Religion not just a private matter, panel says

Wednesday, June 7, 2000

Marty Martin
Marty Martin

NEW YORK — “Jean, this is a very innocuous, sweet, quiet little document. Is there any hand grenade in it? Is there any dynamite in it?” moderator Martin Marty asked panelist Jean Bethke Elshtain at the First Amendment Center-New York yesterday.

The subject was a report about religious diversity in American public life.

“I don’t think it’s a hand grenade. I like to think of it as a ball lobbed right down the middle,” replied Elshtain, of the University of Chicago Divinity School. “That is to say we took a count of the variety of views expressed on religion and religion’s expression in private life … and came up with a conclusion that satisfied the group.”

Marty, Fairfax M. Cone distinguished service professor emeritus of the University of Chicago, and Elshtain were joined in the discussion by Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar of The Freedom Forum; Diane L. Knippers, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy; Richard D. Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; Elliot M. Mincberg, vice president and legal education director of People for the American Way Foundation; and Mujahid Ramadan, executive director of Nevada Partners Inc.

The report was developed by a coalition of 57 men and women from government, business, labor, law, academia, nonprofit organizations, the media, and different religious faiths and faith-based organizations, who convened for three days in March.

Jean Bethke Elshtain
Jean Bethke Elshtain

In spite of the banter between Marty and Elshtain, the goal was most serious: to define policies and actions concerning the role of religion in American public life.

The gathering, called “Religion in Public Life,” is the second in a new American Assembly series, “Uniting America: Toward Common Purpose.” The American Assembly, founded in 1950 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower “to illuminate issues of public policy,” convenes authorities from relevant constituencies on critical national issues, both domestic and foreign, to prepare consensus statements and recommendations addressed to policymakers.

The “hook” or notable bit of the report, as Bethke Elshtain put it, is the rejection of the idea that religion is simply a private matter, one that people should keep to themselves.

“Religion involves forms of membership,” she said. “It involves forms of commitment; it involves a kind of loyalty; it locates people in the world in a certain way; it gives people a vocabulary with which to express their deepest, most heartfelt, thought through commitments.

“It isn’t something that people whisper about. It’s something that people talk about; sometimes it’s something they shout about.”

Perhaps that would explain what some have called the “God talk” that has pervaded the 2000 presidential race with Gov. George W. Bush talking about his Christianity and Vice President Al Gore musing about what would Jesus do.

Indeed, according to Charles Haynes, “There are certain things you must say whether you believe them or not if you want to be elected president in the United States. A lot of the religious language in our political arena … is the acceptable formula for speaking about religion in the public square. But of course if you go outside the lines, it isn’t acceptable.”

What would be unacceptable or outside the lines? Elliot Mincberg asked, “When was the last time that any political candidate said to the media or the electorate ‘I’m an atheist, and I’m proud of it’?”

For Richard Land, what really isn’t acceptable is to request a separation of person and belief.

“To ask someone who wants to run for president to divorce his religious convictions from who he is and how he would perform his office is devastating, and I think perhaps unconstitutional,” he said.

“It’s almost sort of a religious test for office,” he added. “I think that candidates for office ought to be open and above board about what their religious convictions are and how they would impact their public policy issues and then let the American people make their choice.

“But to ask people to divorce what should be at the core of their very being, their deepest convictions, in order to have public service, I think is a horrible twisting and distorting of the very precious doctrine of separation of church and state.”

Whether political candidates should describe their religious beliefs in the course of an election cycle wasn’t the only thing that occupied the panelists. They also had a beef with the news media.

Ramadan’s request was simple: that the news media redefine Islam’s role in public life and lose the propaganda slant.

Muslims wish they “could just get more legitimate coverage around the legitimate concerns of Muslims in terms of nation, in terms of quality of life, in terms of family, and not this continual stereotype of hostage-taking and terrorism,” Ramadan said. “Islam is presented more as a culture from another environment versus a universal faith that has significance here in this country and many other countries.”

For Land, it’s the electronic media that deserve to be singled out for rebuke.

“At last count, I have been pre-interviewed and then not chosen for an interview 12 times in the last six months because my views were not considered extreme enough,” he said. “My views didn’t fit into this sort of Ying and Yang electronic media thing that they do. They go toward these extreme views instead of trying to report on the diversity of viewpoints within those various groupings.”

Bethke Elshtain agreed. “There are two kinds of stories that get emphasized: Human interest, warm-hearted stories where religion gets turned into some kind of sentimental thing. Or one where some extreme positions are articulated to get a real fight going, a real spat going, and show how these religious folks have these extreme views and show how wide apart they are.”

Worse than the worn attempt to paint all things in strict shades of black and white rather than more nuanced grays, panelists agreed, is the utter lack of general knowledge about religion itself.

“A reporter calls to get your comment on something having to do with religion and political or civic life, but first they want you to bring them up to speed on the topic,” Elshtain said. In cases like that, a story on a famous religious figuring traveling somewhere to speak to someone is treated as a kind of “diplomatic story” rather than one with any “depth of knowledge of the religious dimension of it.”

But it isn’t just religious theory that today’s journalists are lacking. “Journalists need to be educated across the board,” Haynes said.

“Religion matters. It matters deeply and it’s going to matter even more in the 21st century in this country and the world,” Haynes said. “Schools of journalism, like schools of education, need to do a better job of preparing journalists to tackle these issues. We need more Ken Woodwards (religion reporter for Newsweek); we really do. If we’re going to be thoughtful about this and understand one another, we need schools of journalism to do this seriously.”

But should religion be addressed in public education? For Haynes that isn’t even the right question.

“I don’t think that there is a question of whether religion should be in public schools. It’s how. The ‘how’ question is important. Kids come through the door every morning, and they bring their religious faith in various ways. The question is: What are we going to do with that? If we do things that we’ve done in the past — either impose another religious view on them or keep them from expressing their faith when it is appropriate to do so — then we violate our agreement as citizens and we are really saying that public schools are not for everyone.

“If we teach 12 years and the conventional wisdom of the curriculum is that you can learn everything you need to know about everything [in those 12 years] and learn almost nothing about religion, what message does that send?”

Haynes stressed the need to create a new model of religious education in public schools, such that “religion is treated with fairness and respect, where no one’s religion is imposed, but the students are free to express their faith appropriately.”

“There are a number of ways of seeing the world that are important for students to learn about, including religious ways,” he said. “How are we going to live with one another across these differences unless we do better on these issues in our public schools?”

Certainly for Knippers it is a point of pride that we can even have a dialogue about religious issues across so many denominations.

“One of the things we can all come together on is an enormous appreciation for the freedoms that we do enjoy,” she said. “We are able to talk about these things in our country — our deepest differences, our most fundamental views on things — without killing each other. That is distinctive in human history and in parts of the world today.”