Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 11
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
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Institute for Faith and Public Life at Seminary Looks at Conflation of Church and State

Ellen Gilbert

“Most of us who live in the United States simply take for granted the plentiful references to God,” said Emmanuel College Principal Mark Toulouse in his opening remarks at the recent Institute for Faith and Public Life’s “Turn the World Upside Down,” a three-day program sponsored by the Princeton Theological Seminary’s (PTS) School of Christian Vocation and Mission.

To illustrate his point, Mr. Toulouse offered images of JesUSAves tee-shirts and an Indiana license plate with the words “In God We Trust” superimposed on an American flag. A religion and culture historian who is also an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Mr. Toulouse joked about his recent move to Canada by showing an image of a Toronto subway sign that said, “There’s probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Seeing it, he knew that he wasn’t in Kansas — much less the U.S. — any more.

Despite the fact that the United States is the only country that constitutionally separates church and state, no other national rhetoric routinely conflates the two as much as ours, observed Mr. Toulouse. This is not necessarily a bad thing, he suggested, noting that “religion is too much an integral part of human life to be separated or compartmentalized from the rest.”

Intended “for people with a passion for social change,” the program offered attendees workshops and discussions built around the theme of “faith and social transformation.” The title of this year’s institute was derived from a biblical quotation: “When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also.’” (Acts 17:6).

In addition to Mr. Toulouse, speakers included Joshua Dubois, special assistant to President Obama and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships; and David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World Institute and World Food Prize Laureate. Introducing Mr. Toulouse, PTS’s Hispanic Leadership Program Director Gabriel Salguero described the Institute of Faith and Public Life as a “nexus between faith and public life,” intended to “refresh” pastors and “challenge” their congregations.

In his remarks, Mr. Toulouse warned about the dangers of “iconic” and “priestly” faith as “styles of interaction” that can be “coercive.” Positive alternatives are acting as a “public Christian” or “public church,” said the author of God in Public: Four Ways American Christianity and Public Life Relate (2006). These, he said, respect pluralism and their “founders’ expectation” that religion should not dictate public policy.

While the word “empire” has negative connotations for many people these days, it plays well to Washington, D.C. audiences, Mr. Toulouse said. In their Christmas card several years ago, he reported, Dick and Lynne Cheney suggested that if God is aware of “the fall of a sparrow,” it’s unlikely that an “empire can rise” without God’s help.

At its conclusion, Mr. Salguero gave the three-day program high marks. “This Institute reflected the Seminary’s commitment to be a gathering place for faith and community leaders to think about faith in the world,” he observed. “We are so proud of the work this Institute is achieving to educate people about faith in the world.”

“It was a stimulating and challenging Institute, in keeping with our intention of encouraging a dynamic and faithful discussion around the intersections of faith and public life,” said School of Christian Vocation and Mission Director Charles Kalmbach. “One of the ‘identities’ of a pastor is as a ‘public person,’ and the annual Institute of Faith and Public Life is one way we seek to help church leaders grow into this identity.”

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