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Keynote Speaker asks ‘Who’s Afraid of American Religion?’

Alan WolfeMessiah College’s sixth annual Humanities Symposium held Feb. 23-27 explored the concept of Faith in the Public Square, drawing members of the college and the community into dialogue with one another regarding such topics as the loss of faith in capital markets, the relationship between faith and social justice, and social networking’s role in building organization/public relationships. Hosted by faculty and student panels, sessions throughout the week allowed for vibrant discussion on these and other topics.

The keynote address of this year’s Symposium sought to answer the question “Who’s Afraid of American Religion?” Dr. Alan Wolfe, Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and Professor of Political Science at Boston College, presented the keynote speech in Brubaker Auditorium Feb. 26, answering the title question within the first five minutes by saying, “A lot of people.” Unpacking this statement, he said that the outspokenness of the religious right has created a similarly ardent reaction from the nonreligious sector. This reaction frequently manifests itself as fear of a looming theocracy in the United States, said Wolfe. What scares the nonreligious public, he said, is “not only religion, but religion linked to politics.”

Although Wolfe mentioned several reasons why Americans might be afraid of an American theocracy, he spent the majority of his time outlining three main arguments against such fears. First, he called attention to the “tradition of church and state [that] is so firmly ingrained in our culture…because it protects religion against government in the same way that it protects government from religion.” Because this symbiotic relationship still thrives in our society, it offers a safeguard against the possibility of religion seeping dangerously into the political realm, he said.

Secondly, Wolfe discussed the religious pluralism in the United States, a diversity that would not allow any one religious group to successfully monopolize governmental rule. Wolfe said, “We’re so diverse that we don’t even know what to call ourselves.”

Wolfe highlighted the transformation of American religion, saying that “We are the most religious country in the world, but the least theological.” Religion is practiced in vague, but non-confrontational ways in our society, he said. Because of this, Wolfe said the United States is in little danger of becoming dominated by one religious group. “How are we going to establish a theocracy in the United States when everyone wants to be so nice?” asked Wolfe, causing a chuckle throughout the audience.

In a spirit of confidence in the United States and its people, Wolfe closed his address saying, “I trust the traditions of American life and culture to say that we don’t need to be afraid of American religion.”

Five Messiah students had the privilege of dialoguing with Dr. Wolfe at a breakfast the morning following his keynote address and, in a talk-back session that afternoon, moderator Norman J. Wilson, Ph.D., Professor of European history and history department chair at Messiah College, led a panel of educators and students in a candid and reflective discussion about the keynote address. One sentiment echoed by several participants at the talk-back session was a desire to observe some real life examples of how faith and politics are being modeled in a “prophetic rather than partisan” way.

Brittany Lodge ’09 is an English major at Messiah College. She is the president of Messiah’s chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honor Society. She is also a member of Beyond the Lake, a student writing group and is currently completing a Senior Honors Project of six literary nonfiction essays.

To Learn More:

School of the Humanities

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

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