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April 4, 2018

Faith and the Faithful in U.S. Politics

By Hunter Esters (SFS'19)

On Monday, March 26, in an auditorium packed to the brim with hundreds of attendees at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life brought together a series of thought leaders for a discussion centered around faith and the faithful in American politics. Amidst a time of deep political divisions, the roundtable invited leaders from across the political spectrum for an engaging conversation around how faith intersects with American political life, and what role religion can play in charting a path forward to overcome the present divisions of our nation.

The discussion included an impressive set of thinkers such as E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post columnist, Brookings Institution fellow, and Georgetown professor; Joshua DuBois, CNN contributor, CEO of Values Partnerships, and former executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships under President Obama; Jocelyn Kiley, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center; and Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, director of the Faith Angle Forum, and former speech writer for President George W. Bush. The event was moderated by John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. 

The group discussed a range of faith-based topics including the evangelical embrace of Donald Trump in the recent election, the rise of millennials who do not identify with any major religion, and how faith can be a tool to bridge existing partisan divides. The speakers all suggested that faith, indeed, had a stronger pull than the divides of politics, and that with an emphasis on community development and the virtues which bind our individual faith traditions, we can unite our divided nation.

The panelists discussed how, on today’s main issues, the parties have little reason to reach across to each other for discussion and are instead encouraged to appeal to their base and speak from their own echo chamber. Jocelyn Kiley noted that the “religious profiles of the two parties are more distinct than they were a quarter-century ago.” As different religious groups increasingly sway towards certain parties, the communities tend to follow, and echo chambers become even stronger. As E.J. Dionne pointed out, “the best side of religion is its call to conscience; its worst side is its call to identity.” Faith gives us a powerful capacity to empathize and calls us to give back to our fellow human beings, but can also serve to insulate communities, if we so allow it.

The group also talked about the recent decline in professional and healthy discourse. Peter Wehner noted the increasingly illiberal nature of many college campuses and how there is a growing tendency to remove speech that one disagrees with or finds offensive. Wehner said that “instead of shutting each other down, we need to understand where the other side is coming from.”

In the end, the group came to agreement that the best way forward is to find unity in the common values that bind us as a nation. We should take more chances to be seek civility in our public discourse. Joshua DuBois stated that “we need more civil people to be actively engaged in the public square.” Building on this, Initiative Director John Carr stated that “responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in civic life is a moral obligation.” Indeed, Director Carr ended the event on a good note, recalling to mind the duty and moral obligation that we share as citizens to our nation.

Hunter Estes (SFS'19) is a junior in the Walsh School of Foreign Service studying international politics.