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A More Perfect Union

Meghan Thomassen | Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Notre Dame Forum kicked off its panel series “A More Perfect Union: The Future of America’s Democracy” last night at Leighton Concert Hall at DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.

The forum aims to challenge the Notre Dame community to reflect on ways to bring positive change to the American democratic system and find solutions to the nation’s most pressing problems.

Fr. John Jenkins welcomed the crowd and said he hoped the forum would help leaders discuss today’s political and religious challenges.

“It is indisputable in the history of the U.S. that religious faith has been an extremely important factor to help this nation be vibrant and strong and creative,” Jenkins said.

The panel was titled “Conviction & Compromise: Being a Person of Faith in a Liberal Democracy.” One of the moderators, political science professor David Campbell, the founding director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy, said it was a good time to be airing these topics at Notre Dame.

“It is a truly historic event because tonight we will model what it means for Notre Dame to be ‘Catholic’ and ‘catholic,’ in both cases … because we brought together leaders of many American religions,” Campbell said.

M. Cathleen Kaveny, the John P. Murphy Foundation law professor at Notre Dame Law School and theology professor, opened with a question for each panelist about how their religious role guided their politics.

Dallin Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints (LDS), said that while the Church of LDS encouraged church members to participate politically, it did not endorse any political party, platform or candidate.

“On very special occasions, we take a position on a public issue that has important moral implications,” Oaks said.

He also said that religious unity would preserve religious freedom.

“We must … [ensure] our ability to act out and exercise what we have in common,” Oaks said.

Rev. Joseph Kurtz, the archbishop of Louisville and vice president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he and the other bishops sought to educate people in a rational but passionate way. Kurtz said it was a moral obligation to seek the common good.

“Faith is citizenship,” he said. “The work that we’re about is the lifelong formation of our conscience … [which] is the most important exercise you will do in your lifetime.”

Kurtz said certain moral issues carry more heft than others.

“The taking of innocent life will always be an issue that is intrinsically evil,” he said. “We don’t endorse candidates or coerce voters, [we want you] to inform your conscience.”

Kurtz said religious freedom is something to cherish because it fosters reasonable and effective discussion.

“[Religious freedom] is in the fabric of how a nation deepens its moral character,” he said.

David Saperstein, representative for the Reform Jewish Movement to Congress, said social justice was the focus of all types of Judaism.

“At the center is a passion for the perfection of the world,” he said. “Jews are to be a light to the nations, fulfilling the charge to be a prophetic witness.” Saperstein said America’s freedom of religion allowed all faiths to flourish.

“Every human being has basic equality,” he said. “[A person’s] rights as an individual are not dependent on [their] religious identity. … America is an extraordinary country.”

Rev. Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, said that after working on his ministry for 28 years, he was asked to resign from the National Association of Evangelicals after a radio interview on NPR.

“I said I voted for Obama in the Virginia primary,” he said. “I support civil unions, [and] the religious right had a conniption fit. It was deeply hurtful.”

After he left the association, he formed the New Evangelical Partnership with 100 other top evangelical leaders.

“We agreed to see and think more clearly, care more deeply about this country and where it’s going,” he said. “[We are] assuming responsibility for the polarization which we have contributed to.”

Rick Warren, pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of the book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” said the key issue was civility.

“We live in a pluralistic society where no one wins all the time,” he said. “Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not in this world.’ … I don’t place all my faith in the government to change.”

Warren said that although he knew every president since Carter, he never offered policy advice.

“If I thought I could change the human heart through politics, I would be a politician,” he said. “No law is going to turn a bigot into a lover. [Law] can change behavior, but not attitudes.”

Warren said he believed in the separation of church and state, but not the separation of faith and politics.

“We are moving away from freedom of religion to freedom of worship,” he said. “You’re free to do what ever you want during that hour at Mass, but it involves more than just the service. Jesus was a preacher, teacher and a healer – one-third of his ministry was health care.”

Saperstein said voters should never endure coercion.

“If you have to ask for forgiveness for the way you voted in the voting booth, [like] Catholics withholding communion, you have one narrow exception in balancing [freedom of choice],” he said.

Kurtz said coercion had to do with how people act in public, while a personal relationship to a faith community was a choice.

“As a Catholic I desire to be formed by the moral teachings,” he said.

When the panelists discussed political candidates’ faith, Warren said he focused on electing a president, not a pastor.

“I want him to have presidential skills, [and be] competent to lead,” he said.

Kurtz said he took into account a candidate’s public virtue.

“[I want him to be] willing to be courageous,” he said. “But the quality of the character of that person often flows with religion.”

Oaks said he would support a person for public office if they felt answerable to a higher power.

“Integrity is how the person adheres to their belief,” he said.

Oaks said political candidates should be able speak about their religion because it reveals their personality.

“How can you understand Mitt Romney or Joe Lieberman without understanding the role religion played in them?” he said. “The U.S. inches closer to a truly inclusive society. We’re not there yet, but we’ve made enormous strides.”

The panelists talked about how those who are more religious are more likely to be involved politically.

“Those without belief cause me concern,” Oaks said. “[They are a] threat to free exercise of religion because they do not value [religious] expression or participation.”

The panelists also touched on the HHS mandate and its effect on moral principles.

“[It is the] fundamental rights of women to have access to healthcare,” Oaks said. “[We need to] find a reasonable compromise that embodies core principles that both sides can live with without giving up a central principle.”

Cizik said he did not believe the mandate violated religious liberty enough to pose a problem.

“I am not persuaded that … the public good is so minimal,” he said. “[It is] sufficient enough to balance.”

Kurtz said that political and religious figures had to carefully analyze the mandate to find that balance.

“We have to find what is required in order to maintain the public good,” he said. “[The mandate] is restricting our religion.”