Enlightening Exchange

In This Debate, The Audience Won

Many of you have seen me on CNN, MSNBC and the Fox News Channel, hashing out some contentious church-state issue with an opponent from the Religious Right.

I concede this format isn’t always the best one for educating the public. The segments tend to be short – four minutes is considered a long time on cable news shows. There tends to be a lot of shouting and interrupting. Sometimes there are three guests, and I have to jockey to get a word in edgewise.

­Thankfully, there are other forums out there, events that allow for a fuller treatment of important issues like the role of religion in politics, the “faith-based” initiative, religion in public schools and the other concerns Americans United deals with daily.

I’m often asked to take part in debates, for example. Some of you may be thinking of the type of formal debates you might have experienced in high school or college or are conjuring up some type of long-winded exhibition from the 19th Century featuring two gentlemen in frock coats and long beards droning on about some esoteric point.

It’s not like that any more. Today’s debates tend to be much more streamlined and lively. They allow for audience participation and foster an exciting exchange of ideas. They showcase a forum that, while not as raucous as Fox News, keeps the issue moving right along.

There’s a potential to actually educate people in a forum like this – especially since many of these events are sponsored by colleges.

On March 6, I took part in a debate at a historic hotel in Richmond, Va., that was sponsored by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. I joined Jacques Berlinerblau, associate professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, to debate the assertion, “Religion should have no place in politics or government.” Our opponents were Charles W. Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, and Bishop Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md.

Obviously the statement that kicked off our debate is a little stark. The organizers deliberately picked something provocative to spur interest and get attendees excited about the discussion. It worked. I’ve rarely seen an audience so engaged.

I began by making it clear that government without religion does not mean government without values. Values can be derived from many sources, religious and otherwise. Religion’s influence on secular governance must end at the point where it conflicts with constitutional imperatives.

Colson and Jackson argued that religion informs many people’s sense of social justice. They believe this sincerely, and I did not dispute it. But I pointed out that a passion for social justice can be found among the non-religious as well.

“This is not a question about who is more in favor of justice,” I said. “[B]ut the assertion that you seem to be making is that somehow, unless we really gird ourselves with a religious world view, we cannot make decisions about justice. I think that’s wrong.”

At one point, Prof. Berlinerblau flew into an exchange with Bishop Jackson about what ought to be the source of our laws. Of course, Berlinerblau and I argued that laws must ultimately have a secular source. This seemed to offend Jackson and Colson. Berlinerblau handled things beautifully when he asked Jackson, “Why should a Muslim-American, why should a Jewish – let me make it even more difficult – why should a Catholic-American, and Catholics don’t live by scripture alone…as do Protestants, why should a Catholic-American live by an evangelical interpretation of scripture?”

Why indeed? With this thrust, Berlinerblau got to the heart of the debate. It’s a point I often make in speeches and try to make on the cable news shows as well. Time and again, I hear Religious Right activists demands laws based on the Bible. What they really want are laws based on their interpretation of the Bible – quite a different thing.         These same individuals would never tolerate being forced to live under an interpretation of the Bible they reject, nor would they accept laws based on some other religion’s holy book. It’s better to make sure our laws are based on secular rationales – principles we can all rally around. I’m glad the Supreme Court agrees (at least for now).

A few days after the debate, the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a short item on its editorial page praising the debate. “The format encouraged civility, and produced rhetoric that moved beyond soundbites,” the paper noted. “It created a buzz. Attendees debated the debate as they left the Jefferson Hotel – and continued jawing the next morning.”

That’s just the result I wanted. Naturally, I’d like to believe Berlinerblau and I won the debate, but I know the supporters of Colson and Jackson probably feel differently. No one can dispute, however, that one clear winner emerged that night: the audience.

The debate is airing on some PBS stations this month. Visit www.millercenter.org for a full schedule. You can also watch a video of the debate there or read a transcript. I hope you’ll check it out. I believe it is well worth some of your time.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.