Panel talks religion in politics

Weber State University’s student senate and Multicultural Student Center hosted a panel Tuesday discussing the role religion has in politics.

Led by WSUSA Diversity Vice President Lonald Wishom, “In God We Trust? Religion vs. State” featured several professors from campus, as well as community leaders and students.

Wishom opened the discussion by playing footage of a recent campaign rally for Rick Perry, in which a Texas evangelical leader and Perry supporter stated his belief that GOP candidate Mitt Romney is not a Christian because of his Mormon faith. Romney’s religious views have been called into question on many occasions since his 2008 campaign. This controversy has acted as a segue to the question: How much should religious views affect a campaign or voter?

Kelsey Capoferri, president of the Gay-Straight Alliance and a self-proclaimed atheist, said religion should have little to no effect on a person’s campaign platform or a voter’s decision.

“What faith you have isn’t important,” she said. “I think it shouldn’t be the deciding factor.”

Steve Olsen, chair for the Weber County Democrats, said it can be hard finding balance between religion and politics.

“People who say you can’t be a good Latter-day Saint and a good Democrat are liars,” he said.

Thom Kuehls, a WSU political science professor, said he remembers the controversy four years ago. He said the decision to run a strongly religious campaign should be made by the candidate.

“If a candidate wants to use their faith, that’s their choice,” he said.

The role of religion for voters was also brought up. Betty Sawyer, coordinator for the GEAR-UP Division of Student Affairs, said voters often rely on religious values to make their choice.

“When it comes down to making decisions, it comes down to those belief systems,” she said.

Also on the panel was LDS Institute teacher Alan Barlow. As a member of the LDS faith, Barlow said he does believe religion plays a role in whom he votes for, though he acknowledged it isn’t necessarily the deciding factor.

“Is it a consideration? Yes. Is it the only consideration? No,” he said. “There are people of my faith who, if they ran, I wouldn’t vote for.”

Another issue brought up was the phrase “Under God,” which is found on US currency and in the Pledge of Allegiance. The case of Pleasant Grove vs. Summum was brought up as an example of religion and politics colliding. In 2009, the religious group Summum asked to donate a monument stating their seven core principles in the same Pleasant Grove park which housed a monument of the 10 Commandments. When the city denied the donation, Summum took the city to court on the argument that their free speech was being withheld. Summum ultimately lost the case, but the dispute opened up a flood of commentary from other lesser-known religious groups.

Several of the panelists described the 10 Commandments as historic and cultural, not just religious.

“I think the 10 Commandments are unique,” Barlow said. “Many of our laws now originated with that. For me, it makes sense they would be in a public place.”

Shalie Barber, social and behavioral science senator and an active member of InterVarsity, said she feels the 10 Commandments and the phrase “under God” are part of the foundation of the country.

“It’s going to offend some religious groups . . . but that’s where we started,” she said. “It’s our nation. It’s ‘one nation, under God.'”

Sawyer said at times the diversity of the US can make issues like these complicated. Because of the clause in the first amendment of the Constitution, which states that the government can’t “establish a religion” for the whole country, political decisions regarding religion can be especially difficult.

“It’s the difference between keeping a precedent and establishing a religion,” Sawyer said. “Part of our strength . . . and resiliency as a nation is the foundation.”

“In God We Trust? Religion vs. State” is part of the Taboo Talks series. The next Taboo Talks discussion will be Nov. 29.