Miller questions faith-politics link

Despite popular belief that religious beliefs and political orientation go hand-in-hand, Newsweek religion editor and reporter Lisa Miller said political views cannot, in fact, be defined solely based on religious denomination.

There are nuances to modern religious views, Miller said to an audience of about 100 in William L. Harkness Hall on Monday. And since making generalizations about the political beliefs of different religious groups is difficult, she said, it is impossible to predict the outcome of the 2008 election based on religious values alone.

“To paraphrase what Barack Obama once said to me, ‘People want religion to be neat and pretty, but in fact it’s hard and messy,’ ” said Miller, who wrote a cover story in July for Newsweek on the presidential candidate’s religious background.

Before Sept. 11, religious believers were often overlooked by the press since they were seen “as freaks and oddities,” separated from wider American culture, Miller said.

“But after 9/11, religion was the only story,” Miller said. “Religion was politics; politics was religion.”

Reporters soon started studying religion in order to understand world politics. But in the end, Miller said, most reporters focused solely on politics and few attempted to actually understand why people believe the Bible or the impact it has on American culture. Because of this political emphasis, religious people often felt misunderstood by the media, Miller said.

Even today, Americans are not entirely aware of the variety of faiths practiced in their country, Miller said.

“People of faith do hold contradictory views,” Miller said. “Very few of them go by the book.”

The media and many Americans are apt to oversimplify the differences between believers and non-believers, she said, which is unfortunate because Evangelicals and atheists can sometimes have a good deal in common.

Miller went on to illustrate through statistics the diversity of religion in America. Twenty-one percent of people who identify as atheists say they believe in a universal spirit or god, one-third of Americans currently belong to a church different from the one they grew up in, and 70 percent of Americans believe that there is more than one path to eternal life, Miller said.

These statistics reveal the difficulties inherent in attempting to categorize believers, Miller said. For example, many people think of Evangelists as intolerant because of their strict religious beliefs, but many Evangelists are trying today to redefine what it means to be an Evangelist, even though it may contradict the faith’s traditional past.

Despite Miller’s emphasis on the difficulty of making generalizations based on religious statistics, many audience members asked the Newsweej reporter to predict the results of the November presidential election.

“The point of my talk is that you can’t predict what someone’s going to say based on what their label is,” Miller said emphatically during the question-and-answer period. “The problem is that religion defies categories of ‘us or them.’ Ninety-two percent of Americans believe in God. We must take all of their beliefs very seriously no matter how much they contradict one another.”

Molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor Paul Forscher said he was interested to hear that America spans the religious spectrum and also to realize that religious people are not necessarily politically conservative.

“It was useful to hear from a reporter trying to delve into many different places in the country,” said Ken Buck, a postdoctoral fellow in MCDB.

Another audience member said he wished Miller had spoken more about religion’s role in the upcoming elections.

“She talked very little about how religion will affect this election,” Justin Dobies ’12 said.

But Dobies said, overall, he appreciated the talk.

“She opened up the eyes of the audience to religious voters,” Dobies said.

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