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Seeking a Role for Religion in Public Life
By Mary Stucky
April 29, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Part of the MPR News project Religion in Everyday Life

Should religion play a role in American public life? What does it mean to separate church and state? Is that possible? These are some of the challenging questions considered as part of the "Public Religion Symposium," a joint effort between MPR's Civic Journalism Initiative and the Public Religion Project headed by University of Chicago theologian Martin Marty.

As part of the collaboration, on April 28, 100 Minnesota leaders joined Marty in the Twin Cities to talk about the role of religion in public life. The symposium revealed conflicting views on a subject - religion - that's still one of our most sensitive subjects.

THE CONSTITUTION MAY WELL ESTABLISH a separation between church and state, but rare is the citizen who walks into a voting booth without a particular set of religious or moral views, views that often affect the outcome of a political race. University of Chicago theologian Martin Marty says religion, faith, and spirituality are all playing a very public role in America in 1998. No longer are these issues relegated to Sunday morning church services, or a prayer before a meal. Even the mainstream media reflects this fact.

Marty: Reverend Michael Flater in our town is protesting the Jerry Springer Show; I'm happy about that. Mahalia Jackson had a huge gospel and soul event; Monsignor Eugene Yennoch is blessing the motorcycles at St. Daniel's Church in New York; and they need it.
These kinds of news stories are familiar to Tim McGuire, editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which now contains a special section covering religious topics.
McGuire: If you look at the Constitution, what they were afraid of was a state religion, but in fact what I fear is the tremendous amount of knowledge and stimulation that can come from studying things that have a religious and value connection. And I think we're depriving ourselves of wonderful debate and understanding by saying those are religious.
Unlike the world of government or public education, private business leaders can more freely apply their religious views to their work. Many symposium participants say their personal values influence their actions. But are those values religion?

John Brandl is a former state lawmaker from Minneapolis and now interim dean of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. He says a belief in the free market system has emerged as a kind of state religion, which represents values at odds with most traditional faiths.

Brandl: In fact, I think there are people in America who justify greed on the grounds that the economic system will work better as a result. And that, in effect, makes greed and the dog-eat-dog world a form of religion.
Brandl calls capitalism a state religion. Others say more traditional religion remains in the shadows of American public life, still too sensitive a topic to discuss openly. But Alex Pate, a writer and a professor at Macalester College says religion is a motivating factor in many areas of society. In fact, Pate is concerned the public arena is full of people pushing one religious agenda or another.
Pate: It's like we're always operating against it or with it. You're moderating how much of it you want to buy into, whether a politician is connected with a religious organization or not, everything is connected. It makes me nervous that so many people are thinking about this and then the disingenuity is we're not talking about it. Well, of course, we are. It's everywhere.
And that's dangerous, according to Marie Castle, co-chair of a group called Minnesota Atheists. Castle says her goal is to uphold the Constitutional separation of church and state and says her public stance as an atheist has invited attack.
Castle: What happens is there's a general opinion that you have to be religious to be moral. Well it's really easy. It starts with being a human being, and we're the only group in the dictionary that's defined as immoral and sinful. We are very sensitive to religion in public life because it is invariably coercive. It's the ones that are insisting that they determine public policy. That's where the problem is.
Not surprisingly, religious professionals say they must reclaim a public, moral voice. Tim Thorstenson, a chaplain at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, thinks pastors, rabbis and other religious leaders must show more tolerance of diverse views to gain influence.
Thorstenson: I was raised up to be an exclusive thinker in religion, and that has sown a lot of seeds of violence and discrimination, so I think the challenge is how can religion come into the public light and speak collaboratively with intellectual dialogue and discourse for the civic betterment, rather than to push their own agendas. That's the key for me.
There's no question that, for some people, religion is a powerful influence. In life, at work, in the voting booth. But what role does it have when it comes to the big questions society faces - racism, poverty, violence, and technical advancement in science and medicine?

It seems the question isn't whether faith can help one person with a problem, but whether faith should help solve the problems of a nation.