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Everyone knows the old saying that there are two subjects unfit for polite company: religion and politics. But both mixed peacefully during a panel discussion at the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C. There was even a punch line: that public policies would benefit from understanding private faiths.
“Religious freedom matters,” said Charles C. Haynes, M.T.S. ’75, director of the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Education Project, who introduced the Friday evening panel.
Within sight of the U.S. Capitol — the American symbol lately of dysfunction and division — two Harvard deans faced off in a discussion titled “Religion and Politics in a World of Conflict.” In both arenas, they said, leadership is vital to maintaining a steady, open, middle path to resolving differences.
“Peacemaking can sound like surrender,” said David N. Hempton, a historian of Protestant evangelical Christianity who is dean of the Harvard Divinity School (HDS). When conflict starts up, you need religious leaders with a sense of restraint, he said, drawing on lessons from his boyhood in divided Northern Ireland. And when conflict winds down, you need “real, imaginative leadership,” said Hempton, the Alonzo L. McDonald Family Professor of Evangelical Theological Studies and John Lord O’Brian Professor of Divinity.
The issue is close to Hempton’s heart. In his 2012 convocation address, he stood aside from the traditional topic of theological studies to deliver “The Fog of Religious Conflict,” a rumination on the religious war he witnessed as a youth.
In some regions of the world, religious leaders have the power either to incite or to calm civil conflict, said David T. Ellwood, dean and the Scott M. Black Professor of Political Economy at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). Knowing that can produce consequences, he said, because in many parts of the world “ethnic and religious violence have replaced traditional country-on-country violence.”
Seated between the two deans was Shaun Casey MC/MPA 1989, the special adviser heading the new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives at the U.S. State Department. He’s a professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, and — the ideal moderator — a graduate of both HKS and HDS.
“It’s an astonishing high to be at the State Department,” he said, and brings a cultural perspective to the policy world. “You ignore religion at your peril.”
The two deans also had the benefit of an engaged audience, including many graduates of Harvard’s Schools of government and divinity working in the Washington, D.C., region. Allison Shapira, MC/MPA 2010, who spoke briefly, represented the Harvard Kennedy School D.C. Alumni Council and its 9,000 area HKS graduates, “the largest number in the world in one place.” The HDS Alumni/Alumnae Council was represented in the audience too, and has about 500 area members. read more
(From L to R) Harvard Kennedy School Dean David T. Ellwood, Shaun Casey, the special adviser heading the new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives at the U.S. State Department, and Harvard Divinity School Dean David N. Hempton
Photo Credit: Maria Bryk/Newseum
“Ethnic and religious violence have replaced traditional country-on-country violence," says David Ellwood.