BC SealBoston College Magazine Spring 2004
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Harvard's Lowell Livezey, Boisi Center, March 9, 2004. Photo by Lee Pellegrini

We gather together

By ANNA MARIE MURPHY

Ever since the small mock-Tudor brick house on Quincy Road became home to the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College in fall 2000, scholars have traipsed through its front door seeking nourishment. Several times a month, historians, theologians, sociologists, and more arrive from the main campus and area universities to lunch with a guest speaker and discuss new research and emerging theory on the jostling that goes on between religion and politics. The food is good—recent catered meals laid out in the house's cozy kitchen have included self-serve platters of roast pork, grilled chicken, fresh salads, and well-prepared vegetables. But the intellectual fare is five-star.

"We see the lunches as an opportunity for guests with important things to say to say them in a short, concise, and conversational way," explains Alan Wolfe, the center's director. "The idea is not to read a formal paper followed by ponderous questions. Nor is it to just sit around and shoot the breeze. We believe that intelligent conversation is the best lunch, along, of course, with the actual lunch we serve."

Political scientists Kay Schlozman (BC) and Sidney Verba (Harvard) once brought to the table the data they'd collected while researching their book, The Private Roots of Public Action: Gender, Equality, and Political Participation. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jack Miles (God: A Biography) spoke without notes on the push of religion in world affairs. BC theologian Lisa Cahill's topic was "Genetics, Religion, and Social Ethics"; Brown University sociologist Lynn Davidman described "unsynagogued" secular Jews.

Lunch and conversation take place in what originally was the house's sunken living room, now walled in as a narrow conference space. At one end is an unused fireplace, set between muted stained glass windows; at the other, affixed to the wall, is a large whiteboard with eraser and markers. Early arrivals—usually between 20 and 30 guests sign up in response to a posting—sit around a long oval table to which has been tacked a maroon skirt. Other guests take seats behind them.

Last February, Denis Lacorne of the Centre d'Études et de Recherches Internationales in Paris chose as his topic "French Perceptions of Religion in America: from Voltaire to Régis Debray." Lacorne began, in English, by noting a French fondness for Puritan stereotypes at the expense of genuine curiosity about U.S. mainstream and evangelical faiths (French opinion during the Monica Lewinsky affair, he said, was "Poor Clinton is a victim of Puritanism"). Midway through the hour and 15 minute meal, the conversation turned to principles: liberté de conscience versus "free exercise"—"there is a difference," said BC political scientist Susan Shell. Eventually it wound up in an animated reckoning of France's recent effort to ban "conspicuous" religious symbols (including the Muslim head scarf) in schools. "You should have stayed afterward," said Boisi assistant director and sociologist Patricia Chang later—"only French was spoken."

Conversation rarely veers far from plain English at the Boisi lunches, but the discussions do get heady. This past spring, it would have helped to have a working familiarity—as most attendees seemed to—with the Bible, Augustine, Locke, Tocqueville, Niebuhr, Myrdal, Arendt, Gans, Lasch, and Chaves, to name but a few sources referenced. Inevitably, lunch at the Boisi Center yields a to-read list. The gatherings are open to undergraduates and graduate students, and last year an event was designed specifically for them—a description of research opportunities and needs presented by Grove Harris, director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard Divinity School.

Lunches at the Boisi Center serve a switchboard function. When Lowell Livezey, project director of Harvard Divinity's Metropolitan Congregational Studies Program, came to speak last March, he brought with him invitations to the conference he was organizing on "Faith in Boston." And to some extent his talk, aided by maps projected onto the room's pull-down screen, seemed a test run for the upcoming presentation, before a larger audience, of his research on neighborhood churches (e.g., Catholic St. Mark's of Dorchester) and voluntary commuter churches (e.g., non-denominational Grace Chapel of Lexington). "Both generate community—what sociologists call social capital," he said. But neighborhood-based churches are less likely to be a source of intimate relationships than are megachurches, which strategically form small subgroups defined by interests (child-raising, for instance). "Neighborhood churches are more likely to be multi-ethnic, more likely to enfold at-risk youth. They incorporate diversity because of who is there." In the question and answer session, an exception to Livezey's proposition was raised, namely Orthodox Jewish communities, among whom, it was suggested, "the very fact of religious solidarity prevents the neighborhood from changing."

The last luncheon speaker of the spring was historian David Chappell of the University of Arkansas, on April 28. Chappell recently published a deep and readable book on the intellectual foundations of the civil rights movement, an exploration of liberal ideas and religious roots entitled A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Its tone at times approaches conversational—one enthusiast speaking frankly to his colleagues, taking up their disagreements, relaying the surprises he's discovered and his frustrations ("So far I have been able to track down only one full set of the sermon notes of a segregationist who worked as a full-time pastor"). The same energy permeated the gathering at the Boisi Center, and what transpired was shoptalk of a high order. "I expected to find a holy war," said Chappell, but "white churches fell apart during the civil rights movement. Segregationists had the same problem with them that Martin Luther King had—their neutrality."

Later, in response to an observation from Wolfe on Reinhold Niebuhr's influences on Arthur Schlesinger and King, Chappell replied, "I appreciate your bringing up Niebuhr as an influence. It tells me I have to work harder to show you're wrong." Wolfe responded by offering a "footnote" that he said might actually support Chappell's view.

You've talked about prophetic leaders, said BC political scientist Peter Skerry—what about the black masses? "I think we really don't know what most black people thought," Chappell said. "I am passionately interested in the question. I would really like to know." That prompted a flurry of leads: So-and-so is working on oral traditions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, someone else is studying folk theology, and the conversation continued, well after lunch was formally adjourned.

 

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