In response to growing international interest in the relationship between religion and politics, the Yale Political Science Department hosted a symposium Wednesday night to discuss ways of resolving faith-related problems that arise in a pluralistic society.
The event entitled “The Role of Religion in Public Affairs” featured a panel composed of John Danforth LAW ’63 DIV ’63, an Episcopal priest and former Missouri senator, Joseph Cumming GRD ’05, director of the Reconciliation Program at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, and Aisha Al-Adawiya, the founder and executive director of Women in Islam, Inc. The panelists spoke to a large crowd of students, faculty and community members in Battell Chapel on the ways in which personal faith can affect politics — both positively and negatively.
The event marked the sixth-annual public symposium organized by political science professor Stanley Flink as part of his “Ethics and the Media” class. Audience members said they enjoyed the discussion, but some said it failed to address in a significant way religions other than Christianity, Islam and Judiasm.
The panel addressed topics ranging from terrorism to abortion and stem cell research. Flink said the symposium theme was particularly relevant in light of these and other international issues, including conflicts in the Middle East.
“It’s one of the most pressing issues facing this country and countries all over the world,” he said.
In his speech, Danforth, a Republican, criticized his party’s practice of energizing the Christian right to push its political agenda and create a power base. Danforth said that this practice misuses religion by purposefully pushing divisive issues, thereby fostering polarization.
“These wedge issues were derived for the purpose of driving them deep into America, which separates people who are religious from those who are not,” he said. “If you asked everyone whether religion should be used to polarize America, the overwhelming majority of people in this country would say no.”
Cumming — who has spent a number of years working in Mauritania — also discussed the conflicts that arise when government and religion intersect, but he focused on how these problems influence U.S. foreign relations, especially with regard to Muslims.
Cumming said religion can “malfunction” when individuals of one faith attempt to force their beliefs on others or when religious principles — of mercy and compassion, for example — fail to carry over into one’s daily life.
“But I believe that faith, if properly understood, can be used in positive ways to transform our world for the better,” Cumming said.
He suggested Jesus’ teachings could be a possible point of mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims, since Jesus is a figure whom both faiths recognize, but they interpret his significance in different ways.
Al-Adawiya — who converted from Christianity to Islam as a young adult — shared her personal history growing up in the segregated South and spoke about building bridges between the Christian and Muslim communities and addressing points of contention between the two faiths.
“We have to be courageous and brave enough to get at these difficult questions,” she said.
Yale Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge, who attended the event, said he thought the symposium highlighted the positive influence religion can have on public life.
“This identified a number of important issues, including how religion is contorted to do more harm than good,” he said.
While students who attended the symposium said they think the event was informative, some said they felt the panelists left a number of important questions unanswered.
James Rump ’07, a member of Flink’s class, said he felt some of Danforth’s comments were “very political,” but he said he appreciated the opportunity to hear from such prominent and relevant figures.
“I’ve never seen people of this magnitude talking about this issue,” Rump said.
Frederick Mocatta ’10 said he thought the panelists were “fantastic.”
“It raised more questions than it answered,” he said. “But it’s constructive at this point to ask questions.”
Mocatta said he was somewhat disappointed that only a few faiths were discussed, but he said the limited scope is understandable because the symposium was designed to focus on contentious religious issues relating to American politics.
Danforth and Cumming said they are currently collaborating on a project to urge world religious leaders to create an international body to mediate specific conflicts between religious communities.