Transforming America’s Culture Wars: Spiritualizing Politics without Politicizing Religion:
During the 1960s and early 1970s, Sargent Shriver’s track record of success as a public servant and peacebuilder made him one of the most politically popular figures in the United States. Today, the method in peacebuilding that guided his achievements remains largely unexplored and unexplained, and Shriver himself retains only a marginal reputation in the public eye and in public thought. In fact, casual observers now tend to overlook his political and spiritual genius, and to dismiss him as an idealist who had the political good fortune to marry a woman whose brother became President. In academic and political circles, and among the general public, Shriver’s record of public and civic accomplishments is now largely forgotten or completely unknown. This is a major loss for America. Indeed, SSPI will seek to insure that Sargent Shriver’s legacy as a peacebuilder ceases to be ignored or forgotten, for that legacy holds the key to transforming what commentators increasingly refer to as America’s “culture wars.” Americans now find themselves separating into two camps and taking sides against each other over the role of religion in American politics: each camp invoking the power and authority of the First Amendment; each camp – in its own way – seeking to protect and defend the rights of religious belief in America. The flashpoints are known to all: abortion, same sex marriage, intelligent design vs. evolution, and the place of religious expression in the public arena – posting the Ten Commandments in state and county courthouses; reciting the phrase, “under God,” in the Pledge of Allegiance; and saying prayers in public schools.
Inside the troubled world of religion and politics in America today, it is difficult for any American to think clearly and creatively about how to make things different: common ground is increasingly hard to find; peacebuilding strategies are increasingly hard to imagine; and the religious motivations at play in the conflict make it seem all the more complicated and intractable. To transform this conflict, Americans will need to cultivate some new habits of mind – and the peacebuilding achievements of Sargent Shriver provide a helpful model.
Sargent Shriver grounded all the programs he created in a core set of values that he variously identified as service, dedication, compassion, humility, reciprocity, and the spirit of charity. He referred to these values as “spiritual values,” institutionalizing them in concrete, effective ways that in turn opened possibilities for building peace without the negative, polarizing effect of politicizing religion. Inspired by Sargent Shriver, SSPI is dedicated to helping Americans to cultivate religious and political imaginations that can on the one hand, affirm the genuinely spiritual and religious dimension of human living without reducing it to a matter of personal opinion or a private affair of the heart, and on the other, bring spiritual beliefs and values into the public arena without overriding freedom of conscience in matters of religious belief and practice. For to transform the conflict over the role of religion in politics in America, Americans must begin to talk to each other about how to spiritualize politics without politicizing religion.