- Steve Addazio's inaugural press conference as Boston College head football coach (pg. 9)
- Wake Forest University president Nathan Hatch's keynote address at the Sesquicentennial symposium "Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education" (pg. 34)
- David B. Couturier, OFM Cap., on "New Evangelization for Today's Parish" (pg. 42)
- Guerilla Orchestra: the Callithumpian Consort and student musicians rehearse John Zorn's Cobra (pg. 10)
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Two senators on politics and faith
On the evening of April 23, temperatures hovered in the balmy middle 70s. While rites of spring took place all over campus—students lounging on benches and at outdoor tables or chatting in small groups perched on walls and the edges of planters—some 3,500 audience members and two Catholic U.S. senators from opposite ends of the political spectrum gathered in Conte Forum for what turned out to be a surprisingly calm and thoughtful discussion of religious faith and public policy.
The crowd in Conte had the large complement of gray (and bald) heads that one has come to expect at Church in the 21st Century events over the past five years, but close to half the audience seemed to be Boston College students. Pat Healey ’07, president of the College Democrats, said his group worked to turn students out for the program, announcing it in three e-mails with a distribution of 1,300 undergraduates. The College Republicans also sent out mass e-mails, according to their president, Amanda Short ’07.
Awaiting the start of the event, many audience members sat with faces buried in their program booklets, studying thumbnail biographies of the featured speakers, Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), both of whom are candidates for president in 2008. A quick informal survey suggested that NBC’s Tim Russert, who would serve as the evening’s moderator, was more familiar to the audience than either senator.
A few minutes after seven o’clock, the senators bounded onto the stage, followed by Russert, the parent of a Boston College student, who received and acknowledged a standing ovation. Stripping off their dark suit coats, the three sat at a table and soon got down to the evening’s topic.
Question one from Russert: How has faith influenced your public service?
Dodd, first to answer, said Catholic social justice teaching underlay his decision to join the Peace Corps as a young graduate of Providence College. As a senator, he said, it draws him to issues where he can help the disadvantaged. Nevertheless, he stressed, faith “informs my decisions, it doesn’t define my decisions.” Faith, he suggested, resides on the plane of ideals, while politicians must operate in a practical world where compromise is needed to be effective.
A former evangelical Protestant who converted to Catholicism four years ago, Brownback answered the question more abstractly, saying, “I’ve tried to segregate my faith out from the policy work and the politics, and I ended up getting . . . my faith wrong, and I find I didn’t look at my politics or policy quite right,” either. Asked whether it was fair to say that Republicans favor the Ten Commandments over the Sermon on the Mount, Brownback admitted, “There’s some fairness to that.” He said, to some applause, that he’d like the GOP to become “pro-life and whole life. . . . All life is sacred. That doesn’t stop at the womb. It extends to the child in Darfur, to the young man in the Congo, it extends to the man in prison.”
Russert moved on to specific issues, first among them the war in Iraq. Was it a just war?
“You make the call on what information and facts you have at the time,” Brownback replied, and it’s not fair to the troops to “second-guess it” four years later. Yet he lodged no noticeable hope in the Bush administration’s Iraq policy. “The only solution at this point is a three-state, one-country solution,” he said. “We’re not going to solve the Sunni-Shia fight. The best we can do is try to provide some way for them to separate themselves.”
Is it a just war? Russert persisted.
“No, and I’m one who voted [to authorize it],” Dodd replied. “But we’ve learned in retrospect that a lot of the issues were fabricated. . . . If Iraq were growing turnips and not oil, we wouldn’t be there.”
So why did he vote for it?
“I wish I had a better answer,” said Dodd, who noted that he “supported the Feingold-Reid proposal” aimed at securing an early withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. He called for a “surge in diplomacy” by the Bush Administration, saying that both parties in Congress have the will to work together toward a new, more effective Iraq policy, and that the obstacle now is executive branch intransigence. At this point Brownback drew more applause and probably raised a few eyebrows by saying that not only did he agree with Dodd on this, but he’d told the White House so.
The senators agreed less on social issues, including stem cell research and gay marriage, areas where Brownback tended to argue from first principles. Asked about federal funding for stem cell research, the Kansan responded, it’s a “question of what is the youngest of human beings. Is the embryo a person, or is it property?”—implying a link to slavery. “Whenever we’ve treated another . . . human as property, we’ve always regretted it.”
For Dodd, who has voted to fund stem cell research, the choice was a “narrow call.” The issue, he said, was whether to discard unused embryos from fertility clinics or use them to help cure diabetes, Parkinson’s, and other serious diseases.
Asked to respond to Dodd’s point, Brownback said, “I’d love to see a lot more adoption of the frozen embryos.”
Dodd called this suggestion an example of “what’s been missing in this country. We always hear about the notion of how divided we are as a people. . . . If we’re going to spend our time in the 21st century driving these wedges deeper and deeper, into our society, I fear for our country. . . . I just heard my friend Sam talk about adoption. I couldn’t agree more.” Dodd expressed hope that scientific research could render moot the stem cell debate by finding effective alternatives to embryonic stem cells.
Next up was gay marriage. “Church teaching separates the status of the individual from the act itself,” Brownback said. The “individual is entitled to dignity; the act itself is wrong. . . . I don’t think we as a society should honor that with the status of marriage or the status of civil unions.”
Dodd responded that on his latest visit to New Hampshire, few voters even mentioned gay marriage, while many had questions on Iraq and health care. The father of young daughters, he wondered how they would be treated if they grew up to be lesbians. While supporting civil unions, Dodd stopped short of calling for same-sex marriage, saying he wasn’t comfortable using the M-word for gay and lesbian couples.
After the discussion, audience members waited near the stage for a word with a senator or an autograph. Several said they found the discussion insightful, especially compared to much of what passes for political discourse nowadays. Jason Lee of Newton, an oncologist, praised both senators for giving “in-depth responses” to Russert’s questions “instead of quick talking points and shouted slogans.” In a similar vein, James Hayes ’71, JD’75, a program director with a Boston elder services agency, praised Dodd’s efforts at “finding a mutually acceptable position instead of trying to divide us.”
Laura Ahern ’09, an English major, called the evening “worthwhile,” though she disagreed with some of Brownback’s pronouncements on social issues. “I don’t think he, or anyone, has the right to say what is moral or immoral,” she said.
Fifteen minutes after the program ended, the senators were still in Conte, pressing the flesh.
Read more by David Reich