The Trinity Reporter Winter 2005
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 city’s history

by Christine Palm
Photograph by Nick Lacy

  Mark Silk, associate professor of religion in public life

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 daily.

"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 consequences."

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 unbiased information."

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 arts setting
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 Foundation.

"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."

back to top



James F. Jones, Jr., Inaugurated as Trinity College President
The Panthers, poverty, and the peace movement
Destination Trinidad!
Academic work and internships give Trinity students new insights into island culture.
Faculty Profile
When religion and politics mix: A Trinity researcher keeps tabs on the latest trends
Student Profile
Making time to serve others: Maria Taverna '05
Alumnus Profile
ice vision
Bryant McBride '88
Special Supplement:
Shoot the Messenger
Jeffry Walker, Director of Performing Arts Programming and Promotion, Austin Arts Center
Reporter Archive

Trinity College, Hartford, CT 06106-3100  |  860-297-2000