Religion and Politics Up Close at Chautauqua
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the two-week long intensive undergraduate honors seminar in interreligious dialogue that Susan Abraham and I are teaching at St. Bonaventure University in association with the Chautauqua Institution has entered its more experiential phase of the program. For a week we and our students spend the day at Chautauqua, attending the famous “10:45 Lectures” and afternoon Religion Lectures at the Hall of Philosophy, while having the extraordinary opportunity to meet one-on-one with some of the famous speakers and figures that come to this remote center of learning to lecture to crowds numbering 5,000 or more!
Our day began with our daily commute from the campus of St. Bonaventure University out to Chautauqua, where we arrived shortly before the daily “10:45 Lecture,” a world-renown tradition at Chautauqua that has featured — and continues to feature — some of the most influential thinkers, politicians, educators and innovators in the world.
This morning we were treated to the first in a week-long series of discussions led by the veteran journalist Jim Lehrer of PBS’s NewsHour and noted, 11-time moderator of US Presidential Debates. Every morning of this week Lehrer will host key figures in the area of politics, culture, media and religion to discuss “What Informed Voters Need to Know.”
His conversation partner, or interviewee as it were, was Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center who gave a fascinating presentation and discussion on polling and the various factors that are aligning now in the 2012 US Presidential race.
In the afternoon we attended the lecture of Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, who, although physically unable to attend in person because of an emergency medical procedure that prevented her from visiting Chautauqua, was made present in her address that was delivered in absentia. The director of the Department of Religion at Chautauqua, Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, delivered Sr. Joan’s address with conviction and power. It was very well received by the audience, which remained standing-room-only despite the announcement that the well-known Sr. Joan Chittister would be unable to be there in person due to the sudden medical emergency.
After listening to Sr. Joan’s address, titled “An Uncommon Search for the Common Good,” our students were privileged to spend some one-on-one time with the Rev. Oliver “Buzz” Thomas, the resident chaplain for the week at Chautauqua, and a nationally known attorney and legal scholar of religion and civil law. He taught First Amendment Law at Georgetown University Law School and practiced law on the Hill in DC for years before returning back to his native Tennessee, where he now heads the foundation Great Schools Partnership and is a columnist for USA Today. What was supposed to be a fifteen-minute discussion turned into a forty-five minute conversation that was lively, engaging and extraordinarily informative. Rev. Thomas’s insight into the judicial process of the United States and its relationship to religion is amazing and his insights, commentary and observations were exceptionally helpful.
A full day for sure, but just one among an entire week dedicated to such experiences. Tomorrow our students are scheduled to meet Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Kahn, the renowned Muslim leaders whose work has been pioneering in the field of inter-faith and interreligious dialogue and cooperation. Imam Feisal is perhaps best known for the founding the Cordoba Initiative, an independent, multi-faith and multi-national project that works to improve “Muslim-West” relations. However, after the media storm of 2009, he became most noted for his association with the Park51 project in lower Manhattan, pejoratively referred to by certain media outlets as the “Ground Zero Mosque.” It is sure to be another extraordinary day of learning and discussion!