From the Dean’s Desk

By Harold W. Attridge

In this intense political season religion has been playing a major role in public life. Presidential candidates have been routinely grilled on issues of private and public morality and “God” appears as a warrant for various political positions. This issue of Reflections continues a long tradition at Yale Divinity School of thinking about the relationship between religion and public life, without focusing simply on the intense concerns of the moment.

The starting point of the issue is an address made at YDS in the spring of 2004 by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who discussed the role of religion in contemporary discourse and in her own life. Two colleagues have offered responses. John Hare, the Noah Porter professor of philosophy of religion at YDS, and former staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, suggests one framework for relating religious commitment and political involvement. YDS alum Stanley Hauerwas ‘65, currently the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School, offers a more critical reflection, challenging the Divinity School and the readers of this journal to take a more radical look at the implications of their Christian commitments for issues of war and peace.

In addition to the two responses to Secretary Albright’s address, two other YDS alums offer their perspectives on the topic. William Lacy Swing, ‘60, currently the special representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations in the Congo, is a career diplomat who has represented the U.S. in five different countries: Haiti, Nigeria, Congo, South Africa, and Sierra Leone. His rich experience as a diplomat in difficult situations offers some practical wisdom on the variety of ways in which religion and civil society interact. Ambassador Swing, by the way, is but one of our alumni who has served as a diplomat. The others are James Laney ‘54 (ambassador to Korea), James Joseph ‘63 (U.S. ambassador to the Republic of South Africa), and John Danforth ‘63, now ambassador to the U.N.

Other faculty colleagues contribute to the conversation in various ways. Margaret Farley reflects on the AIDS pandemic in Africa and what faith communities can do to combat it. Wesley Afram, building on his recent publication, Anxious About Empire, discusses the problematic intersection of religion and politics on the global stage. Expressing the hope that the book attepts to get a “word in edgewise,” Avram here provides a sample of an “ecclesially based response to things that are happening in the world today.”

Another perspective comes from Clifton Kirkpatrick ‘68, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church USA, who addresses the question on the basis of his leadership role in a major church body.

Without a doubt, religious faith has shaped and will continue to shape public policy and governmental commitments. Religious bodies need not fear speaking out about fundamental moral issues that concern them. At the same time, people of faith need to be aware of the ways in which religion can be used to bolster the interests of political parties and special interests. To discern prophetic witness from crass exploitation of religious sensibilities requires reflection and dialogue. We hope that this issue, like other recent publications such as Liberty and Power: A Dialogue on Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy in an Unjust World by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, will contribute to that dialogue. We recognize that what we treat here is only part of a larger context, and in subsequent issues of Reflections we whall try to continue the conversation in focused ways.