Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Professor Discusses Politics, Religion

Political discourse cannot exclude religion, Jean Elshtain, an ethics professor at the University of Chicago, said Wednesday in a speech in the President’s Room on the third floor of Healy Hall.

As the second speaker in the Georgetown College Jesuit Lecture Series, Elshtain discussed the influence of the 20th-century Jesuit scholar John Courtney Murray, S.J., on the modern understanding of the separation of church and state.

Elshtain explained that Murray called the thinkers that criticize public religious expression “monists.”

Monism is the belief that all substance in the universe is ultimately derived from one fundamental source. Monists view the world as one entity, seeing spirituality as a part of the unified whole.

Williams cited Rousseau’s claim that Christianity divides a people’s loyalty between religion and the state and Hobbes’ assertion that such loyalty should be directed to an earthly sovereignty.

“The drive throughout and in general, according to Murray, is a progression towards the contemporary idolatry of the democratic process,” she said. “Strict separationism in its maximal form would strip public life of religious symbols, signs, markers and speech. I argue that this monistic drive cuts against the grain of much of American political history and culture.”

According to Elshtain, John Locke, a monist, proposed tolerance of all religions except atheism and Catholicism.

“Catholics did not fit within the terms of the tolerance scheme because they were the bearers of that dangerous double loyalty to church as well as politics,” she said.

Yet she argued that there are topics in political discourse that inevitably involve theological questions.

“A whole range of issues – abortion, cloning, now the stem-cell debate – cannot be discussed decently in a civic language that has been altogether stripped of religious understanding,” Elshtain said.

Elshtain used Ron Reagan’s speech in favor of stem-cell research at the Democratic National Convention in July as an example of the attitude that religion is beyond rational discussion.

She said Reagan’s comment that religious views should not affect public policy holds little weight when one changes the issue from stem cell research to slavery, for instance.

“The moral convictions that challenge the harvesting and destruction of human embryos in the quest for stem cells are labeled `theological’ and as such are cast aside,” she said. “Moral claims cannot be relegated entirely to the private sphere.”

Elshtain also said that John Kerry’s comment on stem cells in his DNC acceptance speech – “We need a president who believes in science” – contributes to the notion of “irrational religion standing in the way of progress.”

According to Elshtain, Murray asked the question of what is to be done in response to the monists’ attempt to purge religion from the public sphere.

“We have no alternative but not to be afraid to join the issues,” she said, “not because we wish to defeat or succeed the civic or the legitimate mandate of government, but because that mandate is far too important to deplete itself by gobbling up too much territory.”

Elshtain went on to address the Catholic Church’s barrage of sexual assault scandals in recent years, commenting that the situation has given church-state separationists “the occasion to try to push against the institutional autonomy of the church, which poses a particular danger in the eyes and minds of the strong monists.”

In a short response to Elshtain’s speech, the Rev. Stephen Fields, S.J., associate professor of theology, related Murray to the American Proposition, e pluribus unum, saying that truth is knowable and the basis of democracy.

“The American Proposition is founded on a realist epistemology, crystalized in the notion that truths are self-evident, that they are objective, universal, and accessible to human reason,” he said.

Still the American Proposition is highly tenuous, Fields said, “especially as voices are all too loud in their denial of its major premise, not the least of which come from some of our own students, for whom truth is often just a matter of opinion.”

As a Catholic university, Fields said Georgetown has a “timely relevance” to this discussion on the American Proposition.

“If barbarism is to be combated, realist epistemology must be brought into dialogue. Georgetown is distinctively required to do this,” he said.

Dr. Elshtain was named the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Chair in the Foundations of American Freedom and will begin teaching at Georgetown in fall 2006. She has seven honorary degrees and is the author of over 500 essays and 20 books.

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