In 'polarized' times, panel on faith, civility searches for ties that can bind America

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PITTSFIELD — What seemed like a hat tip to nuns appeared to gladden the priest. But the old friend sitting beside him meant something else: the "nones" — the increasing share of Americans who adhere to no organized religion.

By chance, the first event in The Berkshire Eagle's "Conversation Series" kicked off Thursday with a discussion of faith and civility in contemporary politics on a day that osaw U.S. lawmakers go after one another on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

On a stage in Pittsfield, the day's hearings over a Supreme Court nomination in Washington brought expressions of hope that a sense of humanity, and common cause, can be restored to American life and that a seemingly simple thing can return:

The ability to agree about what is true.

That may take some doing.

Thursday's 90-minute forum at the Barrington Stage Co.'s Boyd-Quinson Mainstage reunited three former Eagle writers and editors who've all gone on to work that addresses the place of religion in contemporary life. The discussion was moderated by Kevin Moran, the paper's executive editor.

"Let's have a conversation that matters," Moran told his panelists and an audience.

Joining Moran were Alan Cooperman, director of religion research for the Pew Research Center; the Rev. Jerome Day, a Catholic priest who teaches college in New Hampshire and is pastor of a Manchester, N.H., parish; and R. Gustav Niebuhr, director of programs in religion and media at Syracuse University.

All panelists had a connection to Daniel Pearl, the former Eagle reporter who was kidnapped and killed in 2002 while reporting in Pakistan for The Wall Street Journal. Proceeds from the event will benefit a journalism and music scholarship in Pearl's name.

The night's topics meandered, as with all good conversations. But as they batted around the ideas of civility and faith, the panelists struggled to find hopeful messages.

Instead, they spoke of rising divisions, particularly in politics.

Mixed marriages used to be about religion, Cooperman noted. Now it means one spouse is a Republican, the other a Democrat.

"We are far more polarized than we were not too long ago," Cooperman said.

Niebuhr said he'd arrived in Pittsfield early enough Thursday to tune in to the Senate hearings. He said it with a pained look. While he had been invited by Moran to look for grounds for optimism, Niebuhr wasn't finding it, calling the Senate hearings "brutal, brutal spectacles."

He had no hopeful message about civility. "Not after today, I'm sorry to say. The country is in this strange place right now."

An America that cannot unite for common purposes, and engage with fellow citizens holding opposing views, he said, is in trouble.

"We're not going anywhere good," he said, adding that he wished Day, the priest, had been present at the Senate hearings.

"And reflect on what it means to be human and practice it, too," Niebuhr said.

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Moran began by asking Day, given today's social fractures, how he goes about fashioning homilies to share with parishioners at St. Raphael's in New Hampshire.

The pastor said he believes that as Americans confront everyday life, they ought to be mindful of what's to come, for the faithful.

"I think we need to see ourselves as more than consumers," he said. "For too long we as Americans have been encouraged to think of ourselves as consumers rather than citizens."

Rather, he suggested people think beyond today's "selfie" culture and the immediacy of the moment, working to develop what he described as deep, transformative knowledge as "citizens of eternity."

"The secularization of the world is certainly pervasive," the Rev. Day said.

By being too invested in one's own interests, including economic advantages, people fail the test of citizenship. "When we realize we're in a relationship for more than a buck, then we can do things," the priest said.

Cooperman, who oversees a Pew research team examining global religious issues, pointed out that when they attempt to make sense of public life, citizens today do so with far less faith in institutions than earlier generations.

"Trust in government is at a 30-year low," he said.

And oddly, people on both poles of American politics feel their side is losing out to the other. At the same time, people engaged in partisan disputes have an increasingly hard time agreeing on what's a fact.

"There is a pitched battle about what constitutes truth," Moran noted.

Cooperman and Niebuhr debated the extent to which faith is in eclipse in American life.

In the 1980s, Cooperman said, fewer than 5 percent of Americans would say they had no religious affiliation. "Today it's approaching a quarter of all Americans," he said, and the percentage reaches more than a third for those under 30.

As they edge away from "brick-and-mortar" institutions, Americans are investing more in themselves, Cooperman said, noting the popularity of gym memberships.

Though church attendance may be falling, Day pointed out the interest many young people express in spiritualism and mindfulness.

And yet, that seemed to fail his test of a faith that can serve to connect civic interests, he said, leading to a spiritualism without responsibility to others. "My narcissistic quotient can be rather robust," the Rev. Day said. "To what level do we have responsibilities to each other? There is little in American society that is promoting that."

The next event in The Eagle's "Conversation Series" will explore what lies ahead for the Supreme Court.

On Oct. 25, Linda Greenhouse, a former reporter for The New York Times and a journalist in residence at Yale University, will join with Francis X. Spina, formerly of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, on a panel moderated by Fredric Rutberg, president and publisher of The Eagle.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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