Wednesday General Session: How can Religion Contribute to the Common Good? – Angela Carmella, Holly Hollman, Erik Owens, and Michael Wear

By Bekah Chamberlin, 2018 ICLRS Student Fellow

The Wednesday afternoon general discussion session, titled “How Can Religion Contribute to the Common Good?” was a question and answer based panel, moderated by Michael D. Frandsen, Director of Public Affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The four speakers were Angela Carmella, Professor of Law, Seton Hall University School of Law; Holly Hollman, General Counsel and Associate Executive Director, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty; Erik Owens, Director of the International Studies Program, Associate Professor in Theology and International Studies, Boston College; and Michael Wear, Founder, Public Square Strategies, and Author of Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America.

As the moderator posed questions to fuel discussion, the speakers responded with some valuable insight into the role of religion in seeking the common good of society. The overall theme seemed to be that religious people have a responsibility to stand up for the religious liberty of everyone, and learn how to navigate a changing society.

Angela Carmella discussed the rise of the “nones,” or religiously unaffiliated people, and the correlation with the loss of moral authority with political activity by churches. There is a danger in our society of people who not directly involved in a particular religious community to only know of that community’s political activism. It is important to reintegrate the teachings of any religious community when it’s speaking in public space, educating people with no context or history. 

Holly Hollman spoke of the importance of religious liberty, not just for some, but for all. She focused on how our religion requires us to see our neighbors, and how we are able to reach across divides when we stop and recognize the person with whom we disagree or feel threatened by. 

Erik Owens emphasized that religious freedom feels different in 2018 than it has in the past, because of the great religious diversity among us, immigration reforms, and a great influx of eastern religions. There is a need to be more inclusive and understand other ways of living. He also reminded us that religion has taught us a hard lesson in the United States, with much religious persecution. Recognize that religious communities can be harmful or positively utilized in regards to the common good.

Michael Wear brought up the rampant tribalism in the United States today, and how politics have severely divided the nation. The predominating religious change in the United States in the last 20 years has been people leaving religion. He said, “Politics is causing great spiritual harm in America.” If people go to politics for self-affirmation, self-expression and emotional needs it’s harder to go to it for the common good. One of the final points Michael Wear made was that what we need is religious freedom for ideas that are contested. You don’t need to protect rights everyone agrees on. And perhaps that is way people from various religious backgrounds are able to unite in the cause for religious freedom, although religiously diverse.