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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Religion and American Public Life: The Calling of a Public Intellectual

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

On April 14, William P. Leahy, S.J., Boston College university president, praised the work of Alan Wolfe and the Boisi Center since its founding in 1999. Leahy said that the Boisi Center has added to the intellectual discourse at Boston College by taking up major issues of the day and inviting people into dialogue about them. 

Later in the day, the Boisi Center’s patron and benefactor Geoffrey T. Boisi also praised Wolfe during the reception in honor of Wolfe’s retirement. Boisi said the Boisi Center was founded for a rigorous examination of the most difficult issues of the day and he expressed his gratitude to Wolfe for his leadership of the Center. He said that Wolfe had caused Boston College to be richer intellectually, spiritually and ethically, as well as enhancing the academic reputation of the school. Boisi expressed his gratitude to Wolfe for the honor he had given the Boisi family name. 

The keynote conversation of the conference on the Calling of a Public Intellectual was held between Wolfe and Howard Gardner, the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Gardner asked Wolfe how he might explain his profession to a 10 year-old child. Wolfe answered that he would tell the child that he works with ideas, and that he finds this work important because ideas are in a precarious position today. He argued that much of Western Europe and the U.S. have become fearful, in particular of the stranger and especially of refugees coming from the Middle East. Wolfe said that we must know the difference between slogans and ideas – this is what education teaches. 

Gardner and Wolfe also discussed their intellectual influences. Wolfe pointed to Isaiah Berlin, who he said taught a healthy suspicion of a singular and exclusive view of the good life. Robert Nisbet’s work, particularly his belief that sociology is an art form, also influenced him. 

Wolfe and Gardner also talked about the things they have always had great interest in, but never written about. Both said they have a great love for music, but hadn’t explored it in writing. Wolfe did point out that his latest book, At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews, was the first book he has written on the topic of Judaism and the Jewish people. Wolfe joked that he now realized “the Jewish book” was a stage in the life cycle of secular Jewish intellectuals. 

Gardner asked Wolfe about his ability to change his mind throughout his career, and noted that this was rare among intellectuals, especially in the public eye. Wolfe said he took pride in this ability to change his mind. He also discussed his move from the political left to the center over the course of his career. While he is no longer on the far left of American politics, he still believes strongly that economic inequality in the U.S. is the greatest moral problem of our era. Wolfe said that despite his firm convictions, he never wishes to become an ideologue incapable of changing his views. 

The conference’s first panel grappled with Return of the Study of Religion in Law and Political Science. Susan Meld Shell, chair of political science at Boston College, moderated the session. 

Richard J. Mouw, the Emeritus President and Professor of Faith and Public Life at Fuller Theological Seminary, pointed out that religion was largely absent from the scholarly conversation for many years, but while religions create many problems in the world, they also have rich resources to offer. 

Ira Katznelson, the Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History at Columbia University, underscored the profound importance of toleration, both conceptually and in terms of institutional practices. 

Sanford Levinson, the W. St. John Garwood and W. St. John Garwood, Jr. Centennial Chair in Law and professor of government at the University of Texas Law School at Austin, wondered whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act had gone to far. While intended to protect marginal groups, religious claims are now taking priority over public law. Whose concerns should be protected? 

In response, Katznelson affirmed that while the secular state should protect religious exercise, religious people must respect the laws produced by a democratic polity society into which they enter. Continuing in this vein, Mouw spoke about the particular concerns and debates within America’s evangelical community over some of the major changes in social policy over the last decade. 

During the question and answer time, the speakers discussed the religious make up of the Supreme Court, noting that it does not match the demographics of the American public. Levinson argued that diversity brings perspective to institutions like the Supreme Court, but cautioned against religion influencing the justices in their legal rulings. 

Boston College professor of economics, Joseph Quinn, moderated the second panel of the conference, Public Scholarship Today

The Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, Randall Kennedy, spoke about the three characteristics of public scholars that he most admires. They possess versatility, interdisciplinarity and independence. Kennedy appreciates intellectuals whose works are accessible to a broad array of people and praised the intellectuals who are willing to interact with scholars in fields that are distinct from their own. Kennedy commended public intellectuals who are independent and are willing to break from their tribe. 

Independent scholar Susan Jacoby, author of numerous books including Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion, reaffirmed the points raised by Kennedy. In addition to studying topics beyond his or her field, the public intellectual should study topics that run directly against it according to Jacoby. 

William A. Galston, Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in Governance Studies and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, discussed the underlying difference between a public intellectual and a traditional scholar. The public intellectual does not conduct research for the sake of his or her discipline, but rather for society as a whole. 

At the reception following the conference, Erik Owens, associate director of the Boisi Center, announced the annual Wolfe Lecture to honor Wolfe’s work. Geoffrey T. Boisi also spoke about Wolfe’s career and heralded the work of Chancellor and former University President J. Donald Monan, S.J., in establishing Boston College as a leading institution of intellectual thought in the U.S. 

Wolfe thanked those whom he worked alongside and those who had directed him along the way.