A Writer At The Center Of Attention
Alan Wolfe Explores Ties Between Public Life and Religion in America

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

    Since his arrival last July as founding director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, Prof. Alan Wolfe (Political Science) has churned out article after article for major newspapers and magazines on a broad range of issues facing the American commonweal.

    Wolfe has written for the American Prospect on the complicated relationship between Catholicism and liberalism, and for the Chronicle of Higher Education on the revival of moral inquiry in the social sciences. He penned one of the New Republicís trademark "TRB from Washington" columns, on Jesse Jackson and the Decatur school controversy, and in another issue of the magazine reviewed Garry Willsí recent book on Americansí historic distrust of government.

    He has mulled income inequality in America for the New York Times and the American meritocracy for the Los Angeles Times, and reviewed Bob Woodwardís book on the Watergate legacy for Woodwardís own Washington Post. The week before last, he was on the radio with Christopher Lydon discussing the John McCain phenomenon.

    At a time many academics have confined themselves to narrow specialty niches, Wolfe - a past Pulitzer Prize nominee whose 13th book, Moral Freedom, is due out in 2001 - has claimed the mantle of the public intellectual, writing for a popular audience, he says, "on issues that concern the public in prose that non-specialists can read."

    He envisions a similar role at the forefront of public discourse for his fledgling center, established this past year by a $5 million gift from University Trustee Geoffrey T. Boisi ë69 and his wife, Norine (Rene) Isacco Boisi ë69 in honor of their parents, James O. and Edith M. Boisi and Anthony J. and Norine G. Isacco.

    The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life is the first academic center in the US to be created specifically to address the relationship between religion and public policy.

                                                                                                     Prof. Alan Wolfe (Political Science)
  "It was at the very moment that academics lost interest in religion that the political system was asked to confront a whole range of issues with religious dimensions, such as euthanasia, abortion, capital punishment and income equality, not to mention prayer in the schools and Americaís moral character," Wolfe said. "The mission of the center is to speak to that gap."

    Wolfe said he hopes to host two major conferences at the center next year, one on the religious and moral dimensions of school choice, and the other on the revival of moral inquiry in the social sciences. He also envisions a lecture series featuring invited speakers who "have left a mark on society," such as William Bennett, Mario Cuomo or Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

    College of Arts and Sciences Dean Joseph Quinn welcomed the contribution Wolfe and the new Boisi Center will make to the community of ideas at Boston College.

    "Alan Wolfe is already making an impact on the intellectual life of Boston College," said Quinn. "He is a prolific author of books, learned articles and pieces in the popular press, and is one of the most perceptive social critics in America today. His interest in the role of religion in American public life makes Boston College a perfect home for the Boisi Center. We welcome Alan enthusiastically, and look forward to many years of productive and provocative work."

    Boisi, who along with fellow Trustee Jack Connors and University Chancellor J. Donald Monan, SJ, chairs the $400 million Ever to Excel Campaign for Boston College, offered similar praise,

    "Alan Wolfe is one of the nationís leading public intellectuals, who has brought acclaim to Boston College through his prolific writing and high-profile public debate," said Boisi, who serves as chairman and CEO of The Beacon Group, a New York City-based international investment firm. "When my wife Rene and I made the gift, we wanted to further Boston Collegeís leadership position in the intellectual discourse of some of the most important, yet difficult issues of the day, by bringing balance to the academic analysis and providing a forum for serious thought leaders from around the world to debate the issues. We are pleased to see that Alan Wolfe has already accomplished those objectives."

    Added Rene Boisi, "Geoff and I met as students at Boston College and we have always believed in the importance of giving back to the institution that helped shape us. To us, this gift is a perfect way to perpetuate the Universityís academic excellence as well as its Jesuit, Catholic heritage."

    On his arrival last summer, Wolfe set an ambitious agenda for the new center he would lead at BC. "I see the center as a place where law professors and moral philosophers engage in discussion of issues like euthanasia or cloning," he said, "where social scientists evaluate data on whether attendance at religious schools improves test performance among minority students; where scholars in literature and the arts consider such themes as redemption or the diabolic, and where scientists discuss the moral implications of their discoveries."

    By "engaging big issues with the depth of insight that social science can offer," Wolfe said, the Boisi Center will stand in "a great tradition" reaching back to pioneering sociologists such as Max Weber, author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and Emile Durkheim, author of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, scholars who treated religion prominently in their inquiries.

    In the process, he said, the center will stand counter to postmodernist trends in scholarship which, by viewing human society solely through lenses of economic materialism or race, sex and class, "reduce human beings to people without souls or without minds."

    Wolfe is harsh in his criticism of the reigning orthodoxy in the arts and sciences on American campuses, where he says "í68ers," the former radicals of the 1960s, have formed an academic establishment as entrenched as any they ever protested, one dismissive of intellectual dissent while consciously detached from meaningful dialogue with the greater public.

    "The very people who rebelled against the university are among the most jargon-laden abstract purveyors of esoteric academic prose," he said.

    While acknowledging he is often labeled a conservative, Wolfe said he sees his new center as an agent for "pluralism" in academic debate on the pressing issues of the day. "We talk about diversity in the university, but there is very little intellectual diversity in the university," he said.

    "I just want to do the kind of work that ought to be done, the kind of work that will stand the test of time."

    Wolfe, a Philadelphia native, taught sociology and political science at Boston University for five years. Before that, he served as dean of the graduate faculty in political and social science at the New School for Social Research and taught on the sociology faculty at the City University of New York. His most recent book is the critically-acclaimed One Nation, After All, released in 1998.
 

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