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Sandel Discusses Religion in Public Life

By Pooja Podugu, Crimson Staff Writer

Government professor Michael J. Sandel and University of Chicago professor Jean Bethke Elshtain discussed the role of religion in public life on Tuesday in front of a crowd of more than 500 students and community members in Sanders Theater.

Moderated by Christopher D. Hampson ‘09, the forum gave the professors 15 minutes each to speak about their own opinions on the topic. The talk was followed by a question and answer session between the panelists and then with the audience.

The event was sponsored by The Veritas Forum, a national Christian group “dedicated to the exploration of big questions.” The organization has the mantra that “big questions are best explored together,” according to Terrance Moore ’14 in opening remarks.

“This is an opportunity to take our differences seriously in light of the hardest questions,” Moore said. “Our hope is that everyone will be challenged on both intellectual and spiritual grounds.”

Both Elshtain and Sandel agreed on the importance of incorporating religious beliefs in academic and every-day discourse.

Elshtain, who said she had been criticized for using too many religious references in her work, said it was impossible to separate her public or professional identity from her faith.

“It turns out that what I thought I had rejected had lived on and rose forth in manifold ways,” she said.

Elshtain added that without incorporating religious lessons in all realms of life, “We become more stupid and lose contact with forces that for better or worse made us who we are as persons.”

Sandel agreed with most of Elshtain’s assertions. Like Elshtain, Sandel also disputed the notion that moral and religious convictions should be kept separate from public discourse.

“This view is a mistake,” Sandel said. “It is a mistake for two reasons. First because it’s not always possible to bracket or set aside these views. And second, even in those aspects of public life where we could bracket, doing so would cut ourselves off...from a range of considerations that often matter in the way we govern our lives together.”

Sandel added that incorporating religious views in public discourse would make for a higher level of discourse and a better kind of democratic citizenship.

Brian R. Gifford ’13 said that he agreed with Sandel and Elshtain.

“I’m a Christian, and I’m hoping to do some missionary work abroad next year,” Gifford said. “I found myself in agreement that there needs to be a space to talk to each other about what we believe and even try to persuade each other because that will only help us find truth.”

J. C. Lewis, a local journalist, echoed Gifford’s sentiment.

“Religion informs so much of the history of our consciousness,” he said. “The idea that you could banish it simply makes no sense.”

—Staff writer Pooja Podugu can be reached at podugu@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter @PoojaPodugu.

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification:

CLARIFICATION: March 11, 2013

An earlier version of this article stated that University of Chicago professor Jean Bethke Elshtain was a visiting professor. While Elshtain was visiting Harvard, she was not there as a visiting professor.

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