U.S. Senators Discuss Religion and Its Role in Political Life (video exclusive)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
“In some ways, our religious traditions give us guidance about the lack of working together, the partisanship, because as different as our faith traditions are, there are some common values. And one of them is something as simple as justice.”
—Senator Bob Casey
“Colson would warn that salvation does not lie in what comes out of the United States Congress or the White House in Washington D.C.”
—Senator Dan Coats
“If politics is the art of compromise, purity is not compromise; it’s inconsistent with it.”
—Senator John Danforth
Civil conversation among our politicians is at a premium these days. So rarely do we get to witness our political leaders respectfully engaging each other in a discussion about matters of the spirit and how they intersect with their civic responsibilities that we might not think it possible. But there are places trying to make this happen, venues that provide a human space for this type of thoughtful dialogue.
The Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. and the John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis are creating such a communal space. The ”Danforth Dialogues” — moderated by, you guessed it, former Senator John C. Danforth — kicked off its inaugural event with Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat and Roman Catholic from Pennsylvania, and Senator Dan Coats, a Republican and Evangelical Christian from Indiana.
For the most part, the first half of this conversation is a warm-up period that covers somewhat well-trodden ground: the culture of Washington, compromise on taxes and entitlements, the budget. But there are moments of resonance too. When I hear the three men regret that there are limited opportunities for social interaction, I think of Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who posits that regular, seemingly inconsequential bump-ins are a necessary starting point for deeper, more meaningful discussion. Senator Casey puts a point on this idea when he tells a story about introducing his daughter to Senator Coats on an elevator for the first time and says “the fact that it stands out in my memory indicates that those interactions are pretty rare.”
If you’re interested in a more personal discussion about faith and how it influences politics for the two currently serving senators, the discussion gets rolling about 27 minutes in. A couple of moments to highlight come in the form of references: one to a book by a former Nixon aide, the other to a church hymn.
When asked if he thinks religion is more directly involved in politics than ever before, Senator Coats cites Chuck Colson’s Kingdom in Conflict as a philosophy that informs how he navigates his distinct responsibilities as an elected official and a Christian:
“He [Colson] warns in his book that you have to be careful that the kingdom of man, kingdom of government, doesn’t dictate the essential message of the kingdom of God, and vice versa. And so it takes some discernment to not go too far either way.”
Near the end, Senator Casey remarks:
“There’s a great hymn in the Church, “We Are Called to Act with Justice.” The refrain goes on to say, ‘We are called to act with justice. We are called to love tenderly, to serve one another, and to walk humbly with God.’ If members of Congress focused on those four things, we might be better off.”
“Arab Spring” Forces Americans to Ask Hard Questions of Ourselves
by Krista Tippett, host
I recently attended a remarkable gathering in Washington, D.C., the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, cohosted by the Brookings Institution and the government of Qatar. For the past eight years this event has been held in Doha, Qatar.
This year, of course, the “Muslim world” is in the midst of seismic change. It was a remarkable experience to be — at this moment — with state and diplomatic leaders, civic and humanitarian activists, and senior religious authorities from Muslim majority countries around the world, as well as their counterparts from the United States and other nations.
So I found myself next to the Iraqi ambassador to the United States in one session and next to a young Bahraini human rights activist at another. She was juggling a laptop, an iPhone and an iPod simultaneously (and with notable ease). I made a lighthearted remark about how she was redefining the meaning of multitasking for me. She responded graciously, with a lovely smile, and then told me she was following new pictures just released on the Internet showing that Bahraini political prisoners are being tortured. Her father and two brothers, she told me, are in those prisons. She was fierce with dignity.
Representatives of Turkey, meanwhile, suddenly found themselves the “democratic model” of the Arab world that others want to study and emulate.
Key players from the emerging Egyptian leadership were also in attendance, as were ministers from the new government in Tunisia. And the Egyptians and Tunisians were, to a one, quite transformative simply to be around. They seemed to glow. They manifest a sense of having lived through a miracle, even as they face the tasks ahead with gravity.
“We have discovered ourselves,” one longtime Egyptian activist proclaimed. And there is clearly no turning back on this collective self-discovery, painful and uncertain as the road ahead may be.
In a sense, this moment challenges Americans to a new era of self-discovery, too. As we watched ordinary men and women, young and old, become citizens for the first time on Tahrir Square, we saw a version of our own national narrative unfolding. The economic and foreign policy challenges ahead of us are profound — and will become even harder as countries like Saudi Arabia inevitably experience their version of the “Arab Spring.”
These events force us to ask hard questions of the policies we condoned for years, of decades-long dictatorships that we helped hold in power. More presently and importantly, they ask us to bring the best of our virtues, and the complexity of what we have learned in our own 200 years of democratic experiment, to the changed world we inhabit now.