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Oct. 19, 2006 • Volume 15 Number 4

Faith in the System

Alan Wolfe tackles that volatile mix, religion and politics

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

"Heights of Excellence" profiles faculty members who, through their exemplary teaching and research, contribute to the intellectual and spiritual life of Boston College

The picture window looks out on a clear, cool early autumn afternoon, but here in the seminar room at 24 Quincy Road the attention of a dozen Boston College undergraduates is firmly fixed on Prof. Alan Wolfe (Political Science).

Wolfe, seated at the head of a lozenge-shaped table festooned with several pale pastel-colored candles and a matching cloth, is making a point about the shifting trends in American politics.

Look at Evangelical Protestants, he says: Once a force in 19th-century American politics - as symbolized by their long-time champion, William Jennings Bryan - by the late 1920s, they were on the fringes of the American political landscape, with no role in either major party.

But in just five decades, Wolfe continues, the Evangelicals would reappear and at century's end occupy a central place in American politics.

So, Wolfe asks, who is today's equivalent of a 1920s Evangelical Protestant - politically marginalized, seemingly out of synch with current social trends? "Probably a Massachusetts college professor," he answers with a smile, as the students chuckle. "I mean, think about it: I live in the Northeast, and nobody wants to live in the Northeast. I like living in cities, and nobody likes living in cities. I listen to classical music, and nobody likes classical music."

It's a pithy, trenchant bit of analysis, but if you're a Massachusetts college professor named Alan Wolfe things are actually pretty good. You're the director of the internationally recognized Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, and you're a widely read and quoted public intellectual whose new book has some rather provocative observations about American democracy.

Still, the proving ground for Wolfe is this seminar room at the Boisi Center, where every Monday he leads his Politics and Religion class. Call him a media star if you will, but for college professor Wolfe the task at hand is to help these 12 undergraduates to better understand the complex interplay of religion and politics in America. It may not seem as alluring or high profile as penning an op-ed for The New York Times, but colleagues and students alike say Wolfe approaches the task with care, devotion and zeal.

"Alan's deeply committed to teaching, and he makes no effort to underplay his responsibility in that regard," says Prof. Marc Landy (Political Science). "He is terrific in all the aspects of teaching, including those that are not especially glamorous.

"He's not a slave driver, but he presses students to think things through, because he expects them to have opinions. He doesn't let them off the hook."

Wolfe, in his eighth year as a BC faculty member, has taught on the college level for the better part of three decades. He nods at the much-reported characteristics ascribed to this generation of college students - they don't read newspapers, they have limited attention, they lack a strong historical perspective - but doesn't feel as if his job is tougher than in past years.

"The students I see are, for the most part, political science majors, and they follow the news, are well-informed, and quite intelligent. I think, perhaps, high schools are generally not doing as well in teaching history, so perhaps students are not coming in with that solid a background.

"But there's no problem at all about their enthusiasm, their participation and their desire to learn."

Count senior Clare Murphy as among the enthusiastic. The Politics and Religion seminar, she says, "sets up the background and reasoning behind the role that religion plays in the ethical and moral decisions that American citizens make every day of their lives. Look at some of the major issues we've seen of late, from stem cell research to the Terry Schiavo controversy to the debate about America's foreign policy - religion has become an increasingly influential factor in American politics."

Teaching, of course, is only one aspect of Wolfe's life at BC. The center he directs - created in 1999 with an endowment from Geoffrey T. Boisi '69 and his wife Rene (Isacco) Boisi '69 - brings outstanding scholars, writers, journalists, policy makers and other experts to campus to speak on just about every hot-button issue involving religion and politics: school choice, faith-based social initiatives, intelligent design and, most recently, the debate about religious phrases in the Pledge of Allegiance and American currency. In 2002, only days after the first anniversary of 9/11, the center hosted a seminar, "Religion in Contemporary America: Church, State and Society," for scholars from Muslim-majority countries, including Pakistan, Jordan, Nigeria and the Palestinian Authority in Israel's West Bank.

Wolfe leading a class. "He's deeply committed to teaching, and he makes no effort to underplay his responsibility in that regard," says a colleague. (Photos by Lee Pellegrini)

Wolfe also has kept up his steady regimen of writing throughout his BC career, publishing not only critically acclaimed books - the latest is Does American Democracy Still Work? - but a regular slew of op-eds, reviews and commentary in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Chronicle of Higher Education, Harper's, Atlantic Monthly and The New Republic, among others.

But Wolfe - who also directs the American Political Science Association Task Force on Religion and American Democracy - doesn't seem to regard his workload as particularly onerous or even significant: "I'm a writer," he says simply. "I write."

Well, something a little more than that, says Atlantic Monthly Editor Cullen Murphy.

"Most scholars don't have a feel for how to write for an audience of ordinary, well-educated people," explains Murphy. "Alan can do that while not letting go of the special expertise that makes him a scholar. So he becomes one of those mediating influences, the person in the room who can talk to everyone else but also enjoys intellectual heft in his own right."

For Wolfe, then, BC has been a perfect fit.

"The kind of issues I'm concerned with resonate with the Jesuit, Catholic tradition," he says. "Furthermore, a lot of programs in political science don't ask the big questions in the way we do here, with a focus on faith, philosophy and the human condition. I think it's a case where my interests, and the things I wanted to explore, dovetailed with BC's mission."

Cullen Murphy agrees: "The subjects close to his heart, concerning values in American life and their intersection with the great political issues roiling the nation, straddle both the 'real world' and the life of the mind - not a place where you find most scholars. People who wonder what has happened to public intellectuals in America simply don't know Alan."

Still, it would seem an unlikely scenario: Someone from a non-observant Jewish background, who didn't take an interest in religion until well into his adulthood, working at a university with an avowed devotion to its Jesuit, Catholic heritage and mission - and he's one of America's leading authorities on religion in public life.

Wolfe came of age in 1950s Philadelphia, an era in which the city's Big Five college basketball teams arguably were more interesting than its professional sports franchises, and a locally produced TV show began sweeping teens onto the dance floor across the country - "American Bandstand." ("I got to dance on the show once," recalls Wolfe, "but it was only once. They were more plugged into the Catholic schools than the public schools.")

"The biggest thing about Philadelphia for me was that it wasn't New York City, and to be Jewish growing up in a place other than New York just made me feel different," he says. "Philly wasn't the same kind of city, but it was big enough to, for example, have its own orchestra - with Eugene Ormandy and Leopold Stokowski - which was where I picked up a great love of classical music.

"My father was in the construction business, and in those years Philly construction was dominated by Grace Kelly's father, John, so I learned a lot about ethnicity and its role in civic life."

His parents were both children of immigrants - his mother's family from Hungary, his father's from Ukraine - and, as Wolfe explains, of that next-generation which tends to be less observant of their ancestral land's customs and traditions. So, although he was raised with a Jewish cultural identity, Wolfe says, religion was not a part of his upbringing.

Religion was not part of his adulthood, either, until the Jimmy Carter administration in the mid to late 1970s, when the aforementioned Evangelical Protestants first began to reappear in American politics - emboldened, in part, by the conservative backlash against 1960s liberalism, then galvanized by Roe vs. Wade. Fascinated by the trend, Wolfe began making up for lost time and, helped to a great extent by Lilly Foundation-sponsored seminars, began learning all he could about religion and its place within American society.

"I don't think it took anyone with great intelligence to see this would become an important thing," says Wolfe, "and it has."

Years later, the Evangelicals are, to a great extent, still fueling Wolfe's interest, as reflected in Does American Democracy Still Work? As Wolfe sees it, Evangelicals and other Christian conservatives have been a major reason why religion and morality have replaced political and economic self-interest as guiding principles for American democracy, in the process fomenting a new brand of populism he finds troubling.

Add to this a public that is by turns indifferent to, ignorant of, and isolated from, the country's political process - where accountability and bipartisanship are increasingly rare commodities - and you've got a democracy in trouble, says Wolfe.

"This is not a call to sweep out the Republicans and vote in the Democrats, because - much as I might like to wish otherwise - it won't improve the quality of our democratic life," he says. "Would it help if Congress addressed its notorious lobbying problem, or got serious about campaign finance reform, or stood up to the executive branch? Sure, but again, that won't fix everything.

"What has to happen is, Americans need to take a greater interest in the way their democracy is supposed to work: Pay attention to the way elections take place, the way laws are passed and, most of all, how their expectations are shaped. American democracy is something to be proud of, because it's inspired people throughout the world as well as in our own country; now we need to make it work again."

Perhaps the young men and women Wolfe sees each week at his seminar will help to enact that change. But Wolfe is not about to get on a metaphorical soapbox and urge them to the streets: He'll offer some history, perhaps a little personal perspective, and nudge the students to provide their own. On this particular afternoon, the discussion for a time focuses on religious movements and 18th to 19th-century America ("How do we reconcile evangelicalism and its pessimism - especially Calvinism - with America's penchant for optimism?" Wolfe asks), and leaders and activists such as Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley.

Eventually, the time-line shifts to the present, and the future. Wolfe notes the recent death of former Massachusetts Governor Edward King '48, a Catholic Democrat, and the Kerry Healey-Deval Patrick gubernatorial race - "An Episcopalian Republican versus a Protestant Democrat" - as heralding a new era in Bay State politics.

Wolfe turns to the national election campaign, and the X factor that may shape this and future political seasons: Has the Evangelical-Christian conservative movement peaked? Wolfe says he, and a few other observers, think it may have - not so much due to controversy or gaffe, but, ironically, a generation gap of sorts.

"The question is, are these young white Evangelicals as conservative as their parents?" says Wolfe, noting that the student newspaper at Baylor - an institution with a socially and religiously conservative lineage - recently endorsed the concept of gay marriage. "Let's look at it this way: What does it mean to be 'born again'? It means you had a moment in which you broke from your family's religious tradition. So what if you're a child of someone who's born again - do you have a similar moment?"

In addition, Wolfe says, it's hard to believe that the sociopolitical common ground some Catholics and Protestants might have found during this recent "Era of the Evangelicals" will hold indefinitely. "If so, what will religion mean then? Maybe people will go back to separating religion from politics."

Yet Wolfe is quick to emphasize the fallibility of pundits, he included, when it comes to predicting the future of political movements.

"I remember, sometime in the late 1960s, writing that 'liberalism is the future of this country,'" he tells the students. "It certainly looked that way: There had been JFK, although he sadly left too soon, and then LBJ and the Civil Rights Act. If you were a liberal, you thought 'We're here, this is it.' But then in about five years, everything's changed, and you were on the outside looking in.

"It's easy to get caught up in the moment, and to overlook what afterwards seems obvious," he says, a smile forming. "I guess that's why I'm never short of material to write about."

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