Secularists and their opponents sparred over faith and politics in the Marvin Center Continental Ballroom Wednesday night.
The forum, hosted by the GW College Democrats, featured a panel that included a professor, a clergyman, a nontheist, a journalist and a Congressman – all of whom contributed their own ideas on religion’s role in government.
“Belief in a religion relates to the very core of a person’s identity, as does disbelief,” GW professor Derek Malone-France said. “Disagreements over such matters tend to be heated precisely because representing the legitimacy of alternative understandings means recognizing the possibility that one is wrong.”
The religiously diverse panelists disagreed on many key issues. Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition of America, was the only atheist panelist present and said faith and politics should be kept wholly separate.
“Everybody should be free to express their own faith, but we have a secular government and I don’t think somebody in politics should use their position in government to promote religion, to promote one faith over another faith, or to promote religion in general over non-religion,” he said. “I think our government seems to be much closer to a theocracy than I would like to see it.”
Few of the panelists agreed with Silverman including the Rev. Rob Schenck, president and co-founder of Faith and Action, a Christian organization. He argued it is impossible to separate policy from faith.
“The fact is Americans are an overwhelmingly religious and theistic people,” Schenck said. “We’re 90 percent believers of God. Our Declaration of Independence includes a reference to the Creator . so it’s inescapable. We have to talk faith. We have to talk God – that specifically.”
Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), a Christian, agreed that the relationship between faith and politics has historically been a defining factor in American government.
“I don’t think there has ever been a time in American civic life, frankly, when faith has not intersected with politics,” Davis said. “If you go back and you look at political arguments that people have made on both the left and right, those political arguments have often drawn on faith-based inspiration. I cannot imagine that the Civil Rights movement would have evolved if faith-based language had been scrubbed from the movement . (Martin Luther) King’s promise of the country reconciling and coming together, frankly rested upon the idea that faith is a reconciling principle.”
Panelists in favor of allowing faith and politics to be mixed did, however, argue that faith is not always the main influence in an individual’s personal political choices.
“The fact that people carry a strong faith-based component does not mean that they can’t make individualized judgments on issues,” Davis said.
Reverend E. Terri LaVelle, staff Director of the Democratic National Committee Faith in Action Initiative, said there needs to be a balance between faith and politics.
“There needs to be a balance, and there needs to be acceptance of differences, and a realization that America is a diverse country,” LaVelle said. “There are people that have very different faiths that work together, and there are people that don’t proclaim a faith at all and there has to be room for everyone at the table.”
CD Political Affairs Director Michael Ware, who helped organize the event, said the discussion was a “good thing for the community and the College Democrats.”
“My goal was to really get a wide and diverse group of people to sit down and have a civil discussion about faith and politics,” said Wear, a sophomore. “I was very happy with the event because I think it moved the discussion forward. It was nice to get outside the caricatures presented in the media of the Evangelicals and the atheists.”
Andrew Ramonas contributed to this report.