The new online journal Religion & Politics went live yesterday, boldly declaring those two topics, once off limits, fit for polite company. But in a year when discussion of religion may dominate a presidential election, what does "polite" discussion look like? I talked to two R&P editors to find out.
What is the religious and political discourse like right now? Why are you starting Religion and Politics?
Max Mueller, associate editor: We believe that the Center is necessary partly because of the level of the public conversation right now. Often we’re not discussing the ideas behind Paul Ryan’s budget, or President Obama’s budget. We’ve devolved into personal and ideological attacks. If Obama proposes a health care system that attempts to cover all Americans, he’s labeled a socialist. If Paul Ryan puts forth a budget that tries to solve long-term deficit issues by cutting some programs, he is called unChristian for not caring for the poor. These are important issues, but we don’t get a chance to discuss the specific ideas because we’re fighting and name-calling.
What is the site aiming to do?
Tiffany Stanley, managing editor: Religion and Politics is an online journal that creates a space for scholars, journalists, religious leaders, pundits and politicians to gather and discuss these contentious issues—topics that we often think are not fit for polite company. In fact, our tagline for the journal is just that: “Fit for polite company.”
MM: These subjects are not only worthy but also critical to discuss in the home and everywhere else. We don’t have an agreed-upon set of rules of civility about how to do that, but John C. Danforth has said that civility does not mean niceness. That’s his phrase. It doesn’t mean you have to reach consensus, or that you can’t be critical. In fact, to not be critical is disingenuous. We’re looking for rigorous, critical and civil discourse.
TS: We also call ourselves polypartisan. That allows us to invite folks from various backgrounds to write for us and hopefully to read us and talk about us. Everyone who is willing to show respect for other views and the ability to listen to those views is welcome.
Religion and politics are subjects that people get very, um, passionate about. Will someone be weeding out any uncivil troll-like comments?
MM: We certainly welcome comments. Commenters will have to log in and provide some kind of personal information, but we have a pretty high bar as to what we might censor or moderate.
TS: We believe in free speech. Certainly, sometimes these conversations do involve strong opinions, and we welcome those. But we reserve the right to delete comments when necessary.
MM: Debating ideas full-throatedly is one thing. But waging personal attacks on someone’s character or beliefs is not a part of our vision.
Who will be writing for you?
MM: Our pieces will be diverse and critical, but also civil in discourse. We have scholars from a range of fields—political science, history and religion—who write both opinion and researched pieces. Examples of that would be Harvey Cox and Matt Bowman. We also have seasoned journalists like Amy Sullivan and Krista Tippett, who are a part of our launch and are invested in these matters.
How does this site fit into the whole program of the Danforth Center?
TS: We are a virtual and public space for the Center. We are also a key part of the Center’s mission, which is to listen to diverse perspectives, contribute scholarship to national discussions and encourage civil discourse where we can address these often complex and difficult issues.
MM: George Will is going to be the keynote speaker this fall at the Center, and EJ Dionne was the keynote last year. We also have scholars like Laurie Maffly-Kipp, who extended the period of the “Mormon Moment” a lot longer than the last few years.
We hope to host reports on what is going on, but also to spark debates. For example, one of our regular features is called “The Table,” like the kitchen table. We invite people to gather around this virtual table to discuss current issues. Our first one has Amy Sullivan, Michael Ruse and Timothy Dalrymple. They’re all going to be debating this question: what in the media is fair game to discuss about a candidate’s religion? That’s a question that every scholar, journalist or pundit will have to ask herself, especially during this election season.
Are you accepting submissions?
TS: We do accept submissions, but on a selective basis. We generally solicit pieces, but are always on the lookout for new ideas and writers. Again, our journal is not a standard academic journal, so pieces are not peer-reviewed and do not use footnotes.
Who will your main readership be?
MM: Our writing is accessible, interesting and fun to read. We stay away from jargon, from the insider language of academia. You don’t need a dictionary or a master’s degree to read our pieces. And that’s important for us, because we’ve noticed that scholars are often very critical of how journalists treat religion, complaining that the media doesn’t “get” religion.