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from left: Brenna Strauss, William Augu, Jessica Coblentz, Lucia Kim, and Seamus Coffey Interest group By William Bole No credit, no grade, just a talking lunch T he reading list for the student lunch on December 5 included Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 “War Message to Congress,” Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 inaugural address, and George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union (which introduced “Axis of Evil” into the lexicon). As nine undergraduates and four graduate students gathered around the table in the red brick Tudor Revival that houses the University’s Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life, Jessica Coblentz, a first-year theology doctoral student, posed the first question: “During times of national crisis and war, what is the role of religion?” Coblentz pointed to Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered as the Civil War neared its end, and quoted Lincoln on North and South: “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” photograph: Gary Wayne Gilbert So began the second meeting of a yearlong, non-credit, interdisciplinary seminar that focuses on the question: “Is God-talk a requirement in American politics?” First offered during 2010–11, the Student Symposium on Religion and Politics convenes in the Boisi conference room over sandwiches on six Mondays between November and April. No faculty are present, only students (the predominant majors represented this year are international studies, philosophy, political science, and theology). Brenna Strauss, a Ph.D. student in political science, leads the seminar and selects the readings with associate director Erik Owens, who teaches courses at the University in theology and international studies. Strauss is a graduate of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, known for its “great books” curriculum and for educating through student-led conversation. The God-talk seminar borrows features of this approach, such as naming a student coleader for each meeting who gets things rolling with a question, as Coblentz did. No papers are required, no grades are given. For the November 14 session, readings included a 1783 sermon by John Witherspoon, Calvinist preacher and president of what is now Princeton University; George Washington’s first inaugural and his farewell address; John Adams’s 1798 presidential proclamation calling for a day of “solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer”; and the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The purpose of the symposium, according to Owens, is to throw historical light on contemporary questions involving “the place of God and faith in political rhetoric.” Wrestling with such issues was what attracted Seamus Coffey ’12, an international studies major. After taking a class on religion and politics in the United States last spring during a semester in Paris at the Institut d’Études Politiques, he enrolled in Owens’s fall 2011 theology course, Ethics, Religion, and International Politics. When a flyer went around the class announcing the symposium, “I jumped at it,” says Coffey. Lucia Kim ’13, who majors in philosophy and political science, says she also “loves to talk about these issues” and seized the opportunity because generally when she gets together with friends “it’s not dinner talk.” During the symposium’s first meeting in November, which focused on “The Founding and Nation Building,” Strauss, quoting the Declaration of Independence, asked, “Is it true that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights’?” Nichole Flores, a doctoral candidate in theological ethics, spoke up to suggest another way of reading the Declaration’s claim: “Is it possible to say all people have equal dignity?” Jo Kassel ’13, a political science major and a Boisi undergraduate research assistant, brought up Thomas Hobbes, who held that in the state of nature there is no inequality—it is this natural condition that provides the basis for human rights. Claire Kairys ’12, an undergraduate research assistant at the Boisi Center and an international studies and philosophy major, suggested that the Founders were actually making a subtler claim, that w i n t e r 2012 v b c m 9

Boston College Magazine, Winter 2012

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