Keynote Address by Rev. Richard Ryscavage, S.J., Ph.D.

Keynote Address by Rev. Richard Ryscavage, S.J., Ph.D.

Director of the Center for Faith and Public Life at Fairfield University

Delivered November 7, 2005

I am deeply grateful to Fairfield University for asking me to lead this Center. I consider it a blessing from God to be able to work at the enormously exciting crossroads of faith and public life today.

Across the globe from China to Europe, from the Middle East to America, the role of religion in politics has seized the attention of decision-makers. But leaders and analysts are so often ill-prepared intellectually and experientially to deal with this phenomenon. Too many people consider faith divisive and try to steer clear of it at all costs.

Image: Rev. Richard Ryscavage

Rev. Richard Ryscavage, S.J., director of the Center for Faith and Public Life, outlines his vision for the Center during the opening ceremony on November 7.

Abraham Lincoln once said that "the philosophy of the classroom in one generation becomes the philosophy of government in the next." If the new generation is to function effectively as leaders in the 21st century they need a much stronger grounding in the dynamics of civic life and faith.

Let me explain why I say this; first, looking at the global picture and then, at the United States:

Professor of History and Religious Studies Philip Jenkins points out in a recent book that although Christianity may be losing its appeal in a secularized demographically declining European Union, it is spreading like wildfire in Africa, Asia and Latin America. I think in this country we are dimly aware of festering trouble over religion and politics in such places as Sudan, India, and Nigeria but in a few decades, because of population and because of poverty, these now peripheral issues about civic life and religion will take central stage in world politics. Especially alarming is the possibility of a broad conflict between Islam and Christianity, something the Holy See has been deeply concerned about. It is sometimes said that Islam will outpace Christians demographically - the "revenge of the cradle" as it is sometimes called. But now it is becoming apparent that the reverse may happen. Christianity is growing rapidly today. Our Jesuit seminaries are packed in India, Colombia, Kenya, and Indonesia. But most of these young Christians are poor and black - they're not white, they're not rich, and they're not European.

This demographic fact alone could raise vast new political challenges in the world because most major religions, not just Islam or Christianity, tend by their very nature to be globalizing forces. They naturally reach beyond the nation state and so can present a major transnational challenge to the structure of the traditional Westphalian state system including the state system of the United Nations which we constructed for the 20th century but is ill-fitted for the 21st.

Religion can seem especially threatening where religious identity is a part of state identity or even more ominously where religion is a motivating factor in political violence - including transnational terrorism. In fact, the 9/11 Commission speaks of global terrorism as an ideological conflict that is inescapably tied to religion. Religion is one of the key legitimizing motivations for suicide bombing. And one can see how the place of religion in the public square is being debated so ferociously in places like Iraq.

For the past 25 years, religious groups have been forcing themselves onto the international political agenda by challenging secularism and secular political authorities. Religion has become intricately part of the struggle over authority in the post-Cold War world. This should surprise no one because religion has historically been the common way human beings legitimize or de-legitimize political authority. But in fact, this development has shocked many political scientists, many international relations scholars and caught off guard many politicians and diplomats. When I was studying international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, my professors tended to describe the influence of religion in the context of secularization. Secularization theorists predict that the importance of religion would diminish in public life and eventually even disappear from the public square. Religion would survive only as a private matter, as a kind of personal hobby, like fox hunting or collecting buttons as Lenin once put it.

Secularism in that form often seemed to me like a religion of its own, a religion of unbelief that wanted to become the state religion. Its basic assumption was that the institutional structure of the modern world would increasingly become devoid of public faith.

Secularization theory, of course, has not panned out at all empirically. Many sociologists today would question the whole concept of secularization. What we tend to hear today in the classroom is a modified secularization theory that says religion will have a diminished role in society in the sense that it is one of many other sectors trying to compete for influence on political authority. But I am not at all convinced that such a perspective accurately reflects what is happening in the world. Secularism did not prepare my generation for John Paul II or for Osama Bin Laden.

Turning to the United States, I think it is safe to say that there has been a major re-emergence of religion in public affairs in this country. We can point to the last presidential elections as only one of many indicators that religion is being accorded a renewed legitimacy in discourse around public policy issues across this country. I agree with the intellectual historian Wilfred McClay when he argues that we may be entering a post-secular era in the United States, perhaps even the de-secularization of American public life.

This remarkable phenomenon is not the product of one administration or one political party. It is much broader than that. As EJ Dionne, the liberal Catholic columnist for the Washington Post once pointed out, all you have to do is look at the way John F. Kennedy ran for the White House in 1960 and the way Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman ran for the White House more recently you see the vast change that has taken place in the United States on the role of religion since the l960s. Kennedy deliberately sought to play down his religion. He made it a strictly personal matter and irrelevant to his political life. Lieberman, a generation later, took exactly the opposite tack, praying in public. He said he would not campaign on the Sabbath and openly explained how Judaism shaped his public engagement.

Now many people are uncomfortable with this development. They fear it will break down the separation between church and state. It can be a highly emotional issue and much of the public debate in the United States has been shrill, coarse and polarized. But the separation of church and state does not have to mean the separation of religion and public life. To be post-secular does not mean being anti-secular. It is not a matter of creating theocracy in this country but rather, creating a sophisticated understanding that religion has much to offer society.

The debate is also about discrimination against religion and against religious groups. This problem is most directly and most controversially highlighted by the President's establishment of the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. In the partisan debate over this development, it is forgotten that this office represents the culmination of a long movement from several different administrations.

I can remember a meeting with Vice President Al Gore in the early 1990s when I worked for the US Catholic Bishops. A group of Catholic, Jewish, Protestant and other faith-based organizational representatives discussed with him the problem of de facto discrimination that had been going on for years, subtly and not so subtly, in the State Department, Department of Education, and in Health and Human Services. I remember him actively listening and acknowledging that grants to religious organizations that supply social services do not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment. And then the Clinton administration later softened federal rules preventing social service agencies backed by religious organizations from receiving government contracts. In fact, the Government gives billions of dollars to Jewish, Catholic and Protestant social service agencies in this country. Yet far too many small local faith-based organizations have not been able to access those grants. One recent study, for example, found that Black and Latino faith-based organizations, who are the prime deliverers of local juvenile justice programs, received only 1/3 of 1% of the 620 million federal dollars given annually to local communities.

The same is probably true of grants for health and human services, housing, drug rehabilitation, and literacy. It can all be construed as prima facie evidence of discrimination against small religious agencies in this country. And these little agencies are often the main providers of service to the poor in local communities such as Bridgeport. So personally, I welcome the White House attention to this problem and I hope that larger religiously based institutions - such as Fairfield University - can play a role in helping bring justice to this situation.

I do not see how a new assertiveness by religious groups on these types of issues poses any danger that the United States will turn into a theocracy. And this is not to say that there are no real dangers imbedded in the American revival of religion in public affairs.

Religion can have powerful impact on political life. There are real risks whenever religion enters the public square. We all can figure out the foolish hubris of people who assume that God is on their side. I know from experience that sometimes religious leaders develop habits of certainty on such issues as economics, public health and military policy that far exceed their competence, even the competence of their staffs.

But, to me the more insidious problem is the way that faith may have hastened the decline of the public sense of the common good. It has declined because much of our social order has fragmented into various identity groups of gender, race, class and yes - even faith. If we do experience an anti-religious back-lash in this country it will be because religious groups have failed to engage the whole of our society and not just the "circle of believers".

Yet faith can also be a powerful way to mobilize people away from themselves and toward the common good. In Catholic thought, considering the common good demands that a person of faith welcomes the contributions of those who do not share the faith. It demands engagement.

On another level, religion is a resource that a society can draw upon in facing extremely new challenges. What sort of challenges? I'll name a few.

The expansion of scientific-technological frontiers is generating inherent ethical problems; multiculturalism as a public policy sometimes seems to generate a vacuous moral relativity; there is great confusion about questions of global human rights; and how do we figure out a way to deal with religious based terrorism? Religion has unparalleled resources for dealing with these issues. Perhaps only religion, for example, can address the arrogance and dangers of science that, as Harvey Mansfield says, can never decide the good of a thing.

Every society needs a framework of values that stands above the political and the scientific. Otherwise science and the political order can become absolute and absolutely dangerous. Because the great religions of the world have collectively stored the moral memories and lessons of humanity, these religions have extraordinary resources to deal with social issues. We must study and call upon this great strain of human wisdom. In that sense I see the interconnectedness between religion and public policy as only increasing as we move into a very highly complex century.

As a refugee and migration specialist - I am used to dealing with borders. To me, in our democracy, church and state need to be kept separate. As Augustine so well understood, standing as he did on that boundary between the City of God and the City of Man, the Church is not the political arm of the gospel. It is its own social entity within the gospel. The primary role of the Church is to be church; the primary role of the State is be state. But I see them as sharing a common border. And perhaps like Mexico and the United States there is much they can teach each other. I resonate with the political scientist Clarke Cochran when he says that politics can learn from religion the compelling importance of social virtue, justice and transcendence which can calm political cynicism and teach politicians to think beyond their own self-referential advantage. But politics can in turn teach religion humility and the need for tolerance and how to live with pluralism in a democracy.

So situated at this neuralgic border between faith and politics what exactly will our new Center do?

At Oxford, Isaiah Berlin once famously divided the world into hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs tend to pick a place and stick with it, going ever deeper and deeper and deeper. Foxes on the other hand, driven by curiosity, will explore many places, many things. I suspect the Center will be more fox than hedgehog. It has at this stage anyway a deliberately broad mandate so it can respond flexibly to many things.

While fully respecting the great diversity of faiths present at our University and in our world, the Center will anchor its normative orientation in the Roman Catholic Church - including the Jesuit tradition in Catholicism. I believe that this clear identity will give the Center the kind of strength and foundation necessary for entering into an inherently turbulent and difficult arena. The Catholic tradition traces itself over centuries from the Bible through St. Augustine, from St Thomas to John Paul's reflections on social justice. One of the things it says is that faith and intellectual integrity are not contradictory - something the Jesuits believed from the very beginning of their educational ventures.

Additionally in my experience, many non-Catholics have discovered that Catholic social teaching - especially the pivotal concepts as searching for the common good, the importance it places on the dignity of human person, its sense of global solidarity - form a rich intellectual back drop for reflecting on public life. From the contemporary Jesuit tradition the Center will emphasize such concerns as the role of women in society, the promotion of inter-religious dialogue and studying the phenomenon of migration.

We'll first create an interdisciplinary structure of support for faculty research and teaching as they relate to various social priorities. We have already begun this process in the area of migration - an explicit Jesuit priority - where Fairfield has taken the lead in creating an academic research network on migration linking 21 different Jesuit universities in the United States, Mexico and Central America. The University has also entered into an unusual research practitioner partnership with the Jesuit Refugee Service and with the social and international office of the Jesuit Conference in Washington.

Secondly the Center will develop ways of expanding faculty and student engagement in civic life - including what is commonly called service learning. The connection between service and citizenship has largely been severed in this country. In fact the notion of citizenship has lost its salience perhaps because it is too much of an artificial abstract legalism. A recent study of civic engagement by the American Political Science Association concluded that "Citizens are participating in public affairs less frequently, with less knowledge than is healthy for a vibrant democratic polity" Certainly a lot of research points to the declining levels of civic engagement among students. The Center will try to address this problem - especially the integration of service learning into the intellectual mission of the University. I believe that attending to faith can be a powerful tool in this process of preparing and mobilizing students for committed intelligent participation in political and civic life especially by insisting on the concrete public responsibilities that fall on every human person as part of their humanity.

Thirdly the Center will help the University develop strategic ways of assisting the local community and regions. Fairfield counts itself among the wealthiest counties in the United States - indeed this is one of the wealthiest corners in the globe. Yet real poverty is not far away from us. I hope we can particularly help and get others to help diocesan and other faith-based and community-based organizations who are doing exceptional work but are often underfunded, understaffed, and overwhelmed. Every University has a social obligation to the local community. How Fairfield fulfills that obligation will be a central concern of the Center.

Finally, the Center will offer a public forum for balanced and intelligent reflection on the role of religion in local national and international life. I will, for example, be seeking support for a program series where we invite prominent politicians and public leaders to talk to students and to the public on the record about the role of faith in their personal and political life and careers.

Students have asked me whether the Center will align itself with one political party or another. The answer of course is no. But I do think that the Center can help political parties frame the questions they need to answer about the role of faith. I believe we can do this in a vibrant context of informed discussion, good research, and respectful debate. If civic engagement means anything, it means speaking with persons who may not share your point of view and to do it with humility, charity and most of all civility.

Choosing lively engagement over empty shouting requires civility on all sides and civility will be the hallmark of this Center.

What we launch tonight is innovative and exciting. I believe that this young, dynamic Catholic institution called Fairfield can, through its Center, make exceptionally vital contributions not simply to our Church but to our students, to our community, to our country and to our world.

Thank you

Posted On: 11-09-2005 10:11 AM

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