Religion and the Public Square
"We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, that Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence."
--James Madison, United States President, (1809-1817)
This fall, the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts will focus on the theme Religion and the Public Square. John Rawls once noted that ancient Greek society could not conceive of an opposition between religion and politics because ancient Greek religious practice lacked a sacred text, a class of religious authorities and a doctrine of salvation. Religious practice, like politics, was part and parcel of civic life. In more modern times, the question of the proper role of religion in the public arena is distinct, and particularly salient in America. The first Europeans to arrive in North America sought both freedom to practice their religion without interference, and the authority to enforce their beliefs on others.
The dispute over religion and its role in American society continues today, as we see in the fevered scrutiny given to President Obama and Governor Romney’s personal religious beliefs, and in the nationwide controversy over an Islamic center to be built in lower Manhattan, not far from Ground Zero. What is the proper role of religion in civil society? What restrictions can be imposed on religion by civil society? Does civil authority depend on religious belief for its moral authority? What is the proper role of religious belief and practice in democratic elections and policy debates? How should we settle disputes between different religious groups within civil society? This semester, a series of distinguished scholars and leaders will help to facilitate a conversation about these and related questions, to deepen our appreciation and understanding of the complex connections between religion and society.