Politics and religion: Still on a collision course?

An interview with Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Israeli Knesset. Plus excerpts from talks by E.J. Dionne, Lisa Sowle Cahill ’70, and Michael Eric Dyson

Politics and religion: Still on a collision course?
The third season of the President’s Speaker Series brought some leading thinkers to campus to take stock of how politics and religion are shaping one another, through confluence and collision, as the first decade of the 21st century comes into the home stretch. Among questions they tackle: Should political views be rooted in religious beliefs? Or does religion inevitably short-circuit the political process? Here are some answers.



JANUARY 15, 2009

Photo: Charles Barry

Cahill is the J. Donald Monan, S.J., Professor of Theology at Boston College. She has advised U.S. bishops on issues surrounding AIDS, presented at the Vatican about women’s healthcare, and was an advisor to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. She is the author of eight books and editor of five others, including Genetics, Theology, Ethics: An Interdisciplinary Conversation. Here are edited excerpts from her talk.

It is no secret that the public and media see abortion as the Catholic moral and political issue, followed closely by stem cell research and gay marriage.

According to the bishops, though, taking innocent life is not just one issue among many. There they confirm the stereotype, but they go on to say more unexpectedly that other serious threats, including racism, the death penalty, unjust war, hunger, healthcare, and immigration are, and I quote, “not optional concerns.”

Racism is not merely one sin among many. It is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world.

When we call racism an intrinsic evil, we’re identifying a social practice against which we must ardently struggle, and the same is true of abortion. But this does not mean that there’s only one path to that end or even that, in the process, some of our own attitudes and actions or the institutions in which we participate will never be tainted by the very same evil that we’re attempting to eliminate.

The laity has shown that it’s ready and able to join political discourse and action on Catholic terms. Its targets include healthcare, economic recovery, poverty, energy, trade policy, immigration, Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear reduction, as well as abortion reduction via programs that empower women and support family.

Much can be accomplished through synergies among lay spokespersons and agencies, Catholics in political office, offices of the National Bishops Conference, local dioceses and parishes, as well as Catholic-sponsored education, Catholic political groups, and fellow citizens of every tradition and faith. So there are many venues in which we can all make a difference. Religion in politics, Catholicism in politics, is something in which we can, and should, all be very active.

Immigration, of course, is a problem that connects our domestic economy and politics with global conditions and the global common good, and it also connects racism and the history of African-American integration with the fear of many Americans today, including Catholics, that we are no longer a white Christian nation.

For us as Catholics, first of all, we should all be participants in a political order, not leaving that to the bishops or to other visible spokespersons, and our Catholic politics should be a politics of life and defense of life, but it should also be a politics of hope, of solidarity, and of participation for everyone in the global common good.

» Listen to a podcast of Lisa Sowle Cahill’s lecture (iTunesU)

» Listen to a podcast of Lisa Sowle Cahill’s Q & A session (iTunesU)



MARCH 11, 2009

Photo: Charles Barry

Washington Post columnist and political commentator, Dionne is the author of Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right. He’s been lauded as “the country’s single most knowledgeable writer on religion and politics.” As for the question of whether religion and politics are on a collision course, Dionne confessed, “I’m more prepared than you know to speak about collisions, since my Saturn was recently totaled in front of my house.” Here is an edited excerpt from his talk.

The whole conversation about religion and politics has already begun to change and will continue to change. The culture war politics that we’ve had for so long is on the wane and should be.

If you’re looking for a presidential election that revolved around religion and moral values, go back to 1928. Now, there was a culture war election.

At a moment of great prosperity, the two central questions that year revolved around whether the United States should continue with its experiment, the prohibition of alcohol, and whether it should elect Al Smith, New York’s Democratic governor, as the nation’s first Roman Catholic president.

It wasn’t even close. Smith was clobbered by Republican Herbert Hoover, who carried several Southern, predominantly Protestant, states that had been voting Democratic since the aftermath of the Civil War.

“We shall soon, with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation.” That was what Herbert Hoover declared, and most Americans believed him.

Then came October 29, 1929. After the great stock market crash and four years of rising unemployment, the question of whether Americans could legally consume alcohol seemed rather less pressing.

Democrats sought to push aside their splits over Catholicism and alcohol, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, not Smith, was the Party’s nominee in 1932. As you know, FDR swept the country. By 1936, the year of FDR’s landslide re-election, the cultural war was forgotten, replaced by a nonviolent class war against those whom FDR called “economic royalists.”

The lessons of that earlier age seem eerily relevant to the current moment in American politics—and not just because of the economy. When major crises intrude, culture wars can fade awfully quickly. They did so in 1936. There are many signs that they began fading again in 2008. I believe we’re at the beginning of a new era in which large secular problems related to economics, war and peace, and our country’s standing in the world will displace culture and religion as the electorate’s driving concerns.

Even absent the economic catastrophe that has gripped our country, Americans had already reached a point of exhaustion with a religious style of politics that was dogmatic, partisan, and ideological. It was a style reflecting a spirit far too certain of itself and far too insistent on the moral depravity of its political adversaries.

It had the perverse effect of narrowing the range of issues on which religious traditions would speak out, thinning our moral discourse. Precisely because I believe in a strong public role for faith, I would insist it is a great sellout of our religious traditions to assert that religion has much to say about abortion and same-sex marriage but little to teach us about war and peace or the environment or social justice.

My own hope is that Obama really does try to end the culture wars and the wars over religion, first, because I believe a majority of Americans never wanted any part in the culture wars. Second, I don’t believe the culture war approach advances either virtue or liberty or community.

Third, I believe that culture wars distort our discussions of faith and culture and lead us to demonize each other in ways that are not right or fair or productive, and that culture wars do not capture the honest complexity of the views of a majority of Americans even on divisive issues.

» Listen to a podcast of E.J. Dionne Jr.’s lecture (iTunesU)

» Listen to a podcast of E.J. Dionne Jr.’s Q & A session (iTunesU)



OCTOBER 9, 2008

Photo: Charles Barry

Ordained Baptist minister and a respected cultural commentator, Dyson teaches in the sociology department at Georgetown University. He is the author of 16 books, including April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Death and How It Changed America. Among the questions he fielded was one harkening back to the religion of some of the Founding Fathers: Would the United States be better off with a Deist as president? Here’s his answer.

Some of the most lovely people in the world are religious believers, and some of the worst people you can imagine are religious believers. Sometimes, when we get up in the White House, I’d rather have an atheist who claims not to know God and doesn’t give a darn about religion but behaves in such a splendid fashion, treats people right, acts according to justice, loves mercy, and walks humbly in accordance with his or her understanding of the universe’s dictates because they’re secular.

I’d rather have that than somebody who says they’re Christian. Remember, white Christians were killing black Christians in the Civil Rights movement. [Sings] “What’s love got to do with it?” What did Christian have to do with it? Be a Buddhist then, dawg. Read the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—something—comic books, Iron Man.

I want the beauty and the power of religion to survive. The institutional networks that come along with it are often bloody and murderous, and we have to be critical of that. Sometimes I do believe that a president who’s not necessarily subscribing to an explicit religious viewpoint but who fulfills an agenda of social justice is acting in accordance with my beliefs. More power to him—or her.

» Listen to a podcast of Michael Eric Dyson’s Q & A session (iTunesU)




Photo: Charles Barry


Avraham Burg has been a leading figure in Israeli politics for the last 20 years; he is a former Speaker of the Knesset and leader of the World Zionist Organization. He expresses decidedly unorthodox views on the state of Israel and its people, concerned over what he sees as the growing nationalism and violence plaguing Israeli society—and the critical need for separation of religion and the state. On May 6, he came to SCU as part of the President’s Speaker Series and discussed “God and Politics in the Middle East.” Assistant Professor of Political Science Farid Senzai teaches U.S. foreign policy and Middle East politics at SCU, and he interviewed Burg for



FARID SENZAI: You wrote The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise from Its Ashes. Why?

AVRAHAM BURG: You have an idea which incubates within you and you simply want to deliver it. On top of this, I had two other motivations. I was, for many, many years, in Israeli politics. I came to the peak; then I realized that Israel has become a very efficient kingdom without prophecy. I tried to initiate a process of eventually introducing new ideas into the Israeli arena, and through us into Western civilization.

The third motivation is very simple. I found myself a couple of years ago in the middle of the second Intifada, when everybody was silent. I woke up one morning angry—you can’t imagine how angry I was. I asked myself, “Avraham, what are you angry at?”

I realized I was angry at my late father. He was a prominent Israeli, one of the founders of the state. For 40 years he was a member of each and every cabinet in Israel. And I was very angry at him because I was in the middle of a crime, but I had no idea what he would have felt. He barely talked to me! So I write books for my kids.

SENZAI: Since you touch on this in your book: Do you think that there’s a disconnect between the values of Jews and currently the values of the State of Israel?

BURG: My first book was about the religious dimension of the Jewish people and the State of Israel in the 21st century. This one was about the other religion of our time—the Holocaust religion. There is the tension between the traditional Jewish values, whatever they are, and the Israeli values, whatever they are; it looks like a clash. Is this clash inevitable? Yes, because sovereignty and exile are colliding. The values that were born into the diasporic and civic reality are so different than the values expressed and implemented by sovereignty.

The challenge is how you make peace between the two structures: Israel and diaspora Jewry. Peace between Israel as the local experience and Jewry as the universal one. That’s a challenge, and we’re not yet there.

SENZAI: You’ve suggested that contemporary Israelis are too indifferent to the suffering of others. You’ve even said that Israelis have confiscated or monopolized world suffering. Could you explain that?

BURG: For an individual who was abused, it takes years, decades, generations to overcome it. If it is so for the individual, it is much more so for the collective. I’m not into the “I blame you” game. I’m much more into the “Let’s begin to discover and understand without accusing and being judgmental.”

We are living within our own shell. We don’t really know and therefore we do not really care what happens to others: to African-Americans, to the original nations in North America, within the branch from North Africa, with the Middle East, to the suburbs, the inner cities of Europe. They’re treated as the ultimate others and pariahs—as we were treated only 60, 70, 80 years ago. We don’t really know that in the 20th century 160-some million people were killed and perished in genocide, in holocaust, in crimes against humanity. We know only about our 6 million. And I say this is wrong.

Among the Jewish people, there are two kinds of people who came out of Auschwitz: Those who say never again is never again for Jews; and, therefore, let’s have the biggest walls around us and the deepest shelters on top of us, and make sure that no Jew will be ever persecuted. The others—and I belong to their fav, or their body—say never again means never again to anybody around the world. I have to do my utmost to prevent the indifference to the “other,” whoever he or she may be: the raped woman in Darfur, the boy in the inner city of Detroit.

SENZAI: Is the same sort of empathy possible for Palestinians as well?

BURG: What do you mean possible? It’s a necessity.

I don’t like the outcome of the last election, okay? I think it’s a bad coalition, bad for Israel, bad for the region, bad for peace. Still, the situation has a potential ten times better than any other situation we, as Jews, experienced in the past.

When Oslo erupted out of nowhere— nobody knew what’s going on, and then one day we woke up in the morning and Oslo was here—70 percent of both populations euphorically celebrated utopia. We were in the middle of the Intifada, in the middle of violence, and then in no time it was there. Most of the people who celebrated Oslo at the time are still with us. Yes, we are sad, and, yes, we are reluctant, but we were happy ones.

Let me tell you an anecdote: There was a day I was driving my car on the eve of the Jewish New Year in Jerusalem. The air conditioner was broken, the heat impossible, the traffic jam like only in Jerusalem on the eve of the New Year—and on top of it, there was a bomb threat and the city was stuck. I was sitting with my then-7-year-old son and my 80-someyear- old father. My son was very short-tempered: He was hungry, he wanted to pee—you know the drill.

He said, “Daddy, how the hell do you want to make peace with these Arabs who bomb us at the eve of the New Year?”

I was contemplating: Should I simply silence him? Should I give him a philosophical answer? Should I just ignore it? I was sitting there angry at the traffic, angry at the weather, and then from the backseat my own father, who had escaped from Berlin in September ’39—imagine, the very last second—said to my son: “I want you to listen very carefully. I felt at the time that there would never be peace between us and Germany. Whatever they did to us is a thousand times worse than what we do to the Palestinians and what the Palestinians are doing to us. Now we’re 40 years after the Holocaust. Here, peace with Germany. In your lifetime you will see peace with the Palestinians.”

»Listen to a podcast of Avraham Burg’s Q & A session (iTunesU)

This Summer Girls Ran the World

Swift Clara, the Bey Hive, honorary mayorships, and more: This summer, fanbases of mainly women helped rebound the U.S. economy.

A Billion for Tomorrow

A billion in support of scholarships, research, and facilities. Find out what it all means

Super Bloom!

What happens after the rains fall can be glorious.


Play—whether via imagination or with perspective—never stops being important to a person’s development.