Immanuel Adeola ’14
The Mill Faculty Lecture Series continued last Thursday, Feb. 21 with a spirited debate on “Religion in American Politics.” Professors Frank Kirkpatrick and Mark Silk of the Religion Department attracted a great deal of students to what proved to be an engaging discussion moderated by Trinity College Chaplain Allison Read.
It was clear from the start of the debate that both professors possessed the necessary qualifications. Professor Kirkpatrick is a Trinity graduate who earned a degree in religion after his graduation in 1964. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Religion from Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Brown University. He has published numerous works in the field of religious ethics and philosophy. Professor Silk graduated from Harvard in 1972 with degrees in history and literature and earned his Ph.D in medieval history from Harvard in 1982. Silk has also published numerous works in the field of religion, specifically the role of religion in American history and politics. The depth of knowledge and the well-established careers of both professors was evident in the level of excitement on the faces of students and other faculty as Chaplain Read started with formal introductions.
The central question of the debate was what role, if any, should religion play in politics and policy-making. The audience was unaware that both men had agreed to adopt certain personas before the debate in order to highlight a stark contrast that would generate substance for a productive discussion. Professor Silk adopted the liberal stance, which objects to religious influence in the sphere of politics and policy-making. Professor Kirkpatrick adopted a Christian conservative stance which favors a major role for religion in the political sphere and the incorporation of religious values in policy-making. Chaplain Read diversified her questions with key topics that have been intensely debated in the American political sphere, such as healthcare, gay marriage, taxation, women’s reproductive rights, the framework of the constitution and the role of the government. Both scholars exposited numerous fascinating points on their prospective stances on these issues.
Professor Silk argued that it was not necessary to have religious values in order to be a moral person. He further developed his argument by pointing out that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and referenced the Founding Fathers’ intention to keep Church and State separate. One of the major questions Chaplain Read posed to him was about his view of the Affordable Care Act as a vehicle of change that has corrected what many religious people believe was a major wrong. It was clear that the expected answer would include an admission that religion might have influenced health care policy making. However, Professor Silk crafted a smart answer that pointed to the financial benefits of the law as a key motivator for the law’s successful passage rather than religious reasons. Professor Kirkpatrick argued that Church and State could not be separate and that the country was founded on religious values. He advanced his argument further by posing the notion that we derive morality from religious values. He argued that the country would be better served with a theocracy that modeled that of John Winthrop’s Puritan society. He made a memorable remark that resonated strongly with the audience when said that humans are “depraved beings” and should never be left to their own moral devices, which drew a great deal of shock and laughter from the audience. Another shocking comment he made was that he would remove certain language in the First Amendment that he found supported irreligion.
It was obvious that Kirkpatrick’s views were on the defensive for much of the debate, causing him to cite as much as possible from the Bible and the Constitution. His impressive citation of the Free Exercise and Establishment clauses found in the First Amendment gave his argument a convincing tone for much of the debate.
After 45 minutes of an engaging back and forth between both professors, the moderator finally revealed to the audience that they had adopted the personas for the purpose of having an exciting debate. Both professors revealed that they are in mutual agreement about the absent role religion should play in politics. They both conceded the fact that religion does play a role in the marketplace of ideas and public discussion but attributed that to individuals rather than political institutions. The debate itself might have possessed sparks of electric intensity, but the atmosphere was relaxed and inviting. Food from El Serape, wine, and music preceded the anticipated showdown as people made their way in to grab a plate of food and find a seat before the start of the debate.
The last 20 minutes were devoted to an open forum where audience members asked questions and made comments about the adopted personas of both professors or their real take on a certain issue. The audience was able to share in a few laughs and ideas with the debaters and the moderator, leaving the event with a little more knowledge about the vast field of religion and politics.