Experts Debate Religion's Role in American Democracy

WASHINGTON – Experts in a panel butt heads Tuesday as they debated on how religious engagement in public policy should look in 21st century American democracy against the backdrop of a presidential race, where it's strange not to talk about one's faith.

The spirited discussion, which often turned intellectually fierce, pitted Dr. David Hollinger, a University of California, Berkeley, professor with expertise in religion and politics in relations to U.S. history, against Dr. Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and an expert on the sociology of religion.

Panelists and moderator E.J. Dionne, Jr.,author of Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith & Politics After the Religious Right, readily agreed that religion has an important place in the public square. What they disagreed on is how to integrate diverse religious identities into a common civic life.

Hollinger argues that anyone who proclaims his personal faith as justification for public policy decisions should be ready to defend his religious ideas in public democratic debates.

The UC Berkeley Preston Hotchkis Professor of American History adamantly believes the public has the right to scrutinize and question someone's religion if he claims it influences choices that affect the public.

"So proclaim your faith, assert its relevance to your political leadership, and then suffer no questions about its soundness," Hollinger said, referencing former Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney's speech on his Mormon faith. "Tell but don't ask? This seems to be our motto today in the public discussion of religious ideas – tell but don't ask."

"It will not do to offer religious faith as reason to vote for someone or to support a public policy and then take offense if somebody asks skeptical questions about the basis for it," he argued.

Hollinger called for "robust public debate" about religious ideas of politicians who invoke their faith to assert public policy decisions.

"One thing that might happen if we did that is that differences would emerge about which religious ideas deserves respect and which did not," the scholar speculated. "And there might be a quarrel over which religious idea has cognitive plausibility and which did not."

He pointed to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and his famous 2006 speech about faith and public policy. The Illinois senator had said "democracy demands that religiously motivated people translate their concerns into universal rather than religion-specific values. Democracy requires that their proposal be subject to argument and amenable to reason."

Based on this philosophy, Obama reasons that even if he may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, he cannot pass a law banning abortion because people of other faiths and no faith may not have the same opinion about the practice. Obama believes he can only ban a practice if it violates a universal principle held by all people.

On the other side of the debate was interfaith leader Eboo Patel, who opposes Hollinger's call for rigorous questioning of politicians' religious ideas. Instead, Patel, an Indian Muslim, advocates building a pluralistic society where people will respect each other's differences.

He strongly opposes Hollinger's "cognitive plausibility" idea, arguing that people and their deep moral values do not always fit into this framework. Rather, he believes people should respect others' religious identities just as they respect other characteristics such as race, gender, and ethnicity.

"Does that mean that I want my religious understanding to be translated directly into policies," Patel asked. "No, I'm not suggesting that at all. But I am saying that the public square is much broader than policies. And part of what the public square is about is the things with meaning. And part of what meaning is about is respect for people's identity."

The popular religious commentator also said it is for the "national good" that people of different religious communities have positive relations.

"When I'm asked the question, 'You have to tell me how your religious commitments fit into a framework of cognitive plausibility,' I feel pinned against the wall," the interfaith leader said.

"America is built on people like Langston Hughes, citing his heritage from the Nile and the Mississippi … it is built on people articulating their particular narratives in a way that not only contribute to the common good but sometimes build a higher one," Patel concluded.

Third panelist Melissa Rogers, founder of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School, offered her opinion, saying that religious leaders who endorse political candidates should be analyzed. Religious leaders should be treated like secular leaders and have their views inspected, Rogers contended.

The opinions of Hollinger, Patel, Rogers, and others are expanded in essays compiled in the book Debating the Divine: Religion in 21st Century American Democracy, which was released Tuesday. The book is published by the Center for American Progress, which hosted the panel discussion.

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