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Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America

February 27, 2003 // 11:00pm

Editor/contributor Wilfred M. McClay, SunTrust Chair of Humanities and Professor of History, University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, and former Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center; author E.J. Dionne, Jr., Senior Fellow, Governance Studies, Brookings Institution, Columnist, The Washington Post, Co-Chair, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, and former Guest Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center

Religion Returns to the Public Square is a collection of essays by eleven scholars who convened at the Wilson Center two years ago to consider the growing influence of religion in the American public policy arena. The conferences were organized by former Wilson Center Fellows Wilfred McClay, a professor of history at the University of Tennessee, and Hugh Heclo, a political scientist at George Mason University, who also co-edited and contributed to this volume. On Friday, February 28, McClay and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who wrote the foreword to the book, discussed the implications of the reemergence of religion in public life following the seeming triumph of secularism in the 1960s and 1970s. This new prominence has been expressed both in policy (faith-based initiatives and charitable choice, for example) and in rhetoric (including 2000 presidential candidates' discussion of their religious beliefs and the imagery used to describe the Iraq crisis). According to the contributors of Religion Returns to the Public Square, this development may well be a positive one. In fact, in Dionne's words, the reassertion of the public role of religion can be considered an "expansion of the sphere of liberty."

McClay stressed that the "post-secular" era does not question the importance of the separation of church and state, nor does it attempt to roll back time to the era of "white protestant hegemony" that stretched from the country's founding until well into the twentieth century. Rather, while secularism promoted non-religion over religion, the country now needs a fuller neutrality between the two. Religion has an important place in today's society, as it responds to emerging "pathologies of the West" such as globalization and biotechnology, and can no longer be marginalized. Though, as McClay warned, the boundaries of appropriateness in public religion will certainly be contested, the tension between religion and secularism is an important means of national self-criticism.

Dionne, who co-chairs the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, emphasized Americans' overwhelming ambivalence towards religion. On one hand, we respect and admire religion – a majority of us prefer to have a person of faith as our president – yet on the other, we fear that its role may become too public. The academy, meanwhile, tends to dismiss religion as a private irrationality. According to Dionne, however, religion must be taken seriously, because the return of public religion is both inevitable and valuable.

The country's debate on religion, he noted, is entering the third stage of its history. The first was one of "white protestant hegemony," which, he pointed out, did shape the American heritage of religious liberty with its contribution to our national founding ideals. This period formally ended in the 1960s and 1970s, when the country experienced a stricter separation of church and state. Though increased secularism was partially a response to rise of religious Right, Dionne noted, the progressive tradition also has its roots in religion. Fear of religious radicalism should not cause all religious voices to recede. Rather, the return of religion to the public sphere is an opportunity to build on the history of religion as a prod to social justice and inclusion.

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