It’s not often that an audience has the pleasure of hearing a former senator, an ordained clergyman and a practicing lawyer speak in one sitting.
Wednesday, former U.S. Senator John Danforth gave a crowd at St. Thomas More Chapel that opportunity by himself as he delivered a talk titled, “Religion: Must It Divide Us?” Danforth, who graduated from both the Yale Law School and the Divinity School in 1963, spoke about the divisive nature of religion and how it fails to play the role it should in society.
“What I have seen is that religious differences inspire some of the most violent and intractable conflicts,” he said.
Danforth drew on his experiences from public life, such as his presidential appointment as a special envoy to Sudan in 2001.
“The problem of Sudan is racial and cultural and ethnic,” Danforth said. “But much of the problem of Sudan is religious. So for two decades, the people of Sudan have been killing each other in the name of God.”
Even in America, Danforth said that religion tends to be divisive. He cited the example of a Lutheran clergyman who faced disciplinary action after participating in an interfaith service at Yankee Stadium after Sept. 11, 2001.
“To participate with pagans in an interfaith service and, additionally, to give the impression that there might be more than one God, is an extremely serious offense against the God of the Bible,” Danforth said, quoting the charges against the clergyman.
The idea that one religion is “right” and that people who practice another are “pagans” creates divisiveness, Danforth said. Humility, he said, brings peace.
Whitey Humanities Center Director Maria Rosa Menocal spoke after Danforth and extended his hypothesis by suggesting that the three main monotheistic religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — are inherently intolerant. Paganism avoids that pitfall because it is naturally accepting of different gods, Menocal said.
While Danforth did not address that issue, he said the solution will not come from the hierarchy of current religious institutions.
“I see no likelihood that the organized churches will achieve any kind of institutional unity,” Danforth said. “You will grow old waiting if you place your hope for Christian unity in institutional efforts.”
Though some audience members said they enjoyed the talk, they said they also felt disillusioned by Danforth’s lack of faith in religious organizations.
“It was appropriate at this time to address these kind of issues,” Sam Merritt LAW ’05. “I think he did a good job remaining positive as far as what individuals can do, but his views on the role of institutions were disillusioning. If what he says is true, there is a lot of effort going into things that aren’t going to have a payoff.”
Danforth began his talk with a couple of jokes about why he came to speak at St. Thomas More, noting that he is a friend and former classmate of Fay Vincent Jr., a member of the St. Thomas More board of trustees. Vincent endowed the Fay Vincent Fellowship in Faith and Culture, which sponsored Danforth’s talk.
“[Danforth] was a fantastic candidate because of his Yale connections,” said Matt Wrather, program director at St. Thomas More. “He was uniquely suited to address the particular topic of this fellowship, which is faith and culture.”
Wrather said that although St. Thomas More functions as a religious institution, it also has an academic side. Like the Joseph Slifka Center, St. Thomas More believes there is a need for intellectual discourse from a Catholic perspective, he said.