How We Can Talk about Religion and Politics

Here is a reflection on the Comparative Religion Series that I helped moderate on Tuesday evening here at Temple Beth El in Charlotte, and the video as well, at the bottom.

On Tuesday evening, March 1, Tim Funk, Professor Bob Whalen, and I discussed the history and present of American Religion and politics as the concluding session of the 19th Annual Comparative Religion Series.

Professor Whalen outlined a really interesting rubric that might help us asses how religion often impacts American politics using these three concepts:

1)    Civil Religion – we have a public and prominent form of religion – the holy sites in Washington DC are a good example of its positive expression.

2)    Charisma – leaders will often use their personal spiritual journey as a way of leading us to consider deeper questions about our country. The easy example is Lincoln’s religiosity, which challenged Americans to be better people without necessarily sharing his religious perspective.

3)    Revival – our public religion often undergoes enthusiastic reframing. Lincoln reminded us of core American values that required updating, even in his own mind, as he moved to make abolition of slavery a central aspect of American thinking.

In each of these three areas, we can see religion playing constructive and problematic roles – often based on whether or not we are trying to expand or limit the scope of the American experiment in democracy and governance. 

Both Professor Whalen and Mr. Funk urged us, in their own way, to ask whether politicians used religious viewpoints as broadening access to America’s hope and promise for more people.

In the wake of Super Tuesday, and in the middle of this political season, I was inspired by the idea that we might use the best of our academic and religious thoughts to bring the best of ourselves to bear on evaluating our situation in discussion together.

Let’s all go out and talk to people who hold strongly different opinions from us, and by listening to all of our stories, broaden our own sense of the concept of the American experiment.

[Content starts at 25:35]

The Temple Beth El 19th annual Comparative Religion Series concluded Tuesday, March 1, with "How the Pendulum Swings: An Historical Overview on Religion and Politics." Thanks to our special guests: Dr. Bob Whalen, Professor, History Department, Queens University of Charlotte; Tim Funk, Faith and Religion Reporter, The Charlotte Observer; and Rabbi Jonathan Freirich, Associate Rabbi, Temple Beth El.