Making Space for Faith in Liberalism

January 1, 2017

Dahlgren Chapel

We sat in silence with our eyes closed for half an hour, contemplating the people who motivate and inspire us. Those in attendance could share their thoughts periodically, but there was no pressure to speak.

It was 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and I was at a Quaker meeting in the John Main Center. At the beginning of the meeting, I was greeted with open arms even though I had no experience and next to no knowledge of the Quaker faith. A small group of people gathered in a circle, most of whom I was surprised to learn were in a similar boat as me: non-religious and looking to explore or happy to find comfort in a faith they don’t necessarily share. That half hour was the most cathartic, meditative experience I’ve had since beginning my time at Georgetown. But, instead of telling my friends the truth about that night, I told them I was going to Lau to study.

At the beginning of the school year, I established myself as liberal and non-religious to my new friends, who also happened to share my beliefs. However, throughout the semester I’ve found myself more and more interested in exploring religion. A loss in my family prompted me to try reading the Bible. More than once, when reading the Bible in public, I have been asked if I was doing homework for Problem of God, a class I’m not even taking this semester.

This experience made me more conscious of the stigma surrounding actively religious people on campus. Oftentimes, assumptions can be made about devout people—that they don’t believe in science or evolution or that they are against a woman’s right to choose. Religious people can be looked down upon as uneducated or as holding counterfactual ideas. This stigma exists not just on Georgetown’s campus but in our society at large, particularly in liberal circles. I hadn’t been as aware of it until now because I’ve been complicit in the stigmatization. My friends and I have used terms such as “right-wing religious nutjob,” “fanatical Bible thumper,” and “Jesus freak” in reference to religious people, mostly Republican politicians or evangelical Christians.

Liberals can no longer afford to be dismissive and condescending in response to false stereotypes surrounding our religious peers. In the 2016 presidential election, Protestants, white Catholics, and Mormons all overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump, while a large majority of religiously unaffiliated people voted for Hillary Clinton, the Pew Research Center reported. Interestingly, since the 2012 election, the Democratic Party has lost varying degrees of support from all religious voting blocs besides Jews and Mormons. This is partly due to the fact that they are often excluded from liberal circles based on their beliefs.

Just because someone identifies as religious doesn’t mean that they subscribe to every tenet of their religion. I have met religious feminists and Catholics who, while they personally disagree with the concept of abortion, will not impose their moral beliefs on others.

The Democratic Party platform includes a dedication to guaranteeing women’s rights and protecting reproductive health policies. However, it also includes an affirmation of the role of religion: “Democrats know that our nation, our communities, and our lives are made vastly stronger and richer by faith in many forms and the countless acts of justice, mercy, and tolerance it inspires.”

Religious groups should not be excluded from liberal circles in our communities and discussions in our dining halls, especially when the Democratic Party platform attempts to draw religious groups and perspectives into the debate and includes policies with which they may overwhelmingly agree. Catholic or Christian ideology is not in conflict with Democratic ideology.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Just because I attended one Quaker meeting doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly converted, but I’d like the opportunity to figure out my spiritual beliefs without worrying about what my liberal friends will think. College is the perfect time to explore religion. For many of us, it’s the first time we are away from home and, by extension, somewhat separated from our parents’ belief systems. It is a time to formulate our beliefs for ourselves. Some of us were raised in ultra-religious households and will use college as an opportunity to break free of the religious constraints in which we were raised. And some of us were brought up in nonreligious households and will use college to figure out our own beliefs, separate from parentally-imposed, atheistic lifestyles. Whatever we decide, we all chose a school with the perfect environment for religious exploration, growth, and education.

To clarify, I don’t believe in the so-called “War on Christmas” and I certainly don’t believe that devout Christians are somehow a persecuted group in this country. However, in heavily intellectual spheres such as college campuses, religion can be looked down upon, particularly by atheistic or liberal professors. One of the benefits of attending Georgetown is the opportunity to be taught by Jesuits, dedicated religious figures with rich knowledge of their faiths and others. This provides students with the ability to be educated on a wide array of religious traditions, promoting tolerance and understanding.

Georgetown, a Catholic school, was the first American college to hire Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish chaplains. The University also won the White House’s Interfaith Community Service Award this year. Our religious programs are robust and flourishing, and the University embraces Jesuit values such as acceptance, dedication to helping others, and commitment to justice.

The day after the presidential election, I attended an Interfaith Solidarity Service in the Dahlgren Quad. It was an incredibly unifying and healing experience. I’ve never felt more connected to the students who attend class with me than as we bonded in prayer in an open environment. We, as a student body, must continue these practices more consistently, truly embracing the mission of our University.

It’s really difficult to suddenly proclaim yourself as religious or to even mention attending a religious event to friends when they regularly make derisive comments about religion. Establishing yourself as nonreligious theoretically gives liberal friends a pass to freely express their beliefs regarding religion because they don’t think there’s anyone around to offend. However, when you mention that you’re religious, conversations surrounding politics or religion may become stilted or more guarded.

When I really thought about it, I realized how much of a subtle role religion actually plays in my life. My roommate and I love sitting in Dahlgren Chapel, enjoying the silence and the reverent atmosphere. And in difficult times, I find myself praying even though I don’t believe anyone is listening.

Religion is not always a positive force. At times it is used to justify bigotry and hatred, acting as a negative influence. Many people have felt excluded from religion based on their sexual orientation or the way they choose to live their lives. But, it is my prevailing belief that religious values of kindness, unconditional respect, charity, and love are guiding forces for how we should live our lives.

Let’s never again make assumptions about people based solely on their religion. Our peers’ religious beliefs should never hinder or stifle political conversations out of a lack of compassion or respect. Everyone should feel included and encouraged in political debates. Let’s stop stigmatizing our religious peers and create a free environment for religious exploration on this campus.

Sienna is a freshman in the College.

Sienna Brancato
is a senior in the College majoring in English and minoring in Government and Italian. She has done some things for the Voice, and will continue to do some things.

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