Conference links faith with society

By Jordan Morris
Assistant News Editor 

Five distinguished scholars of religious and social thought will discuss the complex intersection between faith and social issues March 6 and 7 in a conference entitled “Religion and Public Virtue.”

Pepperdine School of Law professor Dr. Robert Cochran summed up his estimation of the event’s importance.

“It will give our students and faculty an opportunity to think about the role that their faith should have in their relationship to the state and the culture around them,” he said. “Too often, our faith is just a private thing. The scriptures of both Christians and Jews teach a faith that has things to say about all of life.”

Planning for the event began almost two years ago when a committee of five Pepperdine faculty members sketched ideas for a conference of scholarly lectures as an application for a Lilly Fellows Program grant, which would benefit the university’s mission to expand Christian scholarship.

The committee contacted “heavy hitters” of Christian thought from all over the country to deliver the lectures, committee member Dr. Richard Hughes, professor of religion, said.

Despite efforts from Hughes and his colleagues, Baylor University in Waco, Texas, won the grant from the Valparaiso University-based Lilly Fellows Program.

With five speakers who Hughes called “the top people in their fields” committed to participate in the proposed conference, Hughes said he was prepared to press forward with the event.

“For students to have the opportunity to hear this caliber of scholars speak on this topic is incredible,” he said.

Hughes is the director of the Center for Faith and Learning, the organization that is presenting the event.

According to the Pepperdine Web site, the Center for Faith and Learning seeks to enhance the connections between classroom teaching, scholarship and Christian faith and practice.

The center operates within the office of the provost, Dr. Darryl Tippens. He echoed Hughes’ high anticipation of the event.

“We are fortunate that at this precise moment of challenge Pepperdine University is able to host some of the greatest thinkers on such subjects as the American character and the seminal values that build a strong society,” he said.

Among the scholars who will attend the March 6-7 conference is the 2000 National Humanities Award winner, Dr. Richard N. Bellah, professor emeritus of sociology and comparative studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Students expressed excitement at Bellah’s arrival.

“When I heard Richard Bellah was coming, I got really excited,” Jacob Parnell, a senior religion major, said, referring to his prior knowledge of Bellah’s accomplishments.

Bellah’s speech, “Can We Be Citizens of a World Empire?” will keynote the conference, which serves as an installment in the Dean’s Lecture Series March 6 at 7 p.m. in Smothers Theatre.

The remaining four speakers will present their lectures throughout the following day in Smothers. All will follow with question and answer discussion sessions.

Dr. Jean Elshtain, professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, will kick off day two of the events with a 9 a.m. lecture entitled “Religion and Civic Identity.”

Michael W. McConnell, presidential professor at the University of Utah College of Law, will follow with “Religion, Public Virtue and Disestablishment at the Founding: How Did the Pieces Fit Together?”

He formerly clerked for Justice William J. Brennan of the U.S. Supreme Court before becoming a professor. Cochran co-authored “Christian Perspectives on Legal Thought” with McConnell, a close friend of the law professor.

Cochran reflected on several of his colleague’s accomplishments.

“(McConnell) argued and won several of the most important religious freedom cases of the last decade before the Supreme Court,” Cochran said. “(He) is among a handful of people who have been identified as likely choices of (President) George Bush for the United States Supreme Court.”

Dr. Stephen Monsma, a Seaver professor of political science, said he is also looking forward to McConnell’s lecture.

“I have read many of his works and I believe he has a more insightful, balanced approach to issues of church and state than any other commentator today,” he said. “His approach assures more religious freedom for persons of all faiths than anyone else I know.”

Fuller Theological Seminary President Dr. Richard Mouw, a nationally recognized leader in theological education, will present “A Spirituality for Public Virtue” at 2 p.m.

Dr. James Hunter, a professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Virginia, will wrap up the series of lectures with “The Public Good and the Quandary of Particularity.”

Cochran praised Hunter’s scholarship.

“His book, ‘The Culture Wars,’ was a groundbreaking description and analysis of the divisions within American culture over abortion, homosexuality and pornography,” Cochran said. “The different sides in the culture war … seem to be in agreement that James Hunter’s analysis of that war is correct.”

Graduate student of divinity Cliff Barbarick expressed overall enthusiasm about the conference.

“To have scholars on this scale (speak) is incredible,” he said. “It will be very eye-opening.”

Monsma agreed.

“I think this will be one of the most important conferences ever held at Pepperdine,” he said. “It is bringing together absolutely top-flight scholars with national reputations.”

The event will bring Pepperdine a great public relations opportunity, Cochran said.

According to Hughes, brochures advertising the event will be sent out to every university in Southern California.

“It is my hope that students from all over will attend at least one or two of these lectures,” he said.

Tippens said the conference was “vital and quite timely.”

“You can be certain that speakers like Robert Bellah and Richard Mouw will bring ideas to us that are timely, relevant and deeply rooted in the great values that will sustain our society during a time of trial,” he said.

The Center for Faith and Learning recommends that all who wish to participate in the conference return a filled-out reservation form to the center’s offices. The form is located on the back of the event bulletin disseminated to campus mailboxes Wednesday.