Penn Program Focuses on Debating Religion and Politics

Monday, October 19, 2015

By Jacquie Posey

A University of Pennsylvania research program has gathered together leading scholars and advocates representing strongly opposing views on today's most contentious church-state issues, not to forge a consensus, but to model how to disagree without being disagreeable, while identifying any unexpected common ground.

Called Common Ground for Common Good, or C2G2, the group's co-chairpersons are Marci Hamilton and Stanley Carlson-Thies.

Hamilton holds the Paul Verkuil Chair at Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School and is the author of God Versus the Gavel: The Dangers of Extreme Religious Liberty, 2014. She has initiated several major challenges to the constitutionality of state governments' Religious Freedom Restoration statutes and litigated landmark lawsuits against church officials charged with sexually abusing children.

Carlson-Thies directs the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance and is the co-author with Calvin College's Steven Monsma of Free to Serve: Protecting the Religious Freedom of Faith-based Organizations, 2015. He has served as an adviser to President George W. Bush and written major reports suggesting that government discriminates unfairly against religious nonprofit organizations.

Both Hamilton and Carlson-Thies are Senior Fellows of the Penn Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society, PRRUCS. Established in 2000 as one of the Pew Charitable Trusts Centers of Excellence, PRRUCS is directed by John DiIulio Jr., the Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion and Civil Society at Penn. With Penn Chaplain Charles Howard, DiIulio serves as co-moderator of the C2G2, whose steering committee members include E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, Brookings Institution and Georgetown University; Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend, former lieutenant governor of Maryland; Timothy Goeglein, vice president of Focus on the Family; and Ronald J. Sider of Eastern University, author of the bestselling book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, published this year.

As many as another dozen prominent voices representing opposing views on church-state issues are slated to join C2G2 over the next year.

Two months after the first meeting of the C2G2 group last July, Hamilton and Carlson-Thies came together for an unrehearsed, videotaped conversation about Obergefell v. Hodges, the same-sex marriage case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in August. Moderated by DiIulio, the video, "Obergefell and Religion: A Common Ground for Common Good Conversation," was completed in October.

"The recorded conversation," said DiIulio, "leaves no doubt that these two church-state heavyweights are not on the same page of the public policy hymnal regarding a whole host of issues relating to religion in the public square, but it also is unfailingly civil and factual. Together, Marci and Stan shed light rather than threw heat."

DiIulio, author of Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America’s Faith-based Future, 2007, served as first director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives and has assisted the Obama administration in reconstituting and expanding that office.

"In a democracy like ours," said DiIulio, "stark disagreements regarding church and state are both inevitable and even desirable, but stark need not mean either snarky or uncivil or worse. Without denying unbridgeable differences or seeking consensus, unexpected patches of common ground can sometimes yet be found."

C2G2 is one of a half-dozen new projects that PRRUCS will launch along with a new website on Nov. 10. The other projects include national survey research on how Americans think about religion in relation to democratic values; a Scholars for Science, Spirituality and Service group that will bring students together with astrophysicists, theologians and other scholars to discuss classic and contemporary questions about faith and reason; and a host of student-led, but program-sponsored faith and service community projects with leading local nonprofit organizations and others.

In addition to Hamilton, Carlson-Thies, and other C2G2 members, the new PRRUCS roster of Senior Fellows includes Penn faculty, including Ram Cnaan of the School of Social Policy & Practice, Peter Dodson of the School of Veterinary Medicine and Randall Mason of the School of Design and Penn Praxis. It also includes top scholars at other universities, including David Campbell of University of Notre Dame, co-author with Harvard University's Robert Putnam of American Grace, 2010, as well as noted leaders on church-state issues including Rev. W. Wilson Goode Sr., former mayor of Philadelphia and leader of the Amachi program for mentoring the children of prisoners; Sister Mary Scullion of Project Home; Rev. Luis Cortes, president of Nueva Esperanza; and Jane Eisner, editor of The Forward.