2005 Conference

“Religiously Incorrect? Public Faith in a Pluralistic World”
September 15–16, 2005

“Does the practice of faith require the articulation of faith?”

This was a question posed by Yale Law School Professor Harlon Dalton in welcoming remarks at the Sept 15-16 Sarah Smith Memorial Conference 2005, sponsored by Yale Divinity School, the Yale Center for Faith & Culture, and Yale Law School. Dalton, an ordained Episcopal priest, did not attempt an answer but observed that the question and others like it are complex and need to be addressed “with humility.”

Indeed, there was much humility at the conference, entitled Religiously Incorrect? Public Faith in a Pluralistic World. But navigating the difficult terrain of religion in the public square proved to be a challenge for some of the sharper minds in the business, and as many questions as answers may have been in the air when all was said and done.

That was not a cause for disappointment, however. In his concluding remarks, Miroslav Volf, director of the Center for Faith & Culture, praised the interdisciplinary makeup of the conference, which he termed a “veritable feast” of fruitful ideas and counter ideas— not from grand theorists but from “practitioners with their ears close to the ground.”

Among those practitioners were four well known judges representing federal and state courts, the chairman and CEO of a company consistently rated as one of the nation’s best corporate citizens, and a former U.S. representative who leads a 20,000-member congregation in New York. From the academic side were Nancy T. Ammerman of Boston University, a leading sociologist of religion, and Stephen Carter, a professor of law at Yale and one of the nation’s leading public intellectuals on the subject of religion and politics. In the audience of about 100 persons were a mix of pastors, businesspersons, marketing specialists, workplace chaplains, and Yale faculty and students.

One of the difficult topics that received much scrutiny was the extent to which religious beliefs and sentiments should have a role in the judicial process. There were questions about questions— for example, whether nominees to the bench, such as Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, should be asked about their religion during the review process. One of the toughest questions was whether judges should publicly identify religious influences that affect their opinions. And conflicts between a judge’s faith and the law prompted varied responses.

Carter, who argued in his influential book The Culture of Disbelief that American law and politics “trivialize” religious devotion, said, “It is not at all surprising that questions about the religion of candidates often arise.” Such questions may appear “at first blush” to be church/state infringements, said Carter. But in some cases it is clear why a judge’s religious sentiments would be relevant, he argued, such as in the case of a person affiliated with the Christian Identity Movement, which believes the “chosen race” is reserved to those who are white, Christian and American.

“Many of us would be interested in the extent to which that judge’s religious convictions…are going to play a role in decision-making,” said Carter.

Questions about citing religious sources in written judicial decisions prompted much discussion. All four of the judges acknowledged that jurists are influenced by their faith traditions. But they differed on the extent to which judges should acknowledge such influences in their decisions.

Judge Wendell L. Griffen of the Arkansas Court of Appeals, an ordained Baptist minister who has written on issues of religion and law, called keeping religious influences out of the written record “disingenuous.” But Judge Joan Gottschall, U.S. District Court, Northern Illinois, while acknowledging the influence of faith, contended that religious language should be “translated” into legal categories.

Arguing for more transparency regarding religious influences, Griffen asked, “What is the harm in just coming clean and saying so?”

“We must make sure that our backgrounds, which do influence us, do not bias us,” said Judge Robert H. Henry of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Judge William Pryor of the 11 th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the controversial former attorney general of Alabama, was asked about potential conflicts between a judge’s faith and the law. In such a case, said Pryor, a judge should simply recuse himself or herself from deciding the case. But if a judge believes strongly in a duty to affirmatively resist a law viewed as evil then that judge should not be sitting on the bench at all, in Pryor’s judgment.

Both liberals and conservatives have roundly criticized Pryor. A devout Roman Catholic with conservative political views, he prosecuted former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore for disobeying a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama Judicial Building.

“In my perspective, I had a moral duty to obey the federal injunction,” Pryor told the conference audience. “As a Christian I had a duty to obey the moral authority.”

Mike Volkema, chairman and CEO of Herman Miller, the furniture company, frequently cited for its innovation and sense of social responsibility, made a case for opening the workplace to the “whole person,” including their religious lives. He contrasted that style with a quote he attributed to Henry Ford: “I know people have heads and hearts and hands, and all I want is the hands. Isn’t it too bad that they’re attached to a person?”

Ultimately, Volkema predicted, the younger generation of workers— who he said refuse to “compartmentalize” their lives— will force companies to make room for faith in the workplace: “When businesses start to figure out they’ve got to offer something different, they will.”

Sociologist Nancy Ammerman, who has studied U.S. congregations and conservative religious movements for many years, observed, “Organized religious traditions are still very much with us.”

She said religious sentiments “are not confined to a nice, neat private sphere, nor need they be.” Because persons intersect on so many different levels, Ammerman noted, it is not surprising that religious talk shows up in secular contexts and secular talk finds its way into religious conversation.

Ammerman urged a “more active pursuit of intersections” and the “active listening to stories of others” as a way to find common ground amid the increasingly pluralistic American religious landscape. She pointed to the African American faith tradition as an example of “rich stories and songs that shape a way of life… that mobilize public action.”

The Rev. Floyd Flake, senior pastor of 20,000-member Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Jamaica, NY and former U.S. Representative, said his faith guided him in office and he let people know it. “Because I dared to have a faith belief, there were people who believed in me,” he said.

Many of the projects in Greater Allen’s sprawling, $100 million commercial and residential developments and social service enterprises received government funding— long before President George W. Bush’s “faith-based initiative” program was established, Flake noted. But in some situations, he said, he would not want to accept government money because of strings that might be attached— the reason he did not rely on government funds to build an $8 million private school that serves 500 students.

After the conference, David W. Miller, executive director of the Center for Faith & Culture, said the conference had accomplished what it set out to do: “The expectation at a conference like this isn’t to come up with the final solution or the one-size-fits-all answer. But what we can do is help begin to frame the question, even give voice to the question, strip some of the vitriol and emotion out of the public discourse on these questions of religion in the public square and begin to be known for creating a space where people can with authenticity, passion, intellect and respect talk about these questions.