PUBLISHED:January 16, 2009

Possibilities and Perils: The Role of Faith in Public Life

Jan. 16, 2009 — Professors Guy-Uriel Charles and H. Jefferson Powell debated the role of faith in public life during a lunchtime event Jan. 15. Both acknowledged the challenge of balancing constitutional freedoms with societal norms in a pluralistic society composed of citizens from every conceivable faith.

“What is the role of religious commitment in American public life?” asked Powell, Duke’s Frederic Cleaveland Professor of Law and Divinity. “I am of two minds, and my position, you may indeed conclude, is basically a muddle… I think an inescapable one.”

Powell and Charles, the Russell M. and Elizabeth M. Bennett Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota Law School, reflected on how religion informed the political and social activism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“It is entirely fitting to associate a conversation about this topic with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Powell. “Dr. King had a PhD in Christian theology, he was an ordained Christian minister, it is very clear that his religious beliefs were a central, or perhaps the central motivating factor and guide leading him to play the very important role he played in American public life.”

“It seems to me that, as a society, we’re thinking differently about religious appeals in the public square,” said Charles, who will join the Duke Law faculty in July and serve as founding director of a center on race and politics. “I think at the time of Dr. King, society was much more accepting of religious appeals in the public square, thus one could blur the line a bit.”

Powell said he believed it wrong for an unelected public official like a federal judge to commit specific acts relating to official duties using religion as a guide, but that an elected legislator should be free to introduce legislation and vote according to religious beliefs.

Charles disagreed, saying that religious speech was fine in a house of worship or a private home, but that public speech should always be secular. King sometimes adhered to this duality, Charles said.

While he certainly made arguments to Christians based on Christian theology, “King was very aware that he was making arguments to the public at large,” Charles said. “For example, he drew fairly broadly from constitutional principles. … It wasn’t simply an argument using language that appealed to religionists, it was an argument that appealed to the public at large, made, sometimes, in stark secular and constitutional terms.”

Powell argued that religion wasn’t simply the basis for a particular kind of reasoning that could be exchanged with a secular framework when in the public sphere. For religious people, he said, faith is the lens through which they perceive the world, and could not be discarded.

“For many religious folk, that is precisely what they cannot do,” he said. “They cannot say, or they cannot say truthfully, ‘The reason why I oppose the war in Iraq is for the following sets of reasons.’ The real reason is because it is contrary to the will of God. It is an unjust war.”

Sponsored by the Office of the Dean and part of Duke University's celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, “Possibilities and Perils: The Role of Faith in Public Life” is available for viewing as a webcast.