity, half dust. The two have to be together, otherwise, we die." When religion informs politics, a higher moral standard can be realized and a greater, absolute truth can be understood, he argued, adding the observation that attempts to separate the spiritual from the physical usually end up destroying both.
The Ann Whitney Olin Professor of American Religion at Barnard College, Randall Balmer, was more equivocal. While pointing out that religion isn't always stuck playing the "bad guy" role, and that history attests to that, he also thinks you "can work for the common good without being religious," offering the antebellum abolitionist and Civil Rights movements in American history as examples.
For Randall, the genius of America is its First Amendment. "The canons of democracy dictate an etiquette that requires us to recognize truths other than our own. No one in the public sphere should be able to decide that their truth should be everyone's truth."
That sentiment was echoed by Jay Lefkowitz, U.S. special envoy on human rights in North Korea, when noting the differences between the founding fathers of America and the leaders of the French Enlightenment. "The founding fathers realized the danger of state-sponsored religion," he said.
The panel also talked about issues dominating media headlines, including a Danish newspaper's printing of cartoons considered offensive to Muslims. Discussion centered on the legality of printing the cartoons versus the ethics of doing so. As White put it, "There is another virtue: prudence."
Hirsch's request that the panelists comment on the intelligent design controversy promoted White to quip: "I've taught English for 30 years, and I wish public schools would teach reading and writing. Why are we bothering with intelligent design? Why can't we start with intelligent grammar design?"
Balmer offered a more thoughtful response. "As a person of faith, I believe in intelligent design. I take it as a matter of faith," he said. "But it's not science. It's not falsifiable."
By the end of the discussion, the panelists had agreed that, while religion and politics will always be inextricably bound together, it is nevertheless possible to achieve a judicious balance between the two. Balmer perhaps put it best when he said: "We need a language of morality that does no harm to any faith -- or the lack of it -- and that serves democracy."