When religion and politics mix
A Trinity researcher keeps tabs on the latest trends
A Trinity-based collaborative, the Hartford Film Project, with a
consortium of local partners,
produces a feature-length film about a dramatic moment in the
by Christine Palm
Photograph by Nick Lacy
The importance of religion in the last presidential election
may have come as a surprise to some, but to Mark Silk, associate
professor of religion in public life, the so-called "religion gap"
is a familiar topic. Silk has served as director of Trinity's
Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public
Life since its founding in 1996. As head of this nonsectarian,
nonpartisan research center, Silk is also editor of the journal,
Religion in the News.
As founding director of the center, Silk draws frequently on
his extensive background of research and reporting on religion and
the media. He edited the Boston Review from 1985 to 1987
and was a reporter, editorial writer, and columnist for the
Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 1987 to 1996. He is the
author of Unsecular Media: Making News if Religion in America
and Spiritual Politics: Religion and American Society Since
World War II. He also co-authored, with his late father,
New York Times economics columnist Leonard Silk, The
American Establishment and Making Capitalism Work. His
articles and book reviews have appeared in The New York Times,
The Boston Globe, The Hartford Courant, and many other
publications. Silk, who holds a both a B.A. and a Ph.D. from
Harvard, was a Harvard Graduate School of the Arts and Sciences
Fellow (1975-76) and in 1984 earned an award for best article of
the year from American Quarterly.
All these experiences have culminated in Silk's becoming a
nationally known analyst of how we understand, affect, and are
affected by religion in our daily life. More importantly, he is at
the helm of an institution whose relevance and importance increase
"The way in which our politics has taken on a strong religious
inflection is a major reality to be reckoned with," Silk says. "As
individuals, we at the Greenberg Center certainly are in favor of
people getting along, but institutionally the center is committed
to understanding what is going on in religion today. By studying
it and reporting on it, we make more salient the kind of religious
politics that we as a nation are dealing with. In the end, we see
it as our job to say things that are true, even if there are some
Gaining respect from the right. the
left. and the middle
What Silk returns to, again and again, is the Greenberg
Center's dedication to getting at the essence of the issues facing
the country today. "What we feel most strongly about is telling
the truth, and we let the chips fall where they may;" Silk says.
"One of the reasons we're appreciated is that people know we try
to be honest brokers of understanding and that we'll do a fair
job. And that goes for folks on the right as well as on the left
and in the middle. I think it's critical that there are places in
this culture, which is so divided, where people can go to get
One good example is the center's recent analysis of what Silk
calls "the religion gap" and how it affected the re-election of
George W. Bush. The Greenberg Center conducted research on the
degree to which religion has become a factor in politics and
regularly monitors public perception of candidates' faith, as
shaped by news reports.
"Since the early '90s, a religion gap has opened up, in which,
if you take the population as a whole, as opposed to a particular
religious-social grouping, you find that people who attend
religious institutions once a week or more are very much more
likely to vote Republican. One needs to take care in interpreting
numbers, and it will take time for us to sort this out, but it
looks as if the president made inroads with a new voting populace.
"I have mixed feelings about being involved in making this
religion gap clear;" Silk admits. "It has received a lot of
coverage and in some ways has affected the way the election was
understood. And one could reasonably argue that it might have been
better if people had been less aware of that difference," because
it may have further polarized the nation.
The study of religion in a liberal
How does all this relate to Trinity—the institution that is home
to the Greenberg Center?
"Our stand has been to try to be nonpartisan, which is
consistent with Trinity's own nonsectarian position," Silk says.
"We are part of a liberal arts college where the teaching of
religion is done in a way that is academic and even-handed. That's
how we think journalists ought to do it. You bring your human
sympathy and your ability to call upon your understanding of what
motivates people. If you're hostile to religion, that's a problem,
but I like to think we get it right most of the time!"
In 1996, when Trinity alumnus Leonard E. Greenberg' 48 gave the
seed money to establish the research center, it was with the
understanding that the institution might not be needed after a
while. But its relevance is stronger now than ever, and the
center, tucked away in a small brownstone Victorian on Vernon
Street, is a nationally recognized powerhouse of rational thinking
on the topic.
"The center was established on a five-year provisional basis,
and it was a somewhat novel thing for a small liberal arts college
to do—to establish a center for the study of religion in public
life," Silk recalls. "They came up with a blueprint that was not
very prescriptive in terms of what exactly we'd do. Because of my
journalistic background; my relationships with foundations; and my
book, Unsecular Media, it became natural that the tensions
between religious and secular values would become a focus. The
idea was quite salient, and people were interested in that. In
many ways, the timing couldn't have been better."
Part of that critical timing had to do with the arrival of
Andrew Walsh. Walsh, a former religion writer for The Hartford
Courant and Harvard Ph.D., now serving as a visiting assistant
professor of religion, became the perfect partner with whom Silk
could form the center's mission.
"As a collaborator, Andrew is more than you could ask for,"
says Silk. "We've really combined talents, and I'm quite aware I
couldn't have done what we've done by myself."
A transformation in American politics
It soon became apparent that the center would have a much longer
lifespan than originally forecast. In addition to funding from
Greenberg and his Leonard E. Greenberg Endowment for Judaic and
Middle Eastern Studies at Trinity College, the center has also
received support from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., the Luce
Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Rockefeller
"The transformation in American politics was unanticipated, but
has made a splash quadrennially," says Silk. "Now, religion has
become a very significant part of the scene. For better or worse,
religion in public life is on the increase in importance in the
United States and elsewhere, and from some people's standpoint,
this would be the silver lining in our work. The country is
struggling-as is the whole world-to figure out Islam and in
particular political Islam and what its proponents want to do. In
addition, we've had a transformation in national politics. The
activist base of the Republican Party is now a religious community
of white evangelicals. The analogy I like to draw is with the
labor movement of 1930s and how it tied itself to the Democratic
Party and became that party's institutional base."
The center's newsletter, Religion in the News, has
become a respected vehicle for helping people understanding these
and other, related trends in a rapidly changing world. It is sent
three times a year to about 9,000 religion reporters, news
analysts, and academics across the country. This is an impressive
circulation for a college publication, and Silk points out with
pride that it is authoritative enough for a professional
readership and simple enough for a lay audience.
"When we're interpreting polls, looking at fights within the
church, the Catholic crisis—all these things are going to be in
the News, and when we do programs for people at Trinity,
such as conferences and workshops, we do them in the same register
as when we're operating in our national context. The journal is
widely read and used-it's our calling card. We think it's good for
the College' that policy experts get a regular mailing from
Trinity every year."
Silk has seen clearly the changes in the public's perception of
how religion plays out in our daily lives—regardless of our
personal faith practices. And while the center does not exactly
report on the news, it does report on those who report on the
news. As such, it's not unusual for Silk to feel that he straddles
the gap between the media and media analysts.
"The terrific thing about our specialty being the
interpretation of issues is that we operate in the 'demilitarized
zone' between the academy and the news media," he says. "We deal
with issues of interest to a general public—including our
undergraduates—and we deal with them in a way that is accessible
to people who are not professionals in the field."
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