If you’ve been following the race thus far, you know how extreme the statements of the presidential primary’s official “culture warrior” continue to be. Knowing how offensive Rick Santorum’s polarizing statements are, and how damaging they are to both religion and to politics, as the debate continues to pander to religious conservatives, how is it resonating with Americans of no faith? Chris Stedman, Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University, shares his concerns.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: CHRIS STEDMAN[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Welcome back to State of Belief Radio, I’m Welton Gaddy.
Chris Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Managing Director of State of Formation, a new initiative at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. Chris is the founder and author of the blog NonProphet Status.
I’d also like to point out that, last year, the University of Oregon Alliance of Happy Atheists recognized Chris’ work with their first annual “Happy Heathen” Award! Congratulations, Chris![CHRIS STEDMAN, GUEST]: Thank you. [WG]: I know you’re just putting the finishing touches on your new book, Faitheist, which is due out later this year – and knowing what that’s like, I thank you even more for taking a few minutes to talk with us again on State of Belief Radio. [CS]: Oh, it’s my pleasure. I’m always happy to be on the show. [WG]: As a Baptist minister, and someone who works in the world of interfaith understanding, I react in a particular way when I hear all of this extremist religious language dominating the presidential campaign this year. And I’m very interested in talking about this with you, because you’re someone who works to bridge the worlds of Humanism and of faith. You’re also at Harvard, and a little bit younger than me, so let’s start with this: how are the people you spent time with talking about these issues? Santorum’s crusades, the birth-control controversy, claims of a war on religion – or do you find people talking about it much at all? [CS]: Well, it’s definitely a point of discussion. Here at the Humanist community that I work in at Harvard, we actually just had a speaker come this last week to talk specifically about this issue, and about the, sort of, visions of a more theocratic America that are being promoted by certain individuals and certain camps in the conversation this year on the primary. And, you know, I think that this is a conversation that certainly is an important one among the folks that I work with here in the Humanist and Atheist community, but it is equality important among the folks that I work with in Interfaith solidarity.
I think one of the biggest things that I’ve heard a lot about this year has been the conflicting ways in which the separation of Church and State is discussed. You know, about a week or so ago, Santorum referenced the speech by John F. Kennedy on the separation of Church and State and, you know, really misrepresented what that speech was about. I loved what Jon Stewart said on The Daily Show when he said, you know, “How do you hear ‘all faiths are welcome’ as ‘no faiths are welcome’?” And I think that that is representative of the way in which the separation of Church and State, which is an American value, it’s an important tradition, it’s fundamentally important for both the non-religious and the religious to support this… I think it’s representative – Santorum’s reaction to John F. Kennedy’s speech – of the way in which this, as I said American value has been totally skewed, and the conversation around it is one that shows that a lot of Americans see this thing – which in so many ways ensures all of our freedom to practice what we will – they see it as, instead, an attack on their own identity or values. And I think that that is a very unfortunate misrepresentation of what that fundamental cornerstone of American life is about.[WG]: You know, Chris, I certainly agree with you on the danger of that statement. In fact, I guess I’m of the opinion that that’s one of the most threatening statements to democracy and the Constitution that I’ve ever heard in a presidential campaign. And even his clarification of it was almost as dangerous as the original words that he spoke. But I’m also concerned about another dimension of what you’re talking about. I have a concern that this language that we are hearing is undoing some of the progress that’s been made in mutual understanding among groups of faith and groups of no faith. Do you see that happening as well? [CS]: Oh, absolutely. I mean, one of my biggest concerns is that this is doing precisely what you are suggesting – it’s drumming up this, sort of, cultural divide between the religious and the non-religious. It’s pitting them against one another, saying that the non-religious are – in fact, several of the candidates in the Republican primary have come out and said things that show that they see non-religious Americans as being, in many ways, not American at all. You know, Santorum himself said that Obama and his allies have secular values which are antithetical to the basic principles of our country. Gingrich said earlier this week that there is a secular elitist wing that deeply, deeply disbelieves in America, that wants a different country based on a different set of principles. You know, Santorum has said about evolution in schools that it’s used to promote an atheist worldview, and that is something that is anti-American. So, you know, in particular I would say Gingrich and Santorum – though across the board, non-religious Americans have been built up as a straw man, to be brought down, and as to be seen in a way that is that posits them as a threat to our way of life in America.
And this persistent narrative of pitting the godly against the godless, you know, whether it’s the reaffirmation by Congress of “In God we trust” as our official motto at the end of last year, where there were elected officials on the floor saying that an atheist state would be a brutal anti-American state where we are all just worm food, I mean, it’s clear that the way in which Atheists and Humanists are used by some as a, sort of, scaremongering tactic, it’s clear to me that that it is increasing not decreasing, and of course, then the caricatures of religious folks that are, sort of, propped up in response doesn’t do this divide any favors either.[WG]: No. You know, Santorum would have been very uncomfortable in the group that was writing the Constitution of United States, because instead of looking at brutality, they were looking at liberty, and what liberty does to enhance people’s personalities, and what free expression does to character – and he doesn’t get that. I guess it just shows you can run for President and not be as wise or smart on some things as you would need to be, in our estimation, for running for President.
Well look, do you thing a campaign like Rick Santorum is running is likely to alienate Americans who identify themselves as nonbelievers, or would it, on the other hand, energize them?[CS]: I mean, I see among a lot of my nonreligious peers that folks like Santorum and Gingrich – but particularly Santorum – are an energizing force to organize, and to really respond to a lot of this extreme rhetoric. But I am cautious about such reactions, because I am concerned, at times, that the reactions to a lot of what Santorum and Gingrich and others are saying may be just as extreme as what they’re responding to. And so I think unfortunately, you know, the impetus is on those who are responding to the extremists to be measured, to be thoughtful, and to think about what are, sort of, the most effective ways to respond. And I have deep concerns not only about the ways in which the nonreligious are being pushed under the bus by a lot of these candidates, but of course, you know, we see Sharia law being trotted out again as another wedge issue, and even – just recently – the way in which Obama was castigated by both Santorum and Gingrich for the apology that he issued for the accidental burning of the Qur’an with garbage in Afghanistan. I mean, I see that, you know, again, there are these parallels between the different ways in which religious minorities are talked about in these political races – whether it’s Atheists, whether it’s Muslims, whether it’s Mormons – and I think we see in the way in which Romney has been very different than Santorum and Gingrich, because he has, in many ways, tried to steer clear of a lot of these religious flashpoint comments and issues. And I think that has a lot to do with the way in which his Mormonism has been talked about in this race. But I think, you know, my concern is that, again, if the response to these extreme individuals is to be extreme in return, again, I’m concerned about the way in which that will just further this already deep divide between people of different religions and nonreligious identities in this country. [WG]: Yeah. [CS]: And I think that that would be a very unfortunate mistake. [WG]: Well Chris, as if you didn’t have anything else to do, I know you’re also working on an alternative spring break program that I’d like for our listeners to know about. Tell us where the idea came from, a little bit about it, and how we can learn more. [CS]: Sure. Well, in just about a week, I’m taking a group of our graduate students on an alternative spring break trip. This is something that we do every year, and we give our students the opportunity to come up with projects that would be particularly meaningful or relevant for them. And this year, we’re working with at-risk and homeless LGBT youth in Los Angeles for a week. I’ve been coordinating with several organizations out there for the last couple of months to put together a trip that I think is going to be a really neat opportunity for our students to both make a difference, and also learn from people who have a very different set of life experiences than they do. So we’ll be working with organizations like the Trevor Project, the LA Gay and Lesbian center, Safe Place for Youth, Common Ground LA, and, really, we’re hoping to give our students, you know, some insights into what this experience is like. And for me, it’s been really meaningful to put this trip together, given my own history as an LGBT individual, as somebody who has really benefited from having supportive programs for me as I was coming out of a, you know, a really troubled sort of time in my life in light of my sexual orientation and what I believed about that. So, I think that this is going to be a great trip where we try to, again, make this a really meaningful opportunity for our students, and I’m just, you know, very fortunate that this is a part of my job to accompany them for a week. If you’re interested in learning more about this, you can go to our website: harvardhumanist.org. We rely, again, as an independent 501c3 that is only affiliated with Harvard but receives no funding, we rely entirely on financial donations from private individuals – so we always welcome any support in our effort. [WG]: Well Chris, every time we get together, I can’t help but think that you need to write a book – and of course now you have; I remember you telling us that you weren’t sure if “Faitheist” would be the final title, but fortunately it looks like it’s going to be that. The book’s out in November, is that right? [CS]: That’s right, I’m putting the finishing touching on it this week, so it will be on its way, and out in November. [WG]: Chris Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University. He’s just wrapping up his new book, “Faitheist.” He’s an incredibly busy young man. Chris, I’m grateful that you agreed to be with us again today on State of Belief Radio, and we’ll look forward to the next time. [CS]: Thank you; same here.
State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.
Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.
The host of State of Belief, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, leads the national nonpartisan grassroots and educational organizations, The Interfaith Alliance and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Welton is one of 20 international religious leaders on the Council of 100 Leaders, a group created by the World Economic Forum to improve dialogue and understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Welton emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is the immediate past President of the Alliance of Baptists and is a twenty-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, Welton served in many leadership roles in the SBC including membership on the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-1984 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-1977.
Welton received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.