Meacham keynotes debut of Danforth Center on Religion and Politics

by Robert A. Cohn Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

While the principle of the separation of church and state and the constitutional ban on an established religion must be respected, religion and politics have been- and will continue to be – intertwined in the United States, according to Jon Meacham, former editor of Newsweek and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer. Meacham, co-anchor of PBS’s program “Need to Know,” was the keynote speaker at the inaugural event for the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, which officially opened at Washington University last week. The center, which was established through a $30 million endowment from the Danforth Foundation, seeks to “deepen academic and public understanding of religion and politics in the United States.”

Meacham and former Senator John C. Danforth, after whom the center is named, discussed the center’s opening and its goals before Meacham addressed a packed house at the campus’ Graham Chapel. Both Danforth and Meacham expressed the hope that the center would serve as a partial antidote to the lack of civility and the increasing polarization in American political discourse.

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“We have always had division and discord in the political arena,” Meacham said. “The Civil War was a violent and divisive event, and President Andrew Jackson shot people. What is different now is the 24/7 cable news cycle and the unlimited amount of funds poured in to attack ads during campaigns, such as the current midterm elections. Hopefully, the Danforth Center will provide a setting in which issues can be discussed not just in 20-second sound bites, but in thoughtful, extended discussions.”

Danforth agreed, adding that he remembered when he served in the U.S. Senate, Democrats and Republicans had friendly get-togethers and attended the same potluck dinners. Nowadays, he added, it seems as if there is little civil social interaction between members of the two political parties.

“I hope that (the center) will replace the day-long news cycle, which has become not a sounding board, but a shouting board. Voters deserve to have candidates who will sit down and discuss issues at greater length and face challenging questions without shouting or personal attacks. We hope the center will address the positive use of religion in politics, a place where issues can be debated vigorously and constructively,” he added.

The center will attract visiting scholars to St. Louis and create opportunities for Washington U. faculty, students and members of the local community as it convenes public conferences and lectures to address issues related to religion and politics. It also offers an educational program in religion and politics to students, including an interdisciplinary undergraduate minor in religion and public life.

Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the Andrew Jackson biography “American Lion” and the New York Times best-seller “American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation,” said, “the decision to ban an official established church like the one that exists in England was a radical reform for the new nation. But that did not mean that religion and politics were to be totally separate. Church and state are the formal institutions, which must be separated. Religion and politics are individual values, which also must be protected.

“Thomas Jefferson, in one of his early writings said he wanted freedom for Jews, Christians, Mohammedans and Hindus. He said this at a time when there were few if any Muslims or Hindus in Virginia, but he had this important insight. We can and should separate church and state. But you cannot and should not separate religion and politics. Church and state are about institutions. Politics and religion are about people,” Meacham said.

Meacham stressed the importance and difficulty of finding the right balance between religion and politics in America. “If you fully removed religion from politics you drive 45 percent of the people crazy. But if you put too much religion in politics you drive another 45 percent of the people crazy. The more religious you are, the more you should favor separation of church and state.”

Taking note of the bitter political divisions in the midterm elections campaign still underway when he spoke, Meacham said, “We are living n a moment where being politically provocative has become more important to political figures than solving problems. We are again seeing a populism of the moment and a caricature of political discussion. We are also still living in a half-century in which there has been polarization on issues based on religion. There was the 1962 Supreme Court decision banning mandated prayer in public schools and Roe vs. Wade, which ruled that abortion was a protected right.

“On the political right are those who want to go back to the way things were before those decisions, and on the left people who want to end practices based on what has been called ‘monkish superstition.'”

Meacham stressed that a professed belief in God has been true of “every President from Washington to Roosevelt, to Reagan, to Obama.”

“Faith has always been a factor in our public life,” Meacham said. “The trickier part is determining how much religion is too much, how much is too little and how much is just right.”

Washington U. Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton was also on hand at Graham Chapel, and praised Senator Danforth for the vision behind the creation of the new center. Wayne C. Fields, the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Professor of English in Arts and Sciences, is its director.