In an overwhelmingly overcrowded Lauder Seminar Room in the Koch Building located across from the Paepcke Memorial Building Auditorium, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham picked into the brains of a Time Magazine editor, a political science professor, one Iraqi religious scholar, a reverend, and a rabbi.
The topic on everyone’s mind at the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Idea’s Festival: religion versus a secular state.
While the five experts attempted to tackle a variety of issues concerning religion in America and around the world, while moderator Meacham tried to stay on-topic.
Rabbi Irwin Kula, who recently appeared on the O’Reiley Factor, expressed his astonishment over the question he was asked: “Are we living in a time where there is a blatant war on Christianity or a celebration of [Christianity] in America?”
“We need to be celebrating the expansion of [the public square] that allows people to be and believe and practice what they want,” said Rabbi Kula. “America’s commitment to a free conscience and free faith is something that is unprecedented in any other place in the world- it must be acknowledged.”
Rabbi Kula also pointed out that Muslims in other parts of the world including Muslim countries, are prohibited to worship their god or practice their faith in public.
All speakers agreed that while political candidates need address religious and spiritual issues in America, religion should remain separate from the state and from choosing which political party to support.
“Religion is not about saying you agree with Jesus Christ, or you like some of the teachings in the Koran,” said Boston College political science professor Alan Wolfe. “—its not about being left or right wing—rather, its about fundamentals- its about morals and its about personal conscience.”
Nancy Gibbs a Time Magazine editor shared her concerns of religious coverage in the media.
“The coverage [of religion] is particularly challenging to journalisms,” said Gibbs. “Recent polls suggest that religious views have been distorted in the media and the spectrum of religious influence is never fully given.”
Rabbi Kula said, “ The people of good faith cannot be left or right- we are not talking about politics here but the moral compass that all political candidates should embrace and address at some point.”
Another big concern that panelists were careful not to avoid was the rise of what is now being called the new faith: atheism.
Reverend Wallis pointed out that recent studies indicate that non-believers are the largest growing religious sect in the country with a recent jump in the polls from seven to 14 percent.
Religious scholar Reza Aslan said, “atheism is merely a deliberate attempt to replace religion with science and lately more and more people seem to be following it’s rather unmarked path.”
Mediator Jon Meacham cut in to ask a final closing question:
“Tomorrow is July 4th, 2007. Hypothetically, if you come back to this very panel next year, what would like to see changed in the discussion come July 4th, 2008?”
“[The greatest change] that I would like to see would be a shift away from ways that politicians can manipulate religion to gain votes- to the true integrity of the faith,” said Aslan. “I think that only once the presidential race is over and political shifts in the white house are finalized can we begin to see this happen.”
Reverend Wallis also addressed the upcoming political campaigns.
The 2008 election will bring out a much different distinction of faith than the 2004 race,” said Reverend Wallis. “Even with limitations of faith in politics, both parties need to address religious issues both here and abroad.”
Rabbi Kula had the final word. “I think it is simple. I would like to see Muslims and Jews stand up and take a lead in religious activism in this country and around the world.”
With so much on the line and so much progress yet to be made, time will only tell if our 07’ Aspen Ideas Festival religious representatives’ premonitions become realities.