Debate About Role of Religion in Public Square

January 27, 2001

Source: The Houston Chronicle

On January 27, 2001, The Houston Chronicle reported that "U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman's bid for the Democratic vice presidency generated a flurry of discussion during the presidential campaign about the role of religion in public life. Lieberman, the first Jew nominated for the vice presidency by a major party, never shied away from speaking publicly about his faith." Melissa Rogers, executive director of the newly launched Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, believes that the debate about Lieberman has sparked a larger discussion on the role of religion in American public life. "A survey conducted last year found that 70 percent of American voters want their political leaders to have strong religious faith, but 50 percent do not want to hear them talk about it. And a Public Agenda survey released Jan. 9 found that 74 percent of Americans believe politicians discuss their personal religious beliefs because it is politically expedient." The Pew Forum, co-chaired by E.J. Dionne Jr., senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Jean Bethke Elshtain, a University of Chicago professor of social and political ethics, are planning to deal with this debate. "By hosting issue summits, publishing survey data and commissioning other research, Rogers and her colleagues hope to establish a platform for a 'wide range of voices' - including those of religious and policy leaders, journalists and academics - to discuss how religion and public life intersect." They hope to address the debate about cloning, issues of reconciliation, cooperation between religious institutions and government in providing social services, and hope the forum will "'encourage the welcoming of religion into the public square because a healthy public square is one in which religion will be welcomed,'" Rogers said. She says that part of understanding the role of religion in the public square is helping people understand what separation of church and state does and does not mean. There is contention as to whether some critics of religion in the public square are inconsistent, criticizing the religious right but not the left. "Research done last year by the forum in collaboration with the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found no indication that Americans objected to the way Lieberman spoke of his faith. It also found that the public views evangelical Christians much more positively now than five years ago. In 1996, 41 percent of voters viewed evangelicals favorably. By last year, that number had jumped to 63 percent."