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Parish Renewal Experience Topics For Persuasive Essays

A persuasive essay is a type of writing that attempts to convince the reader that the opinions being presented are right. They are very similar to argumentative essays except for the fact a writer presents a one-sided opinion giving valid reasons and solid facts on why that opinion or argument is correct. With an argumentative essay, the writer creates a discussion on the topic by presenting points on both opposing and proposing sides as is the case with verbal debates. The writer employs logic to reason with and sway the reader into adopting a certain view.   Such essay assignments are commonly given to students in high school and junior college. They help students to master persuasive skills which can be useful for students in all disciplines including sciences and social studies; as well as in business and their social life.

Tips for finding persuasive essay topics


Sometimes, essay topics are not given by the professor thus writing persuasive essays begins with selecting a topic. In such a case, a student is required to select an appropriate topic to write about. To help you do that, here are a few tips.

  • Think of subjects that interest you. Feel free to select a topic that you will enjoy writing about and not just one that you think will please your professor. Obviously, you should not purposely pick a topic that will bore your audience. Nonetheless, focusing excessively on what you think your teachers would like to read is a mistake. Most professors want to see you write in your own style and argue your own ideas, supported by facts.
  • Select a topic you are passionate about; not one on which you are conflicted. You will likely be unable to present your views and convince your audience if you are conflicted about the side on which you stand. For example, it may not be wise to argue that every state should abolish the death penalty yet on the hand, you think that child molesters deserve the death sentence. The audience of your persuasive essay or speech must not detect any sign of internal conflict in your argument. Being passionate about the topic will also make the research and writing tasks enjoyable, and your emotion will also be reflected in your writing. This will help you persuade and change the reader’s mind.
  • Don’t over-obsess on political correctness. You should avoid playing it too safe and shying away from a controversial issue. A point to note, however, is that for a school setting, you may want to strike a balance between boldly expressing your views and not offending your audience with overly inappropriate topics.
  • Think about your personal experiences or those of people you know. Real life events can be a source of inspiration to help you formulate an interesting topic.
  • Think about what you know. Start with general subjects that you are familiar with then narrow down to a specific topic. It will be easier for you to write a good persuasive essay if it is a subject in which you have knowledge. This is especially important if you have limited time to write your essay as you will be able to do the legwork faster.
  • Read. Topics abound in books, newspapers, journals and the web if only you conduct research. The importance of research in persuasive writing cannot be overstated. Research is important for formulating your title and finding evidence to back up your ideas. A research paper published in a peer-reviewed journal could present the credible evidence you need. This involves reading widely and sometimes talking to experts in your subject of interest. Sample persuasive essays can also provide inspiration on topics to write on as well as serve as examples on how to write your essay. A point to remember as you conduct research is that your institution likely has a strict policy against plagiarism, therefore avoid presenting someone else’s work as your own.
  • Brainstorming helps in coming up with an idea or refining the one you already have. Discuss your ideas with friends or other people around you, but this is not a license to copy someone else’s work. The purpose of brainstorming is to help you get ideas. Weave in your own perspective to make your essay unique.
  • Persuasive essay topics are often inspired by contemporary issues in society so pay attention to current trends and events happening around you. It helps to come up with a list of several persuasive essay topic ideas and then carefully evaluate them further to pick the best one.

Selecting a good topic for your essay is one of the most important and often tricky parts for many students. Here are a few characteristics against which you should evaluate your topic before you start writing the essay.

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Qualities of a good persuasive essay topic

The topic should be specific. The essay topic should be broad enough for you to comfortably meet the required length of the essay, but not too narrow that you are unable to write more than a few short sentences on it.

  • A great topic should have some complexity and depth.
  • A good topic for a persuasive essay is one that is debatable. Pick a topic that society is talking or arguing about.
  • The topic must not be overdone. Most times a topic that has been tackled over and over is not the best choice because it is likely that society has already reached a consensus on the matter and it is no longer being debated.
  • Is there adequate literature to support your opinions/ideas? There should be enough literature to provide facts to back your ideas in order for you to write a good persuasive essay. You don’t want to start the writing process, then have to find a new topic because you realize, midway, that there’s no credible literature to back your ideas.

We have compiled a few ideas appropriate topics for your persuasive essay assignment.

Some Persuasive Essay Topic Ideas for High School

  1. Should students perpetrating cyber bullying be expelled?

Cyberbullying can undoubtedly have grave consequences for the victims. There has been agitation in some quarters to have cyber bullies in schools face the consequences such as expulsion.

  1. Is college education the key to a successful life?

There are varying views on whether a college education is required in order to have a successful life.

  1. Should the death penalty be abolished?

The death penalty has been abolished in some states, many more still practice it, and others have the death penalty allowing gubernatorial moratoria. Some say the death sentence is a fitting deterrent to serious crimes but is it a cruel, dehumanizing practice that should be abolished?

  1. Should civilians be allowed to carry guns?

Do civilians with guns to help stop crime such as mass shootings or does the freedom of civilians to carry guns pose more danger?

  1. Should the minimum voting age be lowered?

21, 18, 17, or 16; just how old is old enough to vote? Are teenagers’ old enough for the responsibility of voting or should voting be reserved for young adults and older citizens?

  1. National security prevails over individual right to privacy

Should violations of individual privacy rights be allowed for the sake of national security?

  1. Parental consent should not be required for teenage girls to access contraceptives.

Teenagers have free access to contraceptives, but lawmakers have come up with proposals that will require teenage girls to engage their parents before they can get access.  Should the right of teenagers to freely access contraceptives be upheld?

  1. Smartphones are killing communication

Smartphones have changed the way conversations are carried out, but are they killing the art of communication? Are we missing out on crucial benefits of voice calls and face-to-face conversations?

  1. Should Medical Marijuana be legalized?

Marijuana helps relieve symptoms of various illnesses.  There have been debates on whether Marijuana prescribed by a doctor should be legal. Do you think it should be legalized?

  1. Is commercial testing on animals, right?

Safety tests for products such as drugs and cosmetics are often tested on animals to ascertain their safety. Animal rights activists and other parties don’t agree with this practice.

  1. Should mercy killing be allowed?

Euthanasia, the killing of patients with painful, incurable diseases, irreversible coma, is done in order to relieve suffering. The practice is allowed in some states, but it is frowned upon and illegal in many more states.  Is an ethical practice that should be legalized or not?

  1. Should mandatory sexuality and parenting classes be taught in school?

Parents have the responsibility of teaching their children about sexuality, contraceptive use, and parenting. However, do parents sufficiently teach their kids on these subjects?

College Level Persuasive Essay Topics

  1. Should guns be allowed on campuses?

Research shows that guns on campuses only pose a greater danger of violence and do very little to stop shooting rampages. Do you think guns should be allowed on college campuses or not?

  1. Should public breastfeeding be allowed?

Mums are given a hard time now and then for breastfeeding their babies in public. However, others are of the opinion that breastfeeding, just like bottle feeding a baby in public should not be controversial.

  1. Should the travel ban on Muslim-majority countries be implemented?

There have been mixed reactions on whether the executive order to ban visas issuance to travelers from six Muslim-majority countries be implemented.

  1. Should recycling be required by law?

Recycling helps preserve the environment, but not everyone practices it. Some think that by making it a legal requirement, more people will begin to practice recycling. What’s your position on this?

  1. Should workplaces have a more relaxed dress code?

Some employers feel that relaxed dress codes negatively impact productivity and should not be allowed in the workplace.  Others think that it improves creativity and productivity in the workplace.

  1. Should the jury system be replaced by bench trials?

There have been arguments that juries are not made up of people with the necessary legal expertise and should, therefore, be abolished and replaced with bench trials where judges are solely responsible for making judgments. These are just a few tips to help you in persuasive essay writing. You can write persuasive essays on a variety of subject including health, food, technology, history, law, religion and governance. Just follow the guidelines stated above, and you’ll be well on your way to writing a good persuasive essay.

The Importance of Research in Persuasive Essay Writing

Whichever topic you choose, always remember the importance of literature sources. These sources serve to enrich knowledge, meet the academic community’s expectations, and identify and support arguments. The questions of whether a topic has been overdone or has enough literature to back it up must always be asked. The answers to these questions can only be found by immersing yourself in literature to filter out the overdone topics and find facts, examples, statistics and quotes to provide supporting evidence for your essay. It requires and demonstrates an ability to research, understand and integrate information from multiple sources. Common reliable sources of literature include journals, scientific magazines, textbooks and reports that can be examined for relevance to the topic at hand. There are multiple online resources and databases to find a book or a journal article that you can use in your search for relevant information sources on which your essay will be based. Possessing good research skills and selecting a good topic is crucial. However, good writing should accompany a good persuasive essay topic and extensive research thus a student must learn the skills of effective writing. Learning good writing skills will help you write better essays that will keep your readers interested and persuaded. This can be difficult for some students, especially for those whom English is their second language; but it is not an impossible task.

Writing Persuasive Essays

Once you settle on the topic and choose the position on which you will base your essay, the rest of the work can then begin. You still need to create an outstanding piece of writing. You will need to research about your topic further to provide evidence to your ideas and then structure your writing according to the persuasive essay structure. As any guide on how to write a persuasive essay will tell you, your essay must be organized in paragraphs with a logical progression from one paragraph to the next. There should be an introductory paragraph that includes a strong, authoritative thesis statement, a body section with at least three paragraphs, and a conclusion paragraph with a call to action. Begin the introduction paragraph with an attention-grabbing fact, question or contradiction. Each of the body paragraphs should state a single main point and present evidence support for the point, view or argument you are making. Examples may also be included in each of the body paragraphs to further support and clarify your main points. A good persuasive essay must always have a concluding paragraph where you restate your position and include a summary of the essay text. If your introduction included non-rhetorical questions, you should include answers in this section as well. Focus the conclusion on giving your reader a strong message that will linger in his/her mind. Finally, remember that a big part of being effective in persuasion is the ability to appeal to your audience’s emotions. Be creative and take full advantage of persuasion techniques and as with any type of writing, keep your work clear, concise and error-free.

Getting help

If you need assistance with persuasive essay writing, persuasive speech writing, proofreading, formatting or editing, contact reliable professionals such as WritingElites.net for help. A lot of students rely on online samples or an article on writing persuasive essays; to help them understand how to go about it. Others consider seeking the support of professional writing services provided by online companies which can prove useful. The problem, however, is that not all companies can be relied upon to deliver quality essays on time so you have to be careful in selecting one. There are a large number of such companies providing essay writers, but should you choose this path, due diligence is important to ensure that the job will be done right. You don’t want to spend money, but not receive its equivalent in quality of service. Check the terms of service and carefully study their privacy policy and any other policy they have, and whether there are multiple ways of contacting them. Further, before you take the step of faith and place an order, check the testimonials from other customers. We are a reliable writing service provider and always keep our word by delivering quality academic writing services in a timely manner and ensure the service you get is worthy of the money you pay. You can trust us to provide expert help for all your academic writing needs.

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Pew Forum Faith Angle Conference
Key West, Florida

Watch more event video on the multimedia page.

Some of the nation’s leading journalists gathered in Key West, Fla., in December, 2007, for the Pew Forum’s biannual Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life.

Given the recent popularity of several high-profile books on atheism, the Pew Forum invited Wilfred McClay, a distinguished professor of intellectual history, to speak on the historical relationship between religion and secularism in America. McClay argued for a distinction between two types of secularism.

Political secularism, he says, recognizes the legitimacy and even moral necessity of religious faith, while preventing any one faith from being established. Philosophical secularism, on the other hand, views religion more negatively and attempts to establish a common unbelief as a basis for government. Inspired by a recent trip to Turkey, McClay contends that the first understanding of secularism was at the heart of the founders’ vision and has resulted in a unique if imperfect mingling of religion and government in American public life.

Wilfred McClay, SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics & Public Policy Center; Senior Advisor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Navigate this Transcript
The American experience of church/state separation
Christianity and the two kingdoms
The establishment clause of the First Amendment
The two forms of secularism
Q&A with journalists

MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Ladies and gentlemen, if I could have your attention please. We’re beginning. It’s my privilege to introduce Wilfred McClay, who is Bill McClay to you.

Our session is called “Religion and Secularism: The American Experience.” It grew out of a concern at one of our discussions. Twice a year I meet with seven of your colleagues to talk about what topics we want to talk about at Key West, and one of the topics that came up at our last luncheon was the rise of the new atheism books. Now, Professor McClay is not going to be addressing that specifically, but [rather] the whole question of how we settled our disputes in American history between religious believers and secular believers, and Bill McClay is one of the finest people in the country to do that. He wrote an important essay in The Wilson Quarterly some years ago called “Two Kinds of Secularism,” [*] and I hope he’ll comment some on that today.

I call your attention to your packets, which include the bios of our speakers. I just want to say about Bill McClay that not only is he a professor of American intellectual history, but he wrote a book in 1995 [*] called The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America. You want to know about that book because it was the winner of the 1995 Merle Curti Award in intellectual history, and I’ve always been wanting to ask Professor McClay, who is Merle Curti? But anyway, you won that award. It’s given by the Organization of American Historians.

UNIDENTIFIED: He [was] an American historian. He was [the] generation of-what-circa 1920 or [something like] that.

WILFRED MCCLAY: Oh, earlier than that.

CROMARTIE: But no relation to Merle Haggard? Okay. (Laughter.) We got that clear. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Bill McClay.

MCCLAY: Thanks, Mike. I’m very happy to be here. I know some of you, and I’m very happy to meet others whose names I knew before, and now [I] can put [them] together with the faces. I thought Stephen [Prothero’s] talk was really excellent, and the discussion excellent, and I hope I can build on that, and at the very least-This will be very historical and so if you need to catch a few Zzs, I won’t [mind,] I’m used to it. I teach in the university, so I have people sleep in my class on a regular basis, and it doesn’t bother me at all. (Laughter.)

Being a historian by training, I necessarily start out with [a] whole list of ticks and caveats. I do tend to think in terms of particular cases and situations rather than generalities, vast and otherwise. I’m not convinced that in my subject-religion and secularism and the relationship between them in American history-that I’m necessarily setting out some universal model that’s going to be universally applicable.

Also, there’s a problem with the word “secularism.” It means so many different things. Maybe the earliest meaning has to do with the clergy who were not monastics but who had their vocation in the world, and who were, therefore-the medieval church regarded [them] as lesser beings because they were not engaged in contemplation, which was the highest good. Obviously, we don’t use that meaning any more.

There are several other meanings to secularism, and the distinction I want to make is between philosophical secularism, which is secularism as a kind of godless system of the world, a system of beliefs about ultimate things, and secularism in a political sense: that is, secularism as recognizing politics as an autonomous sphere, one that’s not subject to ecclesiastical governance, to the governance of a church or religion or the church’s expression of that religion. A secular political order may be one in which religious practice or religious exercise, as we say, can flourish. So it’s distinct from the philosophical understanding of secularism.

As I say, to some extent the usage of these terms is defined by history, and I think we go astray if we try to define things too abstractly. Even the word religion, I think, may depend on: What religion are we talking about, and when and where are we talking about it? To pick an obvious example, it makes a great deal of difference when we talk about Islam whether we’re talking about Islam in Saudi Arabia, or Islam in Indonesia, or whether we’re talking about the Islam of the relatively tolerant 19th century Ottoman Empire, or the Islam of radical madrassas today, although all four of them have certain things in common, and they may have certain obstacles [in common,] relevant to our discussion today, to their ability to embrace Western European-style secularism in all of its senses.

Some of you probably have heard of Diana Eck. She’s a professor of religion at Harvard Divinity School, and she is a great proponent of religious pluralism. She has a saying to the effect that, “If you know only your own religion, you don’t even know your own religion.” I’m sure she says it more elegantly than that, but that’s the gist of it, and I was always dubious of this. It seemed a little too professorial and platitudinous.

But I became a believer, shall we say, when I took a trip about a year ago to Turkey under the auspices of the State Department. Turkey [is] a country 95 percent Muslim, where other religions have no particular political profile or public profile at all. The imams are paid by the state. Religious garb, as you know, is forbidden in public institutions or by public officials because of the rigid secularism of the Turkish state. The Turks have a certain understanding of the separation of religion and public life.

What I was speaking about [in Turkey] was how Americans understand the separation of church and state, and I went all over the country speaking to various audiences about this subject, and they were absolutely fascinated. Many of them were very quick-Actually, they were interested to hear about America, and, in the question period, they asked me all sorts of questions about Turkey, which of course I was not competent to answer, but they immediately wondered if the American model might be a model for their own troubled secularism, which has arguably been too rigid, modeled on the French läicité model, which is a very, very forbidding and strict form of secularism. It proscribes public expression of religion to a very high degree.

Of course, there are those who-and they are represented in the rising of the AKP [“Justice and Development”] party and the rising, mildly Islamist elites-who want to see more religion in public life; they thought the American way was admirable in that extent. Of course there were others, particularly women, who were absolutely terrified by this because they immediately think of the Iranian example as the sort of thing they can expect to happen in Turkey if the Kemalist secularism of the past, 90 years or so, 80 years, is rolled back.

What I ended up having to say to these audiences again and again is that I didn’t know, [and] I doubted very much that the American way would be applicable. I was not being the Ugly American saying, “We know how to do it, and you should do it our way.” On the contrary, I kept saying again and again, “The United States has a unique history. Our ways of managing the relationship of religion and secularism didn’t arise out of abstract theory so much as it arose out of concrete practices that were a result of the particular circumstances that we had to manage, that the circumstances forced us to think as we do.”

I added that Americans are not in complete agreement about these things or [do not] view them as settled, that they’re constantly being fought over, constantly being contested, and that [it] is not such a bad thing that these are inherently conflict-ridden issues, and [that,] in fact, the American system thrives on conflict.

However, I did come away feeling it’s important to point out there [in Turkey] and here that Americans have managed to produce a pattern in the relationship of religion and secularism that differs in marked ways from the example of, say, the Western Europeans, and it’s a pattern that-as Stephen [Prothero] has already said-defies the expectations of many of the theorists of modernity, the exponents of modernity who all thought that secularization and secularism would be the same thing; that modernization and economic matters and commercial matters and so on would translate into the gradual disenchantment of the world and the evaporation of religious faith, [which] has manifestly not happened. So this is an achievement, even if it was not always [as] self-conscious [an] achievement as Americans would like to think; and it’s one I think we should understand better than we do.

So let me begin with two propositions. The first one is that in the American experience, the separation of church and state, which by and large we acknowledge as a rough-and-ready principle, does not necessarily mean the separation of religion from public life. Another way of saying this is that America has a strong commitment to secularism, but it is secularism of a particular kind, understood in a particular way.

Second, that the United States has achieved in practice what seemed impossible in theory: a reconciliation of religion with modernity, in contrast, as I say, to the Western European pattern. In the United States religious belief has proven amazingly persistent even as the culture has been more and more willing to embrace enthusiastically all or most of the scientific and technological agenda of modernity. Sometimes the two reinforce one another. Sometimes they clash with one another, but the American culture has found room for both to be present. I won’t prophesy this will always be the case, but it’s a very solid relationship of long standing.

And perhaps I should add-and I did this for my Turkish audiences; it utterly baffled them, but it shouldn’t be quite so baffling for you-that all this makes sense in light of the fact of [a] third proposition: that American institutions and culture are intrinsically and irreducibly complex-not chaotic, which is of course what they see-but complex.

The complexity takes a particular form: that politics and culture are designed around an interplay of competitive forces, which is, I think, the key to understanding a lot about the United States. The Constitution was based on the assumptions that in any dynamic society there would be contending interest groups, and [that] one could best counteract their influence by systematically playing them off against one another. That was the reasoning behind separation of powers. That was the reasoning behind the federal system. These different parts of the government are supposed to fight with one another. That’s how the Constitution is supposed to work.

People from abroad look at the American government and think it’s always on the brink of collapse. They don’t understand, and many of us don’t understand, that this is, in fact, the way it’s supposed to work. There are supposed to be countervailing forces holding one another in check. There is supposed to be common and constant tension.

Socially and culturally speaking, the country has evolved in a similar way, not intentionally but with similar effect. No one at the time of the American founding envisioned the nation as a great bastion of cultural pluralism, in which a wide variety of cultural forms and religions would coexist. They probably would have found the idea unintelligible, but it turned out to be one of the most salient features of American life. Some of this was driven by religion-the desire of Puritans and Quakers and Baptists and other Protestants to worship God as they pleased-but a lot of it was driven by economics. When you have a country with an abundant supply of land and a scarce supply of labor, and you want to grow economically, you cannot be terribly choosy about the people who come into your country, and the immigration could not come from just England or northwestern Europe, so eventually Germans, Italians, Poles, Russians, Greeks, Turks, Chinese, Japanese, and so on would come. And the nation couldn’t afford in the long run to be too choosy about the religious beliefs of these new immigrants. Hence, the history of American religion and the history of American immigration often track with one another pretty closely.

That history affects the particular valence of the idea of the separation of church and state, as it’s understood in American history, in the way [for example] that Protestantism so often was used to reinforce the subordinate status of Catholics-I recommend Philip Hamburger‘s book on the separation of church and state about this.

I mentioned the JFK speech in the previous session. Another interesting thing about that speech, which I strongly recommend you all read before [Mitt Romney’s speech on] Thursday, is that it is a complete capitulation-I say this from a Catholic point of view; I’m a Protestant-but it’s a complete capitulation to the Protestant understanding of the separation of church and state. [Kennedy] is absolutely telling his Baptist audience exactly what it wants to hear in every detail. Fascinating.

The point is, however, that no one group ever entirely dominates, at least not for long, when the competition of political and social forces becomes as institutionalized as it has in the United States. Paradoxically, this competition has engendered habits of tolerance

So what I’m arguing here is that social and religious tolerance became practical necessities before they became enshrined principles. The wars of religion in the 16th century in Europe fostered tolerance simply because of the inability of one religious party to dominate over the others, which meant that religion itself could no longer be a basis for public order and public culture. Something of the same thing happened in a far less violent way in the United States. This is one of the keys to understanding the relationship of religion and secularism in the United States. American secularism derived from the strength of religion, not from its weakness.

The ability of the United States, then, to reconcile religion and modernity depended in part on its ability to hold groups and ideas in competition with one another, and this ability has roots that go even deeper than the country’s actual beginnings. Ultimately, they are grounded in certain characteristic features of Christianity itself, which is one of the reasons why, when we talk about religion as if all and any religions can impart the same results, I think we’re misleading ourselves. There is something very particular about Christianity, a particular virtue it brings to the table in this matter, and that is its emphasis on what is variously called the two spheres or two kingdoms or two cities that have always been taken to divide up reality.

You’ll recall, since you all are religiously literate-I can assume this-that Jesus of the Christian scriptures surprised his followers by declining to be a political leader and declaring that his kingdom was not of this world; but at the same time he and his early followers, notably Paul, insisted on the legitimacy of worldly authorities and insisted that one should, in Jesus’ famous words, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,”-a really astonishing statement because it credits the secular authority with having a proper and independent role to play in the scheme of things. In other words, Christianity had certain theological resources available already at the very beginning for a kind of separation of church and state, although it did not come to pass fully until after those bloody wars of the 16th century had made the principle of religious toleration seem inevitable, and therefore, the need for a secular state.

Two kingdoms, two cities, two spheres-this feature of Christianity is one of the chief resources it has always brought to the problem of the organization of political life in a religious society, and it’s one of its chief resources now. [It is] something I’m not as knowledgeable about, but Islam seems to me to have a problem in this department.

Another feature that helped to establish the religious tone of early American history was the curious fact that the Europeans settling British North America were not merely Christians but [rather] the modernizing rebels within the Christian world. [These] Protestant Christian Reformers, whose agendas were various and much conflicted among themselves, had in common a rejection of the standard traditional hierarchy, priestly authority, and traditionalism of Roman Catholicism, and to some extent Anglicanism as well.

Many of these immigrants were openly seeking to restore the Apostolic church. That was their dream: to bring back the simplicity and mutuality of the church of Christ’s time and strip it away of all of the traditional encumbrances and barnacles that [had] accumulated over the centuries and get back to the simplicity and charisma and equality among members that was characteristic of the Apostolic church as you see it described in the Acts of the Apostles.

They all shared a belief, to a greater or lesser extent, that individuals could approach the Holy Scriptures, which were taken to be the ultimate authority, unaided and enjoy through the scriptures an unmediated relationship with God, and that the measure of one’s faith was not a church membership or the reception of the sacraments from an authorized priest, but whether one had experienced the relationship with God through Christ freely, firsthand, and in a way that was most reliably expressed by conversion. Of course, in early Puritan congregational churches, the sine qua non for admission to the church was [to] deliver a convincing conversion narrative, which the elders in the church would find sufficiently persuasive to believe you’d really had the experience you claimed to have, and so you were in.

The individual conscience in this view is the ultimate measure of authentic faith, and [the] individual conscience should never be coerced by priests or ecclesiastical traditions or anything else aside, of course, from the Bible itself. This very individualistic, voluntaristic, Protestant approach to religious faith and the absence of any serious opposition to it led America to a high degree of democratization of religion. Religion was more market-driven, more even consumer-oriented, as has been described. People could affiliate or not affiliate by choice precisely as their consciences dictated.

Far from undermining religion, this voluntarism made it thrive in modern America, and I think one can probably attribute the ways in which the face of evangelicalism [and] even non-evangelical varieties of Christianity [and] Roman Catholicism [have] come into play through that pervasiveness of this market-driven approach to religion. Also helping along the reconciliation of religion and modernization was the fact that both secular and religious thinkers so often agreed on things for a long time in American history. There was very little conflict between the more secular-minded and the more religious-minded over, for example, the drafting of the Constitution. The conception of the Enlightenment as essentially anti-clerical, irreligious, rationalistic [and] philosophically materialist is a generalization from the French experience, which doesn’t fit the American one, just as the American Revolution was a very different kind of revolution from the French Revolution, [in being] much more self-consciously backward looking and even restorationist

The U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment to the Constitution were not intended to create a purely secular government, neutral or indifferent to religion as opposed to irreligion. The Constitution itself, at the time it was drafted, was largely a procedural document, which sought to enumerate carefully the powers of the national government while leaving the police power and most substantive questions of morality, religion, education, and such, to the states-I’m talking about the Constitution as it was drafted; not as it’s been interpreted.

Furthermore, the First Amendment, which prohibits the establishment of a religion and protects the free exercise of religion, was not intended to secularize the national government, but instead to protect against sectarian conflict and exclusiveness and the power grab by some national church. The founders understood the term “establishment” in a very specific way as referring to a state church established by a national government that could command assent to, or at least privilege, its doctrinal statements, receive tax monies-that’s the important thing-to support it, and perhaps require attendance at its services. But certainly tax revenues [were] the main thing.

The founders did not want this. They prohibited the national government from doing it, but they prohibited only the national government from doing it. They did not prohibit the states from doing it. The First Amendment not only leaves open the possibility of state establishments, but in fact there were state establishments of religion, mainly in New England, I think, up to the 1820s; isn’t that right, Steve? 1828 was the-1833, okay.

It’s interesting that Jefferson’s famous “Wall of Separation” letter was a response to the Danbury Baptists [letter,] which had to do with the Baptists’ concern over religious establishments in Connecticut. They were actually appealing to Jefferson: “Couldn’t you just do something about this establishment in Connecticut, which we really don’t like and is very oppressive to us?” Jefferson, [who] wasn’t about, at that point in his presidency, to use [his] power that way, politely didn’t give them what they wanted. So even Jefferson implicitly acknowledged the acceptability of a state establishment. Of course, he didn’t like to have any kind of religious establishment.

Soon after passing the First Amendment, Congress passed a resolution proposing a National Day of Public Prayer and Thanksgiving, on which President Washington soon acted. Congress also provided land for churches and mentioned the necessity of religious education in the Northwest Ordinance. Thus, the people who actually voted to ratify the First Amendment saw no incompatibility between the establishment clause and government support of religion on [a] state level, not on the national level.

More generally, to go back to the point I made earlier, 18th-century Americans experienced surprisingly little tension between their version of the Enlightenment and their version of Protestantism. In many ways, the two were entirely complimentary. Both emphasize the central importance and independence of the individual conscience. Both embrace the absence of religious establishment. Both eschewed the use of coercion. Whatever the theological differences [were among] figures such as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, [these men] were of one mind in endorsing the crucial importance of religion for the sustenance of public morality.

Now, they may have thought religion was “a good thing”-as people used to say about neoconservatives, [they think] religion is a good thing for other people to have-but [they made] a very strong endorsement of the need for religion to be a force in public life, as a part of public discourse affecting the public sphere. The single best analyst of all of this, [and] I wish I could come up with [a] name you hadn’t heard before, but [it] is Alexis de Tocqueville. [He is] still the best analyst, whose experience of France-again, the comparative dimension-brought home to him during his visit to America in the 1830s how remarkable it was that the spirit of liberty and the spirit of religion co-existed and reinforced on another in the American context, in a manner that was completely contrary to the French historical example.

Tocqueville, of course, is known for producing a very memorable portrait of America as a middle-class society, in all the best and worst senses of that term, and a feverishly competitive, commercial, acquisitive, practical-minded, jealously egalitarian and, of course, restlessly mobile society. He saw the chief dangers in the society as the twin phenomena of individualism and materialism, the tendency of citizens to withdraw from public life and regard themselves as autonomous actors with no higher goal than the pursuit of material well-being. Tocqueville was a great believer in the need for public virtue, but he realized that a modern commercial democracy was not going to naturally produce such qualities in human beings. So, what to do? How to counteract the corrosive tendencies of a commercial democracy? His notion was that self-interest, rightly understood, could serve in the breach as a kind of antidote to those tendencies, but self-interest, rightly understood for him, meant that religion had to be a very important part of American life.

Tocqueville was very impressed by the degree to which religion persisted in the American democracy and that religious institutions seemed to support American democratic institutions. The latter seems unexceptional to us, but from his point of view it was very surprising. From a French point of view, if you were a liberal in politics, you had to be anti-clerical; the educated Europeans were abandoning religious faith and practice in the belief that the spirit of liberty was incompatible with the spirit of religion, and one was, in a sense, forced to vote the straight ticket. To be a political liberal, you had to be an ecclesiastical one, and vice versa. But Tocqueville’s visit to America convinced him that liberty and religion were not necessarily opposed to one another and their antagonism or attention was not necessarily a bad thing.

In America, religious beliefs and institutions restrained self-assertion in ways that simulated the effects of virtue and made the exercise of freedom more stable [and] more effective. He even went so far as to say that for Americans, religion was the first of their political institutions, indispensable for the maintenance of republican government. What Tocqueville was describing, in fact, is a distinctly American version of secularism, a secularism in which, still, religion is the first of American political institutions-a paradox. It points in the direction of a useful distinction, which I made briefly at the outset, and [which] I’ll [make in] a little more detail here, between two broadly different ways of understanding the concept of secularism, only one of which is hostile or even necessarily suspicious of the public expression of religion

On the one hand [is] as a way of understanding the secular idea as an opponent of established belief, including a non-religious established belief. This is something like the political secularism I was talking about at the outset. It also protects the rights of free exercise and free association. I think the latter of those [two] is very important because free exercise can be an entirely individual right, but [with] religion being a social institution, freedom of association is necessary for that exercise to be complete.

On the other hand, the second understanding of secularism understands the secular ideal as a proponent of established unbelief, and as a protector of strictly individual expressive rights, a category that includes the rights of religious expression. So the right of protecting what might be called the corporate liberty of religious associations is not necessarily included in that; religion is an entirely private and individual matter in which one should have maximum freedom as long as, you know, one doesn’t scare the horses or otherwise disturb the public peace. It’s an individual matter. So this second kind of secularism is closer to what I called at the beginning philosophical secularism.

The first of these is a fairly minimal, even negative, understanding of secularism in the same way that Isaiah Berlin talks about negative liberty. It’s a freedom from imposition by any kind of establishment on one’s freedom of conscience. For it, the idiom of secularism is a kind of lingua franca, which serves to facilitate commerce and communication among different kinds of belief but that doesn’t make any claims for the absolute character of reality; [it] doesn’t claim to be an Esperanto that has taken all the messy languages of the historic faiths and translated them to [a] pure and solid gold one. Secularism in this view is a more provisional thing. It’s an account of the rules of engagement rather than the content or results of the engagement itself, and it’s compatible with very strong religious commitments and very liberal free exercise of religious sentiments.

The second view, what I called the philosophical view or the positive view, is much more assertive, more robust, more positive by affirming secularism as an ultimate and alternative faith that rightly supersedes the tragic blindnesses and, as [Christopher] Hitchens would have it, [the] “poisons” of the historical religions, particularly so far as activity in the public realm is concerned

The first of these secularisms-the limited one, the political one, the negative one, whatever term you want to use-resembles the language of the First Amendment and the practice of the First Amendment as it’s evolved over much of American history, although Supreme Court decisions [have gone] back and forth on different aspects of it. It looks toward a non-established secular political order, one that’s equally respectful of religionists and non-religionists alike. Such an order preserves a core insistence on the freedom of the uncoerced individual, that fundamental Protestant principle, but it also has a more liberal, more capacious understanding of the religious needs of humanity, and therefore doesn’t presume that the religious impulse is merely an individual matter; or as one Supreme Court decision put it, something that we tell ourselves about the mystery of human life.

On the contrary, it would insist that religion is a social institution for whose flourishing the rights of free association are necessary. It insists that pluralism, rightly understood-pluralism having to do with the corporate liberty of groups-is a necessary concomitant of liberalism because we are social creatures, because our social existence is a prior condition of everything else that we value.

This American understanding of secularism is different from the strict läicité of the French and the Turks, and one should admit it is not perfectly observed by Americans themselves. It’s a very difficult ideal, I think. There’s a tremendous and understandably human desire to line all our commitments up with one another and to have our philosophical and political and other convictions all in accord. But it may be [required] in the long run, as many political things require us, to renounce the things we would like to put in a line. It may be a far more workable approach to the idea of secularism than the alternative, precisely because it can draw on the moral energies of the historic Western religious traditions at a time when, arguably, the West is badly in need of them, and one need not be a religious believer of any kind to accept that this may be so.

In this connection, I just [have] a few final comments. It’s interesting to [note] that no less of a prominent secular figure than the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas started a dialogue a number of years ago with Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, about some of these issues, driven in Habermas’s case by his concerns about biological engineering and particularly human cloning. Habermas saw [the prospect of human cloning] as an assault on the fundamental dignity of the human person, and he was interested in engaging Ratzinger to see what resources there might be in the Christian intellectual tradition to make sense of these impending phenomena. In a fairly recent interview, about two or three years ago, he said the following-and I warn you in advance that Habermas, [to] those who have read him, makes John Dewey look like Mickey Spillane by comparison. So [it] is very turgid prose, but it’s important.

This is Habermas translated into English; he’s actually better translated into English than [in] the original German:

“For the normative self understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than a precursor or catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life in emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy. These are the direct legacy”-this is the important sentence-“These are the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love.”

He’s putting more emphasis on ethics than Stephen [Prothero] would like here, but it’s an ethic that derives from a metaphysics. What he’s saying, translated into less opaque English, is that the religious heritage of the West is not easily dispensed with, [at least] not without also endangering the perpetuation of many of the good things that that heritage has helped to give rise to. I’m reminded of a wonderful saying of C.S. Lewis’s, which he used in a different setting, but I think equally applicable here, that it would be like the scent of the rose turning against the rose and attempting to destroy it.

It’s particularly striking, by the way, that issues of bioethics seem to have been what pushed Habermas to reconsider his views in the matter, and that, I think, is indicative of the difficulty-I won’t say the impossibility-that a strictly secular understanding has in addressing effectively the problem of the instrumentalization of human life, which replaces transcendent notions of human dignity with … what? For a long time, the theological melody of the past has lingered on, but [it] might not forever.

Let me say finally-Mike is pressing me to wrap up-one other thing that Stephen [Prothero] has alluded to. This is one final observation about the relationship of religion and secularism in American life, and that is this: that the most successful movements for social reform in American history are likely to have had, at the very least, a respectful relationship to the country’s religious heritage, if not being driven by it. One might cite, not only as Stephen did, the civil-rights movement, certainly the movement for the abolition of slavery, which was an even more religious movement, or women’s suffrage, or even the American Revolution itself are examples of this. The interesting thing in each case is that one can find both religious and secular rationales for change, in which the two sets of justifications were mutually supportive and even mingled to an extent that would be unthinkable in other cultures.

That congruency, that mingling, is a key element in the genius of American politics and of American religion. That’s why Martin Luther King’s finest rhetoric can, with equal plausibility, not only invoke the prophetic books of the Bible, of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, but also the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the words of the founders. And why when Stewart Burns wrote a biography of King, he was not being fanciful in calling [King’s] lifework “a sacred mission to save America.” We enshrine the separation of church and state, but at the same time we practice the mingling of religion and public life. It’s not always logical, but there are times when it makes good sense.

It is not to deny that there aren’t religiously grounded arguments against such admirable changes, notably the case of slavery, [which] has already been mentioned, and is not to deny that sometimes religious and secular arguments for reform [support] bad ideas, like prohibition. Nothing in life is foolproof; one can find secular and religious justifications for that statement. But there are almost no examples in the American past of successful, widely accepted reforms that do not pay their respects to both America’s religious and secular sensibilities. The way I like to put this-and [this is] my final statement-[is] they are required to pass through a bicameral body politic, both religious and secular. Thank you.

DAVID VAN BEIMA, TIME: Hi. Two questions. The first one is that among some evangelical thinkers these days you hear people talking about how to preach the gospel in a post-Christian country, and I think a lot of the premises of that statement probably are at odds with the kind of thought that went into what you were talking about, but at the same time, I’d be really interested to hear your analysis of both the premises and the argument.

The second question is, you’ve talked a lot about the origins of secularism A, but aside from mentioning France briefly at one point, not so much about the American tradition, such as it is, of secularism B, and I’m wondering whether it has a strong enough tradition to speak of.

MCCLAY: The second one’s easier than the first maybe, but what I’d say about the rhetoric of post-Christian America is that, in a sense, it’s not anything new. One of the aspects of being a fundamentally Protestant country-and I don’t mean that in the sense that John McCain was talking about, whatever he meant when he said that-but one of the features of having Protestantism as foundational is that we have this rhythm of revivalism built into the way we do business in religion. There are these periods of decline and then renewal and decline and renewal. The Awakenings are all, however many one credits there as being-four, five even, certainly two, although I guess Jon Butler doesn’t even think there was one.

A certain revivalistic spirit is very much a part of the way we do things. If you look at it in the time leading up to Cane Ridge and the Second Great Awakening, you see all these denunciations of the country as having lost its way and lost the spirit of ’76 and lost the faith of the fathers and the descending into iniquity; and then, boom, comes an awakening. So there’s a bit of an academic patina to some of the arguments you’re talking about, at least the ones I’ve read, where they like to talk about post-modernism and show they’ve been to college. But I don’t think it’s really that different from the path of revivalism as it’s been taken in the past.

VAN BIEMA: What they’re describing is the situation that tended to precede revival?


VAN BIEMA: So that means essentially you’re in agreement with them, that there is some general absence of a religious approach to things?

MCCLAY: Yes, but of course saying “post-Christian” is implying a kind of historical vantage point that they don’t really have. One can’t know for another 200 years or so whether it’s really a post-Christian time, but yes.

CROMARTIE: We’ll be meeting here about that.

MCCLAY: If the waters haven’t risen and swallowed up Florida.

To your second question about secularism B and how deep its roots are in America: not very, I think. Tell me if I’m answering a different question than the one you asked, but the fact that it’s absolutely inconceivable that an openly atheistic candidate could even consider running for the presidency is an indication, I think, of how-there’s a lot of agnosticism and a lot of indifference, but a commitment to secularism as an agenda? There’s very little of that.

It doesn’t seem to me to have deep roots, even if you look at figures like John Dewey. Dewey came out of liberal Protestantism and a lot of American secularism is an etiolated version of liberal Protestantism. Dewey had the notion that something like religion was necessary, so his book A Common Faith in the ’30s was an attempt to provide a religion without religiosity, without supernatural beliefs, just trying to capture the essence of it. Even he wasn’t comfortable with a kind of raw, Jack Webb-form of secularism.

VAN BIEMA: To the extent that secularism B is a mistrust of religion in the public square-is that one way of putting it? That was the sense I was getting from you-does that have antecedents?

MCCLAY: I think a distrust of religion in the public square actually is very widely shared by people who would not describe themselves as secularists at all, and, yes, I think that’s been true for a long time.

MIKE ALLEN, THE POLITICO: Thank you for mentioning your familiarity with the Kennedy speech. There was an ABC news piece that was posted today [dated Dec. 2] that posited that the speech that has become so famous, A, was not the first or only place where Kennedy dealt with that issue, and B, that it really did not defuse the issue for Kennedy. This was something I had never heard. Is there something of an urban myth around the Ministerial Association speech, or do you think it was as it’s been described?

MCCLAY: I wanted to go look at it, as I did a couple months ago when we started hearing people say, “Romney’s got to give a speech like Kennedy gave.” I looked it up, and I don’t know that I’d ever read it before, and I was quite underwhelmed by it. It did seem to me a complete capitulation to just what a separationist Baptist would want to hear. I do have the impression that, from various accounts of Kennedy’s life that I’ve read, that it did defuse the situation, but that may well be an urban myth. I don’t know. Stephen, do you know anything about that?

STEPHEN PROTHERO, BOSTON UNIVERSITY: I do think it is more recent interpretation that that’s what did it for him, but it was touch and go, honestly, up through the election on whether he had done enough with his Catholicism problem or not.

MICHAEL BARONE, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT: The Gallup Poll tells us that Kennedy got 78 percent of the vote [inaudible] the Catholics, and Nixon got 63 percent among white Protestants; which says that the extra 101,000 votes that Kennedy got was the difference, but it was a very close run.

It is my recollection of looking at the polling throughout that campaign that there was very little variation from May onward. Nixon and Kennedy were always between 45 and 50 percent, and the political writers of the day and Teddy White all kept saying, “The tide has shifted because it’s shifted from two points for Nixon to three points for Kennedy,” which, of course, are the same numbers.

You can see sectarian voting all over the country in looking at county data. I won’t go into any more detail.

SHELBY COFFEY, THE NEWSEUM: Those of us who followed the Luce press, in Time and Life, could see exactly how that meeting was interpreted by the establishment, because if you go back and look, the faces of the people in the Baptist congregation were contorted, angry; and Kennedy looked cool as a cucumber. So in the lead opinion, I think it made a difference.

MCCLAY: You’re talking about the [Greater] Houston Ministerial Association, the audience was contorted and-

UNIDENTIFIED: Yes, maybe John will bear-

JOHN DICKERSON, SLATE: Having read some of the clips last night from the 13th of September, it was a lion’s den speech. This young senator just going there-it was an act of boldness; like when he went and spoke to the Texas delegation in the 1960 convention. It had its religious component, to be sure, but it was also an act of political theater that he stood up.

E.J. DIONNE, THE WASHINGTON POST: I just happened to look up-because I have this computer here-Stevenson got 37 percent of the Protestant vote; Kennedy got 38 percent. That suggests Kennedy really did take a hit because Stevenson got absolutely clobbered in 1956, and there’s evidence that Kennedy lost Ohio because of a swing in southern Ohio. I think that’s right, Michael, that he did not defuse it, but he defused it enough and then won his big Catholic landslide. For people who care, if I can plug a friend, Shaun Casey at the Wesley Theological Seminary is completing a book on Catholicism and the 1960 campaign. Apparently he’s found some fresh material. So he might be somebody to talk to. In fact, now that I say it, I think I’m going to call him myself.

CROMARTIE: Dan Harris, are you the one that gave us the ABC news report that Mike Allen just cited?

DAN HARRIS, ABC NEWS: In keeping with Mike’s habit, now, of ripping off ABC news, he also ripped off the question I was going to ask, but-

MCCLAY: So we should give you a hat tip. (Laughter.)

UNIDENTIFIED: Hat tip to ABC News.

HARRIS: We are on 6:30 nightly on the East Coast. (Laughter.)

I would like to hear you elaborate a little bit on your critique of the Kennedy speech, given that you just read it again recently, from the perspective of the separation of church and state, and also as it pertains to Romney, and what you would advise him based on your-

MCCLAY: I’d rather do it in terms of the latter material. I think it was probably exactly what needed to be done at the time. What I said earlier was that it’s striking to me how inadequate it would be now to simply say, particularly for Romney and his situation, “We believe the separation of church and state should be absolute,” as I believe Kennedy says. It’s very strong language about the degree of the separation, and that the religion of the candidate should have nothing to do whatsoever with the view of the electorate of his capacity for office.

CROMARTIE: Or his own personal life.

MCCLAY: Well-(laughter.) That is one difference between now and then. We feel that we have the right to ask candidates whether they wear boxers or briefs, or diamonds or pearls, or whatever. There is an invasion of their personal life that is obviously not entirely a good thing.

But I think what Romney needs to do-and I’m not saying this as somebody who supports him or favors him or anything like that-To do what needs to be done, he will have to go further than that and say something about the content of his faith and why it is congruent with the American civil religion, that is, with this basic residuum of shared commitments and convictions about the meaning of the American experiment.

I don’t think it’s enough for him to say what up to now it seems to me he’s been saying: in effect, “None of your beeswax,” or “We believe in religious liberty. Get off my back.” That may be a good legal strategy, but it’s not a good political strategy. He has to give us a reason why his religion is not only not a liability-or should be bracketed-but why it’s an asset. I think if he does a rerun of the Kennedy speech, it won’t work for him.

HARRIS: Were there hints in the Kennedy speech as it pertains to separation of church and state that you found objectionable? You’ve used this phrase “capitulation” a couple of times.

MCCLAY: No, I’m simply saying that if I had looked at this as a Catholic-[Kennedy] was very proud of the fact, and maybe I should ask E.J. to comment on this-that a Catholic was this far away from winning the presidency and was not concealing his Catholicism, thought not talking a whole lot about it, either. I think I might have been disappointed that he, in essence, said, “I view these matters in the same way that a Southern Baptist would,” Baptists being known for their separationist views, in those days, not so much now. I’m not sure what I would have wanted him to say, but I think I would have wanted him to do more, although I think that John’s point about the mise-en-scène is really important. There’s not a whole lot more you can do in the situation where the lions are all running around you and growling. Just to show up is pretty impressive.

DIONNE: There were splits among the bishops even on Kennedy’s candidacy. There were debates about whether he was going too much in a secular direction. But I think you’re right that most Catholics wanted to let him off the hook and do whatever he had to do to push this issue aside. Clearly, the 80-20 margin he won among Catholics suggests that’s true, which was a huge 30-point gain on Eisenhower. They were willing to let him do whatever was necessary. But I think you’re right that the content of the speech is much more Protestant than it is Catholic.

KATTY KAY, BBC: You said just now that Romney will have to say something about this faith. I guess that’s the big question: What does he have to say about his faith?

MCCLAY: You get into territory here where I’m not sure I could be of much help. But let me approach it this way. The antagonism between Protestants and Catholics is such a powerful theme in American history. I find my students are completely uncomprehending of this, so much has the world changed. But in 19th century American history, it is one of the greatest themes, again and again and again interjecting itself into everything.

How did all of that change? That’s a long story, but I think part of what happened is that the theological differences, while they still exist and are important to some people, became mitigated somewhat because, for various reasons including the second World War, Protestants became convinced that Catholics were no longer-I hate to use this language-but no longer “the other.”

They were not incomprehensibly different: They were regular folks, and they had certain views that Protestants regarded as odd, just as vice versa, but a social comfortableness-and I mean social in a larger sense, not just belonging to a club together or something like that, but a general, cultural comfortableness-in the coexistence of Protestants and Catholics led to the theological differences being bracketable and not really that important anymore.

I think something like this could, conceivably, be done with Mormonism. What would be a very big mistake-as it would have been for Kennedy-is to play up the history of oppression. Certainly Mormons have a story to tell there, too, very much so. With Romney, you do feel there are times-you all follow him more closely than I do- but there are times when you feel a certain anger in him that may reflect some of that sense of having been victimized in the past, of Mormons having been marginalized or otherwise dissed in American life. I think it would be a big mistake for him to go down that road.

CROMARTIE: Let me just interject here, if I could. Anybody here from Boston? How did he do this as governor?

UNIDENTIFIED: In New England, we don’t talk about it. (Laughter.)

UNIDENTIFIED: He totally ignored it.

CROMARTIE: He ignored it, and he’s going to try that here.

UNIDENTIFIED: When he ran against Ted Kennedy, this was something that Joe Kennedy raised as an issue, the Mormonism issue. [Romney] invoked the Kennedy speech in his own defense and did bring up the whole idea of a disenfranchised group that time.

UNIDENTIFIED: He out-Kennedy-ed Kennedy.

MCCLAY: I happened to be living in Massachusetts when he ran against Teddy Kennedy for the Senate, and the Mormon card was played. It wasn’t played [directly]-it was played through operatives, but it was played, and it worked.

UNIDENTIFIED: But Michael, to use a Romney word, it was unbecoming to bring that up in that context.

PROTHERO: It’s the least evangelical part of the country, and New Englanders accept this public-private distinction. And so, they didn’t ask. It was unseemly to worry or to ask about it.

DIONNE: There’s no place that the Kennedy ’60 campaign had a greater effect than Massachusetts, so there’s reluctance, special reluctance, to use religion even though, you’re right, Ted Kennedy did try to use it when he thought he was really in trouble.

UNIDENFIED: (Inaudible, off mike) – he and I both having grown up at the same time in the same place were marked indelibly by that, more by that than by any other factor in our lives.

MCCLAY: I have a relevant comment, and I am looking at Michael Barone because I have a feeling he may have something to say about this. But I know nothing about the extent to which Mormonism came up when George Romney was running for office.

BARONE: George Romney was running seven years after the Houston minister’s speech and after John Kennedy had been generally considered to be, A, a successful and popular president, and, B, one whose religion played no part whatsoever in his public decision making. My recollection, as a resident of Michigan at that time, or a voter there, was that it played almost no role at all. That was when the church had not yet allowed full membership to blacks. That came in the 1970s. That’s what Joe Kennedy brought up against Mitt Romney in Massachusetts in ’94, attacking a church doctrine which, by then, had been repudiated 16 years earlier. So George Romney benefited from that Houston minister’s speech.

DIONNE: I had a student who wrote a brilliant paper on this very subject. He went back and looked at a lot of stuff, and it was not an issue at all. Interestingly, George Romney also refused to use Mormon networks to fundraise. In other words, George Romney was an arch-separationist himself, which probably helped. But it was not an issue at all according to my student’s research, and I have no reason to disbelieve it.

CROMARTIE: Katty is going to be seeing Governor Romney tomorrow. Please tell him we have a lot of people with advice for him.

KAY: I’m going to follow up because you said what Governor Romney shouldn’t say, but you didn’t say what you thought he should say. (Laughter.)

MCCLAY: I’m not sure, but I think he needs to make it clear that there’s nothing in what he believes, and in the Mormon faith as he understands and practices it, that is in any way in conflict with fundamental American commitments and that, in fact, it reinforces them. I think that case could be made. This is one case where I think maybe staying away from the doctrine, staying away from the social separation of Mormons, and concentrating on a fundamental ethos would serve him best.

He definitely needs to stay away from the parts of Mormonism that most people are going to find strange and off-putting, although he can’t be seen as avoiding the subject. It’s a very tricky thing. I don’t think this would be so hard for him if he hadn’t waited so long to do it. He clearly doesn’t want to do it, which makes me think he won’t do it very well, but-

KATHY SLOBOGIN, CNN: I was struck by your description of a successful reconciliation between modernity and religion in America. My understanding of a force that has so changed American politics in the last 30 years-the rise of the religious right, the Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals getting into politics in a big way, which is something of a departure for them, at least in the 20th century-is that that is, in fact, a rejection of the status quo and a rejection of the balance between the sacred and the secular in this country and a reaction against the fact that religion has been pushed so much to the periphery of the public square. I’m wondering whether your more sanguine description of this goes all the way to the present day, or does it stop in 1979 when Jerry Falwell basically declared war on secular America?

MCCLAY: I’d put it a little differently. If we’re talking about a reconciliation of religion and modernity, in some ways, nobody has done it better than the mega-church building, media-savvy evangelicals-they are not rejecting modernity, per se. They are, in fact, assuming that you can take certain features of modernity and put them to work for the sake of traditional core values that they see as being fundamental. We’re not looking at people who think we need to foreswear all modern conveniences and live like Amish or Luddites.

SLOBOGIN: I’m talking about people who think it’s a Christian nation, that there should be prayer in the schools, that there should be more religion in the public square than there was before 1979.

CROMARTIE: But there was prayer in the schools.

MCCLAY: It would help me if I knew who you were thinking of. I have trouble with this kind of discussion because I’m not always sure who we’re talking about.

SLOBOGIN: It’s just that the rise of the religious right is often described by people who follow these things as a reaction against secularism, against the degree to which America had become a secular country. So maybe I didn’t put it very well.

MCCLAY: Again, it depends on what you mean by secular. If you mean this sort of secularism that views religion, as Christopher Hitchens would say, as a poison, as something that needs to be if not stamped out, at least relegated to strictly private status that has no bearing on public life-Antagonism is not only characteristic of the religious right. I think you see [it] in issues arising out of the Christmas celebrations and that sort of thing. These are widely resented by many Americans who otherwise would not be seen as members of the religious right.

There is an overweening quality to the legal strategies designed to denude the public square of all religious symbols. Where I think a lot of people would draw the line-certainly, where I would draw the line-is over the difference between-There’s a crucial difference between, let’s say, what Roy Moore was trying to do in Alabama, having the 10 Commandments erected at the courthouse there, and removing religious symbols from places where they already have a historical place.

These seem to be quite different actions, and the more militant elements of the religious right that you’re talking about might favor what Moore was doing. But those were not things that had wide popularity, even among people who would see themselves as antagonistic to secularism in the strict sense.

CROMARTIE: In fact, Richard Land was a critic of Moore’s.

JACQUI SALMON, THE WASHINGTON POST: I wanted to know what you would make of this revivalism in atheism of Stephen’s friend, Christopher Hitchens, and his ilk.

UNIDENTIFIED: All of our friend. (Laughter.)

SALMON: We know that doesn’t mean Americans are converting from devout religious faith to atheism, but they are certainly a lot more outspoken. Does this have any parallel in U.S. history in other areas?

MCCLAY: I’m not sure there is a parallel, although I’m also not sure that it’s really as significant a phenomenon as it seems to those of us who read books and follow the New York Times Book Review. In thinking not so much about the books, but the debates that are held all over the country, the fascinating thing about those, and forgive me to those of you who were sitting with me at lunch since I already said this, is that these are almost always being sponsored by Christian organizations. They are very interested in this kind of thing. They are very interested in engaging in debates.

SALMON: They are very well-attended.

CROMARTIE: Jackie wrote about it for The Washington Post; in fact, she wrote a very balanced, excellent piece in the Post “Style” section.

MCCLAY: Undoubtedly, my view of this has been shaped by reading you, so I’m just feeding it back to you. No, I think this is a sign that, in fact, there’s a certain intellectual self confidence among some Christians. They’re not afraid to subject themselves to a withering examination of their faith, which I think is very good. One of the things I’ve always said is that if Christians want to have a voice in the public square, they have to be willing to take it as well as dish it out. So for people like Hitchens and Dawkins to be very rough in the things they say is quite appropriate because that’s what it means to be in the public square. It shouldn’t be, “Oh, we don’t want to insult people of faith because they have deep convictions.” No, if you want to be in the public square, you have to be willing to be criticized.

So I see it as all positive; I think the books are positive. There’s a certain annoyance that people who are of various degree of hardness in their secularism have been feeling for a number of years, and these books have given expression to that. It’s very gratifying and therapeutic-“Religion is a poison, damn it!”-to have that view out there in an unapologetic way, but there’s not a depth to, at least to Hitchens’ views on the subject. I agree with Stephen that I don’t think he knows a whole lot about what he’s talking about. But he’s not really interested in exploring what he’s talking about.

CROMARTIE: Ross debated him in Nantucket, and he has wonderful stories to tell us about that, right?


MCCLAY: I think it’s actually a very healthy thing. One of the unhealthy things about our religious culture is its evasiveness, the degree to which so many Americans think that religious questions can essentially be put off to another time: “Do I really have to decide about this now? It doesn’t really matter very much to me.” There is a view that these questions are non-essential. I think that’s absolutely wrong. It both demeans religion and irreligion. At least atheists are people who have made a decision; they’ve taken the question seriously. I think this is why Christians really like them and prefer them to these “oh, whatever,” veil-of-fog types, which is actually what most Americans are, I’m afraid. I think it’s very healthy to have strong voices that take the question seriously out there.

BARONE: I’ll start off with a note on the Kennedys. An argument Kennedy could have made, but wisely chose not to is, “Look, our family bought the Catholic church.” (Laughter.) “They don’t run us; we run them.” Joseph P. Kennedy was perhaps the richest Catholic in the world and let the church know it. He used to bring his girlfriends to dinner with Cardinal Cushing to show who was the top dog in the relationship. (Laughter.)

MCCLAY: As I recall, there is a line in the speech where he says something to the effect that, “I’ll be the sort of the president that no prelate will tell him what to do,” so that gives it added irony.

BARONE: But I wanted to change the subject here and raise a question with you, which perhaps will show my ignorance as I did this morning. You say most reform impulses paid respect to religion. It seems to me that the progressive reformers of the early 20th century-Herbert Croly, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson-

MCCLAY: “We stand at Armageddon. We battle for the Lord.” That’s from the 1912 convention.

BARONE: That’s the 1912 convention. But a lot of the impulse of putting experts in charge of things and taking things out of the hands of-in effect, they moved voter turnout down to expert commissions. You can certainly find examples beyond the Armageddon speech of some respect toward religion. There was a Catholic left-wing tradition that was arguably part of this and sparked, I guess, by the Rerum Novarum of the 1890s and other things.

You mentioned John Dewey paying a certain obeisance to religion, but it seems to me that if we want to put reform movements on a spectrum from heavily influenced by religion to very lightly influenced by religion, that would be the one I would see as on the secular end of that spectrum.

MCCLAY: I think there were certainly progressives who were more or less religious in character, although even Croly-his father was a Comptean, and he was brought up in the religion of humanity-ends The Promise of American Life, a great, foundational, liberal tract, with the invocation of Saint Francis. (Chuckles.) There’s definitely an effort to capitalize-Throughout the book, there are religious allusions he used as ways of thinking about the subject, but also as ways of appealing to people whose sensibilities were shaped by Christian tropes and metaphors.

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