Politics and the ethics of dialogue

Politics and the ethics of dialogue

By Michael McCarthy, S.J.

Michael McCarthy, S.J., is executive director of the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education at Santa Clara University, where he is also the Edmund Campion, S.J., Professor in the Religious Studies and Classics Departments. The following article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on Oct. 2, 2012.

As the country looks forward to the first presidential debate, I fully expect one or both of the candidates to invoke Scripture to justify their positions on any number of issues. From swearing on the Bible at inaugurations to convention rhetoric, scripture has had a place in the American public sphere for generations. But the place of religion in the public square is a matter of constant dispute.

In July, the Oakland Zoo removed a monument with the Ten Commandments. To privilege one religious tradition on civic property has generally been regarded as unconstitutional, and rightly so. But does this mean that we should ditch religious talk altogether in the public sphere?

Absolutely not.

If we removed religion and the Scriptures on which it relies from public discourse, we would hardly avoid the painful divisions among people or the terrible things we say. We would, however, be removing a reason for hope that we can transcend them.

"In a society as diverse as ours, even the most devout believer in a given tradition must learn about what others hold sacred."

Religious references play a unique role in public discourse. With rare exceptions, candidates use the Bible to rise above the mudslinging polemics of election campaigns.

At the Republican convention, for instance, Paul Ryan alluded to the Book of Genesis when he claimed that different faiths believe that all people bear "the image and likeness of the Lord of Life." In Barack Obama's acceptance speech, he quoted the prophet Jeremiah in referring to the courage of young veterans. "They remind me, in the words of Scripture, that ours is a 'future filled with hope.' "

At this level, politicians seem to take pains to avoid complex theological arguments but to use Scripture in a manner that is uplifting in tone. This enables us to speak of our deepest convictions in ways that do not divide us.

Following the massacre in Aurora, Colo., both President Obama and Mitt Romney alluded to Scripture to console victims and the nation. Some contend that, in such moments, politicians are just pandering to religious voters. But that strikes me as too cynical.

People quote Scripture because they believe in an authority that goes beyond the human inclination to see things through fractured, temporary visions. Throughout history, people have appealed to a "higher law" when advocating social movements, from abolition to immigration reform.

Of course, religion is a difficult business in a pluralistic democracy, as sacred texts can be abused to justify the most hateful actions. On its website, the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., explains its vicious statement that "God Hates Fags" on the basis of a set of biblical verses.

Michael McCarthy, S.J. Photo by Charles Barry

As a Jesuit priest, I have spent the better part of my life arguing about Scripture. And those conversations, while often heated, have been the richest, most life-giving exercises of sharing what is most important.

What I try to teach my students is an ethics of dialogue. We can disagree profoundly while being respectful and accountable to a common good. Moreover, in a society as diverse as ours, even the most devout believer in a given tradition must learn about what others hold sacred. In time, I hope, we will hear the Quran and other holy books cited in the public sphere.

This ethics of dialogue is something we are trying to foster at Santa Clara University in a yearlong series on Sacred Texts in the Public Sphere. I do not expect that everyone attending these events will agree. But I do hope we will model an ethics of dialogue that will ennoble our way of thinking about political involvement.

The Bannan Institute, part of the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education at Santa Clara University, is offering a year-long series of talks and events exploring the content, meaning, and activity of sacred texts from a range of traditions, as these texts have been interpreted, performed, imaged, embodied, and contested in the public sphere. Most of these events are free and open to the public. To get more information and see a list of upcoming events, visit the Bannan Institute's website.

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