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Yearlong forum to address American political issues

Nicole Michels | Tuesday, August 28, 2012

As the presidential election looms on the horizon, partisanship has increasingly dominated American political discourse, a state often precluding real solutions to the problems facing the United States today.

The 2012-13 Forum, “A More Perfect Union: The Future of America’s Democracy,” will bring preeminent political figures to campus in a yearlong series of events to encourage thought within the Notre Dame community and at the national level on how to strengthen the political system to better meet
the needs of the American people.

Michael Desch, political science professor and member of the Forum organizing committee, said this year’s Forum topic was motivated by University President Fr. John Jenkins’ desire to see Notre Dame above the partisan fray while addressing the upcoming election.

“Fr. Jenkins feels very feels very strongly that Notre Dame should be a place where big issues of national politics are discussed in a civil and thoughtful way, which made it natural that we would focus not so much on the specific issues at play in this election but rather think at one level removed, in terms of the larger questions at stake,” Desch said. “Of course, the big question that keeps reoccurring is whether our political system is up to the challenges that our country faces.”

Desch said the rabid partisanship in Washington only compounds the specific issues faced by the electorate, and hamstrings legislators who might devise solutions.

“I think that partisanship is part of it but that it also goes beyond that … the issues like the growing budget deficit, the future of Social Security and Medicare and stuff like that are not only a problem because of partisanship but because Americans want to have their cake and eat it too,” Desch said. “We’re not making the hard decisions that we have to make at this point.”

Even the language used to discuss politics in Washington presents its own set of problems, Desch said.

“The discourse in Washington has become more coarse,” Desch said. “It’s about finding a way to make the discourse more civil and finding opportunities to work across the aisle … that will be essential if we are going to solve some of those big problems.”

David Campbell, a political science professor and Forum organizing committee member, said this year’s Forum should allow Notre Dame to exploit its unique position in America’s civil society to help build a more productive political discourse.

“Notre Dame occupies a unique niche in American higher education … this is a university with a clear and distinct religious mission that at the same time has a national and global profile that transcends its Catholic character,” Campbell said. “I think that one of the reasons that these speakers want to come here for these events is because this is Notre Dame.”

The first event, “Being a Person of Faith in a Liberal Democracy,” will address how religion interacts with politics in the United States, Campbell said.

“Whether it’s the contraception mandate, sandwiches at Chick-Fil-A or Representative Todd Akin, we can’t avoid the discussion of religion in this or in any other election, and what better place to grapple with the big questions about the role that religion plays in democracy than at Notre Dame,” Campbell said.

Campbell said the composition of this first panel makes this event historic.

“We wanted to make sure that we had representatives of many of America’s major religious traditions, and though we weren’t able to include all of America’s religions, this group does represent a pretty broad swath of America’s religions,” Campbell said. “I’m particularly pleased that we don’t just have Protestants and Catholics but also a prominent Jewish rabbi and [a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints] minister. This representativeness demonstrates how Notre Dame is a place able to facilitate dialogue across religious lines … it’s not just a place about being Catholic but catholic as well.”

Desch said he wants to see the discussion reach beyond specific issues to talk about the larger interplay of religion and politics.

“I’m hoping to see elevated discussion [in addition to] talk about the HHS mandate and the ND lawsuit… to see talk about some of the first principle issues too,” Desch said. “This is a country founded on a longstanding notion of the separation of Church and state, but many of the religious issues like the HHS mandate have demonstrated that this distinction is not so clear in practice… we need to think about how we will renegotiate those boundaries going forward.”

The committee’s hope is the panel’s diverse members will inspire more interreligious dialogue in the United States, Campbell said.

“What Notre Dame is doing is modeling for the rest of the nation something that should happen a lot more: bringing people from different faith backgrounds to come together and find common ground,” he said. “That’s what you do in a democracy – acknowledge differences, and make the system work in spite of those differences.”

Desch said he hopes Notre Dame students will be inspired to work towards improving the political system as citizens and as leaders.

“We’d like to see Notre Dame students assuming more positions of political leadership,” Desch said. “Not only do we want to prepare Notre Dame students to become more informed citizens, but also we want to encourage at least some Notre Dame students to make a career or spend part of their career in the public service.”

This Forum should encourage students to think carefully before voting in November, Campbell said.

“Our job is really to present issues and ideas for students to use as they themselves go into the polling place … we do hope that students will be encouraged to think carefully, maybe even prayerfully about how they should vote,”
Campbell said.

Michael Masi, student liaison to the Forum’s organizing committee, said student government will work to engage students in the political events on and off campus this year.

“We’re hoping to get students engaged and aware of both Forum events and other events on campus,” Masi said. “With the election coming up in November, it’s really important that Notre Dame students actively engage beyond their four years at Notre Dame, because that is the future of our democracy: students.”

Contact Nicole Michels at