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Wolfe Lecture on Religion and Faith in the USA

September 6, 2007

I attended a fascinating lecture today at the US Consulate Building. Professor Alan Wolfe, Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College was speaking on ‘Who’s Afraid of American Religion?” and was addressing the issue of the possibility of an American theocracy.

His assertion was that this was highly unlikely for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the original intellectual foundations of the Church/State separation. It’s original intention was to preserve religion from the advance of government, as well as vice versa. There is a perspective issue here, he argued, that the rise in prominence of religion in public life is a sign of a healthy democracy and that the separation issue is working well.

He added that the sheer religious diversity of the US precludes a state religion as there is no obvious candidate.

A couple of interesting things stuck with me. He was prepared to argue that the US actually wasn’t theological enough. It was religious but not theological, and that it could do with more genuine faith. Religion, particularly Protestantism was essentially a felt faith, or a faith of feelings, but not theological.

He said that research demonstrates that there is no discernible difference in the moral or ethical behaviour of religious people and non-religious. In fact that in the states of Texas and Oklahoma, the states that voted overwhelmingly for Bush in the last election the rates of divorce are the highest in the country. The states with the lowest rates of divorce are the states that were overwhelmingly democratic, Massachusetts and Connecticut. The only exception to this were the Mormons for whom belief affects behaviour profoundly.

The other startling issue for me was on the matter of Roe v Wade. In 1973 when the Supreme Court made the momentous decision the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) actually voted in favour of it at their gathering. Their instinct was to support a woman’s right to choose. This changed in 1985 when conservative Baptists joined in political alliance with conservative Catholics. It was not in any way a religious or theological change for them but a pragmatic, political alliance. One which has lasted to today, and got close to overturning Roe v Wade, but which is now fragmenting and which is unlikely to achieve their goal in this administration.

Funnily enough, he was critical of left leaning faith based groups such as those represented by Jim Wallis. He argued that God-talk must have a place in public discourse, but not Jesus talk. Interesting that.

All this from a man from a Jewish background but who is not practicing faith today. I found him tremendously engaging and easy to listen too.

I’m not sure though that too many on this side of the Atlantic are worried about an American theocracy, though I can see how it might be an issue over there. What we worry more about is the unhealthy policy influence that might be brought (and has been brought) into political discourse. He didn’t address this as an issue at all.

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