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New Washington U. center aims to foster polite talk of religion and politics

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct., 26, 2010 - Even if Americans ever achieve the Jeffersonian ideal of separating church and state, that is not the same as keeping apart religion and politics.

That's the view of Jon Meacham, the former editor of Newsweek and inaugural lecturer for the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University. He told an audience at Graham Chapel on the university campus Tuesday afternoon that "religion shapes the life of the nation without strangling it."

Noting that religion has been a particular flashpoint of American politics since the Supreme Court decision against public school prayer in 1962, Meacham -- the author of "American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation" -- said that the use of God as an issue in races goes back to 1800, when John Adams said that voters could choose him and God or Thomas Jefferson and no God.

"There has never been a golden era in American politics" when religion was not a factor, Meacham told reporters before his speech.

Today, he said, the atmosphere has become supercharged because of increased media attention. There is no news cycle, just a news treadmill, Meacham said. In such a frenetic atmosphere, he added, centers like the one starting at Washington University can help add a dose of sanity to the debate.

"There is always going to be division," Meacham said. "That's the nature of politics. But what the center is going to be about is how opponents can deal with each other and not just attack each other."

What is needed, he added, is a "culture of conversation instead of reflexive confrontation."

Noting that he is "obsessed with the founders" and how they framed questions such as the role of religion in affairs of state, Meacham said that their era should not be viewed as "historical Zoloft" because they were just as frail and fallible as today's politicians.

"The founders are often attacked as dead white males," he said. "They are all three -- dead, white and male. But they also had remarkable insight into what would become a diverse nation."

He noted that Jefferson would never have had the opportunity to meet a Muslim or a Hindu, but he had the vision to see what the United States would become and the wisdom to voice how such pluralism could and should be handled.

Meacham also singled out the disestablishment of religion in the First Amendment as one of the most radical things about the American Revolution.

"You can separate church and state," he said, repeating Jefferson's famous formulation, "but you cannot separate religion and politics, and that distinction is crucial.

"Religion and politics are both about people. You cannot say religion won't be a topic in politics any more than you can say that the economy won't be a topic in politics. The question becomes: How do you manage it and marshal it?"

Learning how to manage such discussion and channel it in productive ways means accepting different religious views but not letting them hijack the entire debate, Meacham said. Both evangelicals and secularists are guilty of trying to force their views on those who think differently, he added.

"If you try to say that you can't have religion in politics, you're going to drive 45 percent of the people crazy," he said. "If you try to say it is the most important issue in politics, you're going to drive another 45 percent of the people crazy.

"The more seriously religious you are, the more strongly you should be for the separation of church and state. There is a strong religious case against such involvement in matters of state."

The main question that the Danforth center should concentrate on, Meacham added, is this:

"How much religion is too little, how much religion is too much and how much religion is just right?"

Asked whether a professed atheist would be able to win an election for president, Meacham said:

"Not yet. I think we will get there. It will be very hard. One of the mysteries of leadership is to what extent do people want to be led and to what extent do they want to see themselves reflected in their leaders."

Danforth himself had a more succinct answer to the same question, saying simply, "Not in my lifetime."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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