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Role of religion in politics debated

Madeline Buckley | Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Two student-professor teams faced off at LaFortune Student Center Tuesday night as they debated the role of religion in politics.

Political science professor David Campbell and senior Kathleen Sullivan, a political science major, argued that religion doesn’t have a place in the political spectrum. Their opponents, Law School professor Richard Garnett and senior Corey Mehlos, co-president of College Democrats, said there are times when religion can be appropriate in political settings.

Sullivan kicked off the debate – which was hosted by ND Votes ’08 – by quoting President John F. Kennedy, who would often reassure voters during his campaign that his Catholicism didn’t influence his political identity.

“‘I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic,'” Sullivan said.

She said Kennedy made this statement in a speech to allay fears that the Pope would run the country if a Catholic president were elected.

“Kennedy had it right,” she said. “Religion really has no place in politics.”

In response to Sullivan, Garnett said Kennedy’s speech is often taken out of context and used to support a new trend of “radically privatizing our religions.”

“Separation of church and state should be absolute, but it has nothing to do with how we, as citizens, respond to the common good,” Garnett said.

This brought up the question of morality in the context of federal laws and policies. One member of the audience asked the panelists to distinguish between morality and religion.

“The government ought not impose religious requirements, but it does not do to tell a candidate your view is no good because it is rooted in religion,” Garnett said.

He said religion is so entrenched in humanity that “any idea that you can push religion out of politics is an anti-human idea.”

But rather than an inherent, universal part of human beings, Campbell and Sullivan said religion can be divisive and can polarize a political discussion rather than humanize it,

“Of course you should take all your beliefs and values into account when voting,” Campbell said. “However, religion should only be used to the extent that it allows you to evaluate the policies, not to use it as a wedge for prejudice.”

And though the panelists didn’t reach a consensus, the Campbell-Sullivan team said that, at least at Notre Dame, the role and influence of religion in life seems to be better outlined.

“I think the advantage of an education from Notre Dame is that you can – through courses, readings and conversations with friends – figure out how your faith will inform in your politics and public lives,” Campbell said.