The two things you should never talk about

street-sign1They say that there are two things you should never discuss at dinner: religion and politics. So we thought we’d do both at this dinner!” With this quip, Eric Mlyn kicked off the Duke Office of Civic Engagement’s 2016 series on Faith and Civic Engagement. Laughing matters aside, Assistant Vice Provost of Civic Engagement Mlyn opened the dinner event of 22 Duke faculty and staff with compelling words to back this statement. Describing how challenging it is to talk about politics and religion, Mlyn noted that while post-service surveys for programs such as DukeEngage show that a significant portion of Duke students are motivated by their faith to engage in service, very few opportunities exist for them to process these connections. The topic of religion at Duke has typically been reserved for times of controversy, such as the Fun Home freshman reading selection or the islamic call to prayer in early 2015. In a time where religion has been used divisively on our campus and in our national elections alike, our task for the evening was to consider – why is that so? And how can we as civically engaged Duke faculty and staff help to bridge that gap on our campus?

Dr. Molly Worthen
Dr. Molly Worthen

To launch our conversation on these pressing yet difficult matters, Dr. Molly Worthen (UNC Department of History) presented to the group on “Religion and Politics in 2016: Reports form the Trenches.” As an expert on North American religious and intellectual history with a focus on conservative Christianity, and a public scholar on religion and politics for the New York Times, Slate, and the Boston Globe, Worthen offered three contemporary case studies of religious and non-religious group in the public sphere, and gestured toward their relevance for higher education.

Over dinner, attendees discussed challenging questions, such as the role first principles should play in debates between believers and nonbelievers in the public sphere, or the meaning of faith communities being counter-cultural. Discussion mostly centered on their application to higher education, and Duke in particular. A common challenge arose: the difficulty of negotiating religious difference with respect in a secular, pluralistic classroom (or service experience). There is a sense of disconnect between students’ worldviews and their academic life – and while some attendees sought integration, others wanted to preserve the distance. However, while many diverse opinions and religious or non-religious perspectives were represented in the room, the feeling was common that more can be done on our campus to foster a healthier dialogue where people of all religious and non-religious backgrounds alike can feel safe to engage in dialogue about their perspectives as it relates to their lived experience at Duke.

In many ways, this dinner reminded us of our mission at the DOCE: to coordinate, amplify, and incubate civic engagement at Duke. Seeing a gap where students, staff, and faculty have encountered a challenge to our civic engagement work at Duke – and creating an opportunity to bring them together to address that need – is what we seek to do best here in the DOCE. Religion and politics are both challenging and rewarding to discuss, but we plan to keep doing so – and maybe even over dinner.

This event was the first in a 2016 series on “Faith and Civic Engagement” sponsored by the DOCE. Stay tuned for future opportunities to join the conversation.