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Purcell talks faith, public service

Laura McCrystal | Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Faith can provide guidance and support in works of public service and college students across the country are answering the call, Bill Purcell, former mayor of Nashville, Tenn. and current director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics, said in a lecture to Notre Dame students Monday night.

“The great news about this moment in time is that, on this campus and on campuses all across the country, your hearts are right on this issue and your heads are right on this issue,” he said. “[Notre Dame students] have been leading in this particular area for quite some time.”

The lecture was titled “American Politics – Living Faithful Citizenship” and took place in the auditorium of the University’s Eck Center.

Purcell cited a speech by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, which stated that educated citizens are obligated to serve the public. This call to public service, Purcell said, is still relevant today.

Purcell, who has worked in public service for more than 30 years, served as majority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives before he became the mayor of Nashville for eight years.

Although public service is important, some people believe it has become more difficult than ever, Purcell said.

“It’s important to remember it’s always been hard,” he said. “The fact that it’s been hard ought not to discourage you.”

Faith allows public servants to overcome hardships because it gives direction to convictions, Purcell said.

“It’s the thing that carries you though,” he said about faith. “It’s the thing that holds you up. It’s the thing that gets you up and allows you to do more.”

Purcell cited scripture passages that have inspired his faith and his work in public service.

“Romans says that public servants are but God’s servants for the protection of the people,” he said.

He also explained how faith guided his decisions as mayor of Nashville.

In 2007, he said that the city of Nashville passed legislation making English the only language of the Nashville government. Yet the city wanted to welcome international businesses and people from other cultures, and this law could deter them. When Purcell vetoed the legislation, he said a Catholic Bishop as well as Protestant and Jewish leaders joined him in City Hall.

Purcell said that according to polls conducted by Notre Dame and Harvard, college students are eager to become active in public service.

“This is exactly the time that you should feel this way,” he said. “The opportunities will be there and you will have the opportunity to move faster … than any group of young people that lived before.”

He said his visit to Notre Dame has given him hope for the future of public service.

“You are engaged,” he told students. “As you do community service, as you do public service, as you’re out there lifting people up, what will that mean? I don’t know. But I can’t believe it won’t have an effect.”