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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Is God-talk a Requirement in American Politics?

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Student Symposium Recap

This year the Boisi Center was pleased to continue its Symposia on Religion and Politics, facilitated by Ph.D. candidate in political science Brenna R. Strauss. Composed of two groups—one for undergraduate and graduate students and one for BC faculty, alumni and staff—the symposia are an opportunity to discuss primary sources at the crossroads of American religion and politics.

This year the theme of both symposia was: Is God-talk a requirement in American politics? Participants discussed speeches from the founding to those of current presidential candidates, including speeches by George Washington, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.
In two sessions over lunch in the fall, students wrestled with the role religious rhetoric may play in promoting civic virtue, and whether the United States can be said to have a civil religion. In the first session of the spring semester, led by STM graduate student Grégoire Catta, students turned more directly to the question of how politicians might reconcile their religious beliefs with their political responsibilities in a democracy. Reading FDR’s “Commonwealth Club Address” and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” speech, students next discussed what role the federal government ought to play in the lives of individuals. In the final session, senior Séamus Coffey asked students about the role of religious rhetoric in the campaigns and to reflect on what is at stake for women in
the contraception debate.

Meeting over the same texts over breakfast, the faculty/ staff/alumni conversation took a different direction. In the first session, Gregory Kalscheur and Annette McDermott contrasted the apparent deism of George Washington with John Adams’ emphasis on the sinful character of human beings and God as the “Redeemer of the World.” In the second session, led by Bill Donovan, the conversation lingered on the meaning of FDR’s reference to the “Christian ideal” in his May 1941 speech “Proclaiming an Unlimited National Emergency.” Syed Khan led the following discussion, in which participants discussed ways in which the Catholic tradition is reflected in the speeches of Mario Cuomo and John F. Kennedy. The group plans to meet at least two more times this spring and summer to discuss federalism and public morality as well as speeches by the 2012 presidential candidates.