Columnist Will speaks on religion in American politics
An audience of mostly older St. Louis community members and a handful of students filled Graham Chapel to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning, conservative political columnist George F. Will on Tuesday evening.
His speech, focusing on how the government has overstepped its proper regulatory role, was this semester’s keynote lecture for the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics.
The Washington Post columnist and former professor began his speech entitled ““Religion and Politics in the First Modern Nation” by warning the audience, “Take notes—there will be a test.”
Will claimed that secular political faiths, like Communism in countries like Russia and China, have historically caused many more deaths than religious wars. He asserted that the modern American government has overstepped its role, seizing rather than securing the inalienable rights of its citizens.
He argued that the government must support, or at least not hinder, institutions that help nurture public virtue, such as the Church, despite the fact that he does not consider himself a religious man.
“I believe that religion has been, and can still be, supremely important and helpful to the flourishing of our democracy,” he said. “I do not, however, believe it is necessary for good citizenship.”
Agreeing with the stance of his former employer at the conservative magazine National Review, William F. Buckley Jr., Will noted that a “real conservative need not be religious, but could not be hostile to religion.”
Will specifically discussed the implications of the creator-bestowed “inalienable rights” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.
He posed two questions: first, whether a successful democracy requires religion, and second, whether a democratic structure, including limited government, is contingent upon religious belief.
“Modern politics [is] based on the assumption that people will express and will act upon the strong impulses of their flawed natures. People will be self-interested,” Will said. “The ancients…asked, ‘What is the highest [that] mankind is capable [of], and how can we pursue this in politics?’ Hobbes and other subsequent modernists ask, ‘What is the worst that can happen in politics and how can we avoid it?’”
One among a small handful of students in attendance, first-year law student Jesse Jones, enjoyed the speech.
“I’ve read his columns in Newsweek and I’m sort of conservative-leaning myself,” Jones said. “I enjoyed what he had to say about the Founding Fathers and the place of religion in American politics. It’s very interesting because he said he wasn’t a person of faith, and I’m not either, but I still have conservative leanings. So it’s interesting because most people think all conservatives are religious, and that’s kind of a stereotype.”