Letters form Prison

Philosophy classes are designed to make students think, and those in Patrick Welage’s Philosophy 100 course certainly got plenty to think about. Yes, they got the requisite Plato’s Republic assignment, but things got really interesting when they engaged in pen pal correspondence with 15 of Ohio’s Death Row inmates.

The men had a litany of stories—some sad, some perplexing, some downright frightening: James Goff, on Death Row since age 19, spent most of his high school years in foster homes. Ray Tibbetts was on his own after running away from an abusive foster home and later convicted in the murders of his wife and “some guy.” And Frances Anne Spisak, who says she normally doesn’t respond to anyone who calls her Frank, said it was mental illness that “caused me to commit the homicides and other violent behavior.”

The contrasts in some letters are numbingly stark. In one sentence, Frederick Treesh chats with student Dana Hunter about their home state of Indiana. In another, he tells Rachel Kennedy that he committed murder.

By the end of the class, several students had changed their views on the death penalty, mostly to being against it, though some remained staunch supporters. Those who shifted views said they found the methods of death are inhumane or the penalty is unfairly applied.

Says Welage: “The students loved it. It was an in-depth exploration of the issue, and I hope each student walked away a better person.”

Inside the Astrodome

The following letter comes from Skip Redd, president of the Xavier University national alumni association Houston chapter, written on Wednesday, Sept. 7.

I wanted to let people know what I saw and experienced today and to update you on the situation down here in Houston. I went over to the Astrodome today to volunteer with all of the displaced people of New Orleans being housed there. I wish there was a way to properly describe what it is like but there is no way to properly do it justice. The images you see on TV, the stories you hear and read about do not paint a true picture of what it is like. When I finally got in my car to leave, I sat in it and cried for 30 minutes unable to move or even think.

I want to start by saying what an incredible job so many have done in such a short time to put together this massive shelter of sorts. It truly was amazing to see the organization, the friendliness, the love, and the compassion of so many at work. Everything is orderly and clean with all major federal agencies set up for people to meet with during the day and night. In addition, there are free phone banks everywhere for people to use along with computers to access the internet. You have children’s sections, different medical wards for differing illnesses and physical problems, psychological centers, job training and housing help. Also, today, they started distributing debit cards to everyone with, I believe, $1,000 on them. There is adequate food and drinks for all and showers are set up throughout the Astrodome and the adjacent convention halls where people are also housed.

When I parked my car and began walking to sign up at the volunteer center, reality begins to set in as you see so many people walking around the grounds with complete despair written across their faces and you begin to realize that this is now their new home. The home that they have known for probably most, if not all, of their life is gone along with all of their possessions. It is a very sobering and humbling sight to see. Upon signing up at the volunteer center, I was asked to go to one of the medical wards located on the concourse of the second level of the Astrodome to talk with the patients and see if there was anything that I could bring them. When I first walked into the Astrodome I could not believe my eyes. Here was the self-proclaimed “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the place where I saw so many Astros and Oilers games growing up as a kid turned into a giant housing shelter throughout. It was extremely surreal to say the least.

There were people with cots and all of the belongings they had left spread out everywhere—on the Dome floor, in the concourses, on the ramps and walkways, all trying to carve out a little piece of space that they could call home. You had little kids running around the stadium, through the aisles, throwing a ball around just doing what all little kids like to do. People were sleeping on their cots or playing cards or reading or just sitting there with a blank stare on their face as if to say I do not know where to go or what to do. It is a hopeless feeling to see these people. You try to be positive with them and to ask as many as possible how they are doing or just give them a smile or a handshake, but you know that it still does not correct the fact that they have no home anymore and will have to start a completely new life in a new and foreign place to them.

The people are constantly putting up signs all over the dome trying to locate or find relatives that they do not know if they even survived. The people come up to you and ask a million questions, and it is so hard to tell them that you do not have the answers but to be patient and they will get them answered eventually.

There is one story I want to relay to you: When I was heading to my car to leave and drive to the drop-off center to drop off some Lego’s and movies that my goddaughter, Lexi, and her brother, Chance, gave me in Colorado this weekend to give to the children at the Astrodome, I saw a 60-year-old man, pushing a shopping cart with his 4-year-old nephew in it. I asked how he was doing and he said they were doing great, that they had had the best day because they found out that his brother (the father of the boy in the cart), his mom, his son and his four sisters were all alive and on their way to Houston. He told me that they saw him interviewed on “Dateline” and that is how they were able to connect. His name was Bobby and his nephew’s name was Willie, and he thought they all died because they were swept away by the floods from the rooftop of their house. Bobby and Willie survived on the roof for three days before a National Guard boat came by and rescued them. He was not bitter but grateful to be alive and could not have been more positive about starting his new life in Houston. I stood in the parking lot for about an hour talking to him, completely amazed by his attitude and his incredible spirit. So, I took him over to the car and gave Willie all of the Lego’s and movies. He could not have been more excited. I gave Bobby my phone number and told him to call me so I can buy him and his family a hamburger one night, and to see if I could help him find a job. I put my hand out to shake his good-bye and he just leaned over and gave me a big hug. So did Willie. I can’t begin to tell you how sad it made me at that moment to realize how many countless others like Bobby are out there who need help. I want to do more, but I also realize my limitations. It is very frustrating.

Tonight, my good friend Jeff Hill and I were asked by the diocese here to find 250 volunteers. There are so many organizations throughout the city doing so much that it truly warms your heart to see the good in people in times like this. This is not the time for second-guessing or attacking or being negative about how everything has played out. There will be a time to look back to see how things could have been done differently or better, but that time is not now. These people need everyone to be there for them now, to be positive, to give, to help.

I am sure most of you have already helped or given in some way, but I am asking you—no, I am challenging you—to do more. Find ways to raise money or goods, keep these people in your thoughts and prayers and be on the lookout for ways to help. I know it is easy to sit here and say we should be so fortunate for what we have in our lives, but it has new meaning for me after today. Be thankful for all that you have—your home, your belongings, your car, your health, but, above all, for the love of friends and family. Take that feeling and help these people. These people have had everything taken away from them, including friends and family. So, take the time to tell your friends and family how much they mean to you and how much you love them.

I promise you that we will keep doing all that we can down here to help, and I ask that you continue to keep these people in your prayers and to continue to find ways to help no matter how small or insignificant you may think it is. Everything is important and everything is appreciated.

Skip Redd, Class of 1997

Faculty Spotlight

Accounting professor Bill Smith is a numbers man. He’s lived in the same house for 55 years. He’s taught in Alter Hall, Room 324, for 45 years. He’s imparted accounting knowledge to more than 10,000 students. And this spring, Smith commemorates a 50-year teaching career. An undeniably enthusiastic man, Smith started at Xavier in 1956 when Jesuits made up 80 percent of the faculty and the business division operated within the College of Arts and Sciences.

Before the construction of more formal classrooms, he taught an accounting lab in the Armory. “We had no tables,” he says. “And accounting needs to be taught on tables.” Although he only teaches one class now, he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’m a born teacher, and I’m a damn good one, and the kids still remember me,” he says. “The students are my pride and joy.”

If students told him they wanted to drop out, he simply resonded, “No, you’re not,” and secured scholarships—sometimes contributing his own money—to keep them in school.

When he isn’t teaching, Smith travels around the country with American Legion baseball and referees football, basketball and baseball games, which help him in the classroom. “With me, it is a level playing field,” he says. “Everybody gets treated the same.” Smith finally received his due last year when a 2005 graduate nominated him for Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers. “It made me feel real good that even the kids today still react to me and encourage me.”

Cootie Invasion

Kathleen Gerth uses anything and everything to teach her seventh- and eighth-grade students at Dater High School in Cincinnati about chemistry, astronomy and physical science.

Hula hoops demonstrate atoms. Board games help with proficiency tests. And Gerth performs a mean rendition of the “Metric Macarena.” So when the 1988 graduate needed a hands-on approach to learning genetics, she turned to Cootie, a board game that lets players build plastic bugs using snap-on heads, lips, antennae and tongues.

“Activities were mostly paper and pencil,” she says. “I wanted to develop a hands-on one so the students could actually see why living things look the way they do, why siblings could appear not to have any similar features.”

For the assessment, Gerth randomly assigns traits to each Cootie part whereby a roller skate-clad foot may be recessive while a gym shoe-clad foot may be dominant. Each part is sketched on paper cut according to the donor: squares for dad, circles for mom. Students receive a packet of these shapes and determine which parent donated certain traits by assembling their Cootie according to their findings.

The idea was so popular that Gerth took the modified game to Dallas for the National Science Teacher Association convention in April.

Consciousnesses Effort

Gillian Ahlgren believes there’s never been greater need for spiritual renewal. So in August, the professor of theology launched the Kairos Renewal Project, an organization dedicated to individual and community renewal through applied principles of Christian spirituality and justice, with an emphasis on the Christian mystical tradition.

The project has been evolving for about a year-and-a-half, Ahlgren says. “The idea is that we human beings—individually, communally and even as a species—are in pretty serious need of renewal, of inspiration, of guidance, of collaboration with one another, with our own deepest selves, with the divine.”

The group plans to offer programs and monthly events that fall into several categories: educational seminars aimed at helping individuals develop and utilize spiritual practices and principles in everyday life; workshops and audits designed to enhance organizational missions; retreats designed to help participants better understand their gifts and purpose in life; and community service projects.

“God’s presence is something that is always with us but we’re not always conscious of,” Ahlgren says. “The responsibility is on us to develop our awareness of the presence of God.”

For more information, visit www.kairosrenewal.org.

Charitable Links

Doug McGrath has his priorities straight. That was evident when he entered the hospital in Atlanta in September 1996 for four months of bone marrow and chemotherapy treatments to beat back the leukemia ravaging his body. On the luggage cart with his bag of personal belongings was another bag containing something inspirational—his golf clubs. McGrath planned not only to survive the disease but to leave the hospital healthy enough to play.

“Rolling my cart through the hospital, I said golf is my passion and I’m going to get out of here and go play golf,” McGrath says. “It was a reminder to get out.”

He was out by Christmas, but it took about a year of recovery time before he was able to play golf again. Today he plays every weekend.

In the meantime, McGrath and his wife, Barbara, who both graduated in 1976, were so grateful for all the help from neighbors, friends and the community that they decided they had to give something back. So they created a charity golf tournament–not just a little golf tournament, a big golf tournament that now is the largest on the PGA Nationwide Tour.

The fifth annual BMW Charity Pro-Am at the Cliffs Golf Tournament in Greenville, S.C., was held this year in late April. It offered $625,000 to amateur, professional and celebrity golfers including actors Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, and professionals Gary Player and Steve Nicklaus. Last year, it raised a record $756,000 for charity, says McGrath, chairman of the event, and the total over four years is more than $2.4 million.

“It’s given me inner pleasure that the event has turned out as well as it has. When I was first diagnosed, we figured we’ll never figure out the reasons why, that God had some plan and let’s just make the best of it.”

Baking the World a Better Place

What do a psychology major and a lemon cookie have in common? More than you’d think.

After graduating in 1997, Christie Hosea’s grandfather approached her about helping start a family business. Hosea agreed, and along with her mother and brother, they formed Our Family Farm, a non-profit business in Newport, Ky., that produces all-natural vanilla and lemon cookies, and baked cheese and wheat crackers, and gives the profits to children’s charities.

“We felt like if we were going to give profits from the sale of our products to children’s charities, we certainly did not want to sell products that were harmful to children,” Hosea says.

The products are not only good for you, they’re good. The Washington Post ranked Our Family Farm’s Captain’s Catch Baked Cheese Crackers No. 1 in a national taste test among other all-natural cracker brands.

Hosea is one smart cookie, so her job is, well, pretty much everything related to the business end. “With my psychology degree, I feel I am able to have a better feel for our customer base and work with people from around the world,” she says.

Our Family Farm recently started exporting its product line and already established a presence through natural food stores and online at www.ourfamilyfarm.org. “Every minute of my job is worth something special in the future for a child in need,” Hosea says.

Growing Movement

Dee Nelson walked the streets of downtown Springfield, Ill., offering to tutor prostitutes and wound up renovating a building into a safe house for them to live in. Mary O’Connor lived a week at a shelter for homeless women and their children and continues as a regular volunteer. Hans Hallundbaek gave up a jet-setting career to feed homeless people in New York City and teach maximum security prison inmates.

All three are lay members of religious communities. And all three are included in a book that details the stories of 13 people whose extraordinary efforts illustrate the commitment and dedication coming to light in the growing movement of religious associates.

The book, recently published by alumni, presents these stories against a backdrop of data showing the associate movement in the Catholic Church is in a revolutionary phase. Associates are auxiliary members of a religious order and do ministerial work without becoming nuns or priests. They’re increasingly important as the number of priests and nuns continues to decline. A survey conducted in 2000 found 27,400 associates in service and 2.700 in formation.

“We wrote the book because people don’t know the movement exists,” says Sister Carren Herring, a member of the Sisters of Mercy and a 1964 Edgecliff graduate. “It’s not just more hands to do the work, it’s more hearts to build the community.” Herring collaborated with Kathleen Wade, a 1965 graduate, and Gertrude Stefanko, a 1961 and 1972 graduate, to write the book,Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives: The Associate Movement in Religious Communities.

“God knows that the needs of the world are too big for religious alone to meet, no matter how many there are,” writes Sister Carren in the foreword. The book, which sells for $17.95, is available from OPEL Press of Cincinnati.

Into Africa

It’s nighttime in the West African city of Kumasi, Ghana, and Prince Johnson sits watching a Spanish soap opera on TV when the family puppy starts yapping wildly outside. Jumping up and running out the door, Johnson is horrified to find the little dog in the grip of a boa constrictor that has slithered onto the dusty property. Unable to do anything to stop the attack, he can only watch as the snake slips away into the dark, the dog still yapping into the distance. But as night gives way to the soft light of dawn, Johnson is surprised yet again: Here comes the dog, free from what seemed a certain death, limping home.

Such is life in Ghana, a place of such contradictions that wild and tame clash at the doorstep, poverty and wealth live side by side, and the origins of the slave trade are kept alive so that the free will never forget.

Ten Xavier students spent the spring semester in the developing country as part of the University’s academic service-learning semester program, living with host families, studying and serving at local orphanages and shelters, and facing the country’s contradictions daily—trying to make sense of a boy’s inability to read or how a home for mentally handicapped adults keeps operating without money.

Ghana is the fourth site in the program, which is now in its 11th year. It was added this year and rotates with the program’s other sites—Nicaragua, India, which recently replaced Nepal because of that country’s political instability, and Cincinnati’s downtown neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine, where students work with the urban poor.

The Ghana site adds diversity to the program by expanding it to a fourth continent, says Kathleen Smythe, an associate professor of history who participated in Ghana’s selection. “It’s important as we pursue greater diversity here to have some experiences available for our students in Africa because of the historical connection and also because increasingly that’s where the world’s poorest people are living,” she says.

The students—four men and six women—earned 15 credit hours studying the Twi language, African literature and theology, and taking a class on service-learning that complemented their volunteer work. Their days began when the rooster crowed at 5:00 a.m. and ended around 9:00 p.m. when their host families went to bed. They went to their service sites in the mornings, to class in the afternoons and then back home to the families, who overwhelmed the students with their hospitality and generosity. They fed them abundant plates full of home-cooked concoctions, all with a starchy base of cassava, yams or rice, gave them a bed, Ghanaian names, a rank in the family and a bunch of siblings.

“When I first met my family, my mother gave me a big hug and said, ‘You are my daughter.’ She asked how old I am and she said, ‘You are my eldest,’ and that’s how they’ve treated me,” says Katie Hunt, a junior majoring in English. “They call me Akosia for Sunday-born.”

The students also took trips away from their new homes to learn more about the Ghanaian culture and country. They spent a night in a rain forest, walked across a canopy bridge 200 feet high and toured the ancient castles in Cape Coast that became “the point of no return” for many Africans sold into slavery. They descended into the dungeons where the captives were held before boarding the ships and toured the space where unruly slaves were thrown and left to die without food or water. Proximity to those dungeons was a prime factor in Ghana’s selection, says Patrick Welage, associate director for the academic service-learning program.

“It was an important factor because of Cincinnati where we have so much racial tension,” Welage says. “These students will have a different perspective of the broader story of slavery. For Xavier, this is a significant piece of what we do and do well.”

While the program and its objectives fit in well with the University’s Jesuit mission, it was no vacation. Every day it was sizzling hot, the temperature pushing 100 degrees, and dusty with smog and dirt. Though the calendar read February, it was like August in America’s Deep South—hazy steel-colored skies and not a breath of cool air.

There were light moments, such as learning how to use the public transportation system of privately owned vans called “tro-tros.” They learned to run from one to another until the mate, or assistant, would yell out the destination they wanted, and then they’d spring aboard, elbowing others out of the way.

The students also delighted in the spiritual names the Ghanaians give their businesses: the God Knows Mushroom Shop, the Finger of God Nail Salon. “God is everywhere here,” Johnson says. “God is in Ghana. It’s part of everyday life.”

But the trip also created emotional struggles, such as trying to cope with reality while serving at the Life Community Home for mentally handicapped adults.

“There’s no money, no resources and they’re trying to be creative and come up with ways to keep it running,” says Sarah Kroeger, a junior psychology student. “It’s a really big challenge.”

For Johnson, the only African-American student on the trip, it was the emotional toll of facing the loss of his heritage. “I was confused by the practice of taking Africans to the New World and also by Africans selling each other,” he says. “Standing in the surf, I realized that it’s not my fault I was stripped of my culture, but also I’m in West Africa where I can learn about my culture, my identity and me as a human being.

“I can grieve over the process, but I can also wipe my tears and realize everything that was taken away, I can have it back now.”

We the People

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson penned a letter to the Danbury Baptists in which he used the phrase “separation of church and state” to describe the intent of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Nowhere does the phrase appear in the Constitution itself, but Jefferson chose to call it a “wall” of separation to indicate the solid conviction of the Founding Fathers who had come to America to escape religious suppression and seek religious freedom. The horrors of their history would happen no more, not in America, where government would guarantee people basic freedoms to live their lives, raise their families and practice their faiths.

Advocates of separation argue there is a clear distinction between the two institutions and never should they mix. Opponents argue that government should accommodate certain elements of religion as long as it doesn’t act to endorse a particular one.

In some ways, the government already accommodates religion. The words “In God We Trust” are on our currency. Religious artwork adorns government buildings, including the United States Supreme Court itself. We pledge allegiance as one nation “under God.” But recently, the two views have been slamming into each other. Consider the influence of faith-based groups in the recent presidential election, the death of Terri Schiavo and the ongoing debate about the selection of the next Supreme Court justices.

Who’s right? How far will it go? As a means of continuing education, we asked several Xavier faculty: Should they mix? Should religion have a role in government or public policy? What limitations, if any, should be imposed? At what point does it cross the line of the First Amendment ban on the establishment of a state religion?

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Thomas Kennealy, S.J. Associate Dean, Colleges of Social Sciences and Arts and Sciences

Religion has a very significant role to play in the formation of public policy. Religion should act as a moral voice in society to bring to issues of the day a spiritual, religious, moral and ethical point of view that’s extremely valuable, not to say essential. People of strong religious convictions really feel those convictions play a very big part in the formation of their opinions, attitudes and point of view. That’s probably where the tension is coming from today between what author Steven Carter calls the secular point of view and the opinion of those people particularly in the evangelical movement for whom religion is extremely important and whose values are derived to a significant degree from their religious views.

I feel strongly that religion does have a role as a point of view that makes a significant contribution in the formation of public policy, because the issues are often moral and do have religious and spiritual context.

I think the church can bring something valuable to the discussion. This was the view of certain Founding Fathers. John Adams felt that religion and religious people do have something to contribute to the public debate, and the church itself has to be a part of the discussion because it will help us balance other things by bringing what is the moral voice of the church to bear.

There are some safeguards. The First Amendment of the Constitution says that government should not have a state-sponsored church. I think it’s very wise because it is appropriate for the church to go about its business and the state to go about its business. In the case of an established church, you would be favoring one church over all the others, which would be an unworkable scheme in the United States.

But I do think in a society such as ours, there has to be practiced by everybody a whole degree of tolerance. Our democratic system works only to the extent that people of religion or no religion are respectful of one another and their point of view and particularly of other people’s consciences. I think it’s important the churches avoid what I would call party politics. It’s not good for churches to support a political party or candidate because it’s moving away from discussions of issues and moving toward personalities and specific candidates. I think the church’s role is to help formulate good policy that is moral and ethical, and it should stick to that.

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Christine Anderson
Associate Professor of History

From the vantage point of history, it appears religious freedom results in conflicts among religious groups, poses threats to communities of faith, and confronts individuals and religious bodies with uncomfortable choices. Yet, limiting religious freedom in a multicultural polity by creating links between religion and the state raises far graver dangers by investing a particular religious body with power over others. This does not mean we should separate our religious values from our participation in the government as citizens. Rather, we should acknowledge that public policies embody values and that our values may differ. While we cannot simply apply lessons from the past to different contemporary conditions, I offer three examples from American history to suggest questions we might ask when we think about connections between church and state.

First, it is true that many colonists were drawn here by the promise of religious freedom, but the meanings of that term were complex. For the Puritans, it was freedom for their own beliefs that would enable them to build a shining model of Puritan values. Catholics seeking refuge in Maryland, however, had been persecuted by the English in the European context of state and religious rivalries. The Maryland Act Concerning Religion guaranteed toleration to Christian immigrants to the colony in order to protect its Catholic minority. Complete religious freedom was not viewed as positive in its own right until the late 18th century. Even then it remained a radical idea.

An example of the ways religious values shaped American politics comes from the 19th-century abolitionists. In the early 1830s, white opponents of slavery were a tiny group of evangelical Protestants who believed slaveholding was a sin, and they had a moral obligation to challenge slave owners and the government’s support. The abolitionists’ unremitting attacks finally resulted in emancipation. Their moral absolutism called white society’s attention to the cruelty of slavery in a way that had not been possible before. But their religious emphasis on sin may have prevented them from engaging in discussions about the future of emancipated slaves in a racist republic.

Finally, the consequences of religious prejudice illustrate the dangers of placing government power in the service of particular religious institutions. The same 19th-century Protestants who protested slavery were often hostile to Catholics. Catholicism was attacked as an “alien” religion opposed to American individualist values. Anti-Catholicism was reflected in local government policies requiring use of the King James Bible in schools and in cities such as Cincinnati, which provided funding for “non-sectarian” Protestant charities but not for Catholic ones.

People of faith are called to bring their moral values into the public arena, but intellectual and theological differences need not translate into social conflict if we accept that complexity and variety enrich our understanding of our debates.

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Paul Colella
Professor of Philosophy; Director, Philosophy, Politics and the Public

Starting in the 1670s, there was real tension in American life between religious ideals and material prosperity. That’s a fundamental theme that hasn’t really disappeared. We are today the most materialistically secure country in the world but also one that is still looking for its religious center, a kind of spiritual center.

The Founding Fathers believed matters of religion are private, not political. One of the fundamental features of modern democratic political theory is there’s a domain of private conscience and rights that is technically out of political bounds—the freedom of conscience and religion.

So the answer to if religion should have a role in government is no, unless we want to seriously rethink what democratic practice should really mean. There’s a fundamental tension in the American culture between the conditions prior to the establishment of the United States, when religion and politics were fused, and the condition after the foundation of the U.S., when the political doctrines the Founding Fathers used had to place religion outside of political consideration. So it didn’t matter what religion you practiced, you could still be a citizen, whereas in Europe there were nations where unless you were a member of the official state religion, you couldn’t be a full citizen.

Today, there’s the desire for that kind of spiritual center that Americans long for, but I don’t see that happening politically. I hope eventually people will see you can’t institute a politically sanctioned religion without jeopardizing the democratic principles upon which our government is based. There are forces in American culture, i.e. the Constitution, that would make sure that doesn’t happen, all the way to the Supreme Court, which is probably a very careful protector of the Constitution.

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Gene Beaupré
Director for Government Relations

I think an important distinction has to be made between values, even maybe moral values, and organized religion. There is no doubt that a government, especially like ours, is formed on anything less than some set of core values, and in some cases we use the pursuit of those values as justification for some pretty strong actions, like going to war. It becomes an issue when those values become institutionalized in some kind of organized religion that then begins to attempt to impose its system of the expression of those values into government. The most recent and very prominent example is the government intrusion into the Terri Schiavo case. Threaded throughout our system of laws is a high value placed on life. But where this particular debate seemed to pass over the line into religion was when nationally organized religious groups began to try to impose their particular will on public policy by encouraging the governor, the president and Congress to get involved.

What seems to have been occurring in the last decade about the influence of organized religion is a couple of things. Religious institutions have begun to organize and become politically visible, active and effective. They’re given credit for having influence over both electoral and legislative politics. They have become players in that game of electoral politics. I don’t know if there’s anything wrong with that. They’re another interest group out there influencing decisions. They’ve also had influence in legislative politics. They know how to get candidates elected, they know how to monitor and effect public policy. Thirdly is in the judicial branch where they feel the courts are making policy, not just interpreting laws, that their decisions have a significant impact on our culture and our values.

Religion does have a role, and I have a hard time finding a reason why they shouldn’t be part of the debate. That’s all they’re asking for. I guess if there’s a point at which their influence on electoral politics and policy-making actually infringes on someone else’s freedom of religion, that’s probably where they cross over. The clearest point of demarcation is if they’re imposing not their values but their religious beliefs, but how do you distinguish between them?

The Constitution tends to express itself through values. For many, those values are arrived at through a set of religious beliefs. I would say the framers saw the power religion could have on someone’s freedom of choice.

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Robert Rethy
Professor of Philosophy; Chair, Department of Philosophy

Religion is going to have a role insofar as people came here because of their religious beliefs. They wanted to exercise them, and that’s in the public sphere. It’s a good thing. It’s part of what makes us the U.S.

The question of the establishment of religion is another thing. The Constitution says we’re to have free exercise of religion but no establishment of religion, which is absolutely proper. But to say there shouldn’t be an influence of religion on politics would be incorrect. Many of the things characteristic of the U.S.—abolition, civil rights—bore much of their strength from religious beliefs.

Obviously, if we had a president saying this was a Christian country, and I’m a Jew, I would get alarmed. But you can also get alarmed if there is a denial of the role of Christianity or the Judeo-Christian tradition. The exercise of religion is extremely important, and in those countries where there is a loss of religious observance, I think those nations are in a state of spiritual, intellectual and cultural decline. I worry about the marginalization of religion from public life. We’ve become so secular that any discussion of religion is seen as a threat. So there’s a danger of impoverishing our intellectual life by denying the historical role of religion, and it’s the same thing in our political life. The idea that we are all equal goes back to the scriptures, and that is the basis for democracy and the assumption that all humans deserve to be free. What happens when we get rid of that is tyranny. The two greatest tyrannies of the 20th century are Communism and Nazism.

I also think if very religious people feel they’re being abused, that will tend to make them more vocal and more forceful. To a certain degree we are seeing it now. The answer here is to remind secularists they need to be tolerant. And religious people need to be tolerant, too. It is a kind of intolerance of a certain way of thinking. We do need to calm down a bit.

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Paul Knitter
Professor Emeritus, Theology

Should religion and government mix? Absolutely. Religion by its very nature is an experience that wants to speak to what’s going on in this world in order to influence it. A religious person who understands the message of Jesus or Moses or the writers of the Torah or the Holy Koran is by the very nature of his or her identity going to want to have a say in how the laws of the land are made and what they are.

In our Constitution, it’s forbidden that our government identify itself with any one religion. If a government prefers one religion, that means the forces of other religions are subordinated—they aren’t going to count—and that’s contrary to democracy. But what’s even more important, for a religion to be preferred by the government usually means that the religion ends up in the back pocket of the government, being used by the government to further the government’s policies. That’s very dangerous.

If you look at history, you can see the relationship between church and state has followed the model of the sacred canopy under which the government carries out its programs. Religion is used to give the divine seal of approval for what the government is doing. This is a fundamental abuse of religion. The fundamental role of religion is to be a voice of warning to the tendency of governments—kings, ayatollahs, presidents—to make themselves more important than God, to be corrupted by their own power. Religion is there to say, “Who do you think you are? God? Don’t you realize only God is God? And only God commands the full allegiance of the people?” The king or the president has to be criticized all the time. That’s religion’s role.

So when we have the American flag in our churches, that’s dangerous because it’s identifying your nation with your religion. We Christians who feel that the message of Jesus Christ is being used to justify policies contrary to his message have to stand up and say, “This is an abomination.” Just as Muslims are trying to say Osama Bin Laden doesn’t represent the Koran, we have to say many of our government’s policies don’t represent what we understand to be the message of Jesus.

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John Fairfield
Professor of History

I do believe that religion has a role to play in politics, if only to inject some consideration of ethics and ends into our debates. Religious ideas can serve to elevate our discourse above a mere calculation of interest or the manipulation of voting/identity groups. Religious thinkers should also consider the impact of their principles on social development, and political debate encourages that.

But religious ideas should be given the same status as other sorts of ideas and not be held up as trump cards or a means to end debate or claim certainty. We certainly do not want to have one single, civic religion. Nor do we want a watery, universal religious consensus, bland enough to include everyone. I believe religious thinkers should stand for something but also have respect for other religious traditions and for other religious thinkers. This is what Josiah Royce meant when he spoke of “loyalty to loyalty,” a respect for the loyalty that others have to a set of values and principles. We must also, of course, respect the right of others to their own religious ideas or their rejection of religion entirely. Civil liberties and civil rights remain paramount, in my view.

I prefer to live in a secular rather than a religious state. Within those parameters, I do believe religion can enrich and even elevate the level of our political debate (it wouldn’t take much to do that). Religion in politics today, however, appears largely in the form of self-righteousness and debate-killing certainty. I have a great deal of trouble understanding this. The last thing my religion (I am a practicing Catholic, active in my parish) gives me is a sense of self-righteousness. Instead it continually holds up to me my failure to live up to my own stated values. Religion does not provide me with easy answers or certain knowledge, but rather a nagging sense of my own limitations, my own mistakes and errors. It therefore serves as a much-needed (but, alas, insufficient) guard against self-righteousness, a continual reminder that I have been wrong and selfishly motivated in the past, and that I might be yet again. In that form, I believe religion has a great deal to offer in our political debate.

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Bill Madges
Professor of Theology; Chair, Department of Theology

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as I understand it, permits religious groups not only freely to practice their religion, but also freely to express their judgments on social and political issues. If other “interest groups” have the freedom to speak their minds and even the freedom to “petition” or lobby the government concerning legislation, so, too, does religion. To categorically deny religion a voice in the public sphere, therefore, would violate the rights of religious people and would violate the Constitution.

On the other hand, we must be mindful of the fact that our country is pluralistic and diverse and that we have a duty to respect the conscience and human dignity of others. American citizens practice as many as 1,200 different religions; some American citizens practice no religion. The First Amendment prohibits the federal government from establishing a state religion. It would, therefore, be inappropriate for the government to establish laws or set public policy solely on the basis of the religious convictions or arguments of one or more religious groups, especially when such arguments and convictions conflict with those of other citizens concerning the nature of what is true and right.

The challenge facing America’s religions is whether they are able to formulate arguments for their vision of public policy and the social good that can win the support of those who do not share their specific religious motivation or convictions. Religion’s tools for shaping public policy must be reason and persuasion, not coercion or the violation of the rights of others. As the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom” declared, the truth “cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.” Our dignity as human beings, I believe, requires that all of us seek the truth and act responsibly in accord with the truth we have discovered. This search for the truth, however, is aided by open and free dialogue with others, including those who don’t belong to our social or religious group. In the process of freely exercising their religious and civil rights, religious people are morally bound “to have respect both for the rights of others and for their own duties toward others and for the common welfare of all.” Conversely, religious people are owed that same respect by others. Mutual respect and civility are sorely needed in today’s contemporary debates about the social and moral order.

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John Cooper
Director for Graduate Services; Theology Instructor

I think the founding fathers were trying to escape a situation where the government said you had to be of a certain religion. But I don’t think they were attempting to separate someone’s faith and their conscience from decisions they make in public life. Your faith should be reflected in the work you do.

I felt as though John Kerry was privatizing his faith by saying that his church believes that abortion was wrong and personally he was not advocating abortion, but he didn’t feel he could impose his faith on the community especially in an elected position. That’s too simplistic because we are our faith, and who we are and what we believe is always impacting the community. To simply say that he didn’t feel he could impose an article of his religion on Supreme Court justice selections is too simplistic. On the other hand, I feel like George Bush in his discussion about the issue ran the other risk of not balancing the approach saying that my private faith is what everyone should have. There’s a balancing act that I didn’t see either candidate doing.

I would say there’s a distinction between religion and faith, that faith is something that begins with the individual. Then you go to the realm of religion. Most of us tend to take that belief system and follow it, like Catholicism, so I would say that yes, faith does play a part in our political and public life and to deny that is overly simplistic. If I’m a politician and I have to vote on a Supreme Court nominee, I don’t believe that I’m imposing my religion on others if I say I don’t support this nominee for a number of reasons and one of those reasons is based on my faith.

But on the flip side it would be wrong for me to introduce a bill that everybody should be Catholic in the U.S. What Republicans are doing in Congress in response to what they believe are judges imposing their beliefs in the courtroom, I think that it’s not about making sure that judges are Christian or are Muslim, it’s about a dialogue that gets people in touch with the fact they are making decisions based on values. That’s the disagreement I had with Bush’s campaign. It polarized things and made John Kerry the enemy. They were trying to put him out there as this person who wanted to have abortion on demand. I don’t think that’s what he was saying. However he needs to be engaged in a debate about whether he really can separate his faith from his politics. I don’t think you can do that.