COLUMBIA — After the last two presidential elections, the impact of religious faith on electoral politics cannot be underestimated. That will likely be the case in 2008 as well, although the Democrats’ approach to the issue will be key to whether Republicans continue to attract the majority of people who bring their faith into the voting booth.
To broaden the discussion, the MU Center on Religion and the Professions is hosting a film series called “Religion and Politics.”
Amy White, outreach coordinator for the Center on Religion and the Professions, said the 16-film series is a way to increase awareness about religion in politics before the next presidential election.
“People didn’t have the language to talk about faith,” White said of the 2000 and 2004 elections. “The Republican Party had the language to talk about faith. The question was how the Democratic Party could remain itself and establish a way to talk about faith.”
White said the Iraq War was another impetus for the film series, as well as the backgrounds of two presidential contenders: Mitt Romney, a Mormon, and Barack Obama, who attended an Islamic school in Indonesia when he was a boy.
The series begins Wednesday with “Malcolm X” and ends April 30 with “The Great Warming.” The movies will be shown at Fisher Auditorium in the Missouri School of Journalism, except for “Lake of Fire,” which will be shown Nov. 14 at Ragtag Cinemacafé.
The films take on complex and contentious issues, such as abortion , religion in government and the conflict between Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese in Sri Lanka.
Some of the films, such as “Kundun” and “Romero,” deal with how violent political repression has affected religion in other countries. But, for Americans, the two films that focus on evangelical Christianity and how it helped elect and re-elect Bush may hit home the most.
“For some Americans, a person’s religion and religiosity is an information-rich fact about the kind of person one is and what that person is likely to do in office,” said John Petrocik, professor of political science at MU.
Debra Mason, director of the Center on Religion and the Professions, said the series is an “entertaining yet memorable way” to remind people about the role faith and spirituality play in local, national and world political events.
Robert K. Johnston, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological University in Pasadena, Calif., said film is a way to engage people from different religions and backgrounds in conversation. No longer is it taboo to talk with your neighbor or even complete strangers about religion, Johnston said.
“It was thought to keep one’s spirituality private before, but this doesn’t work,” Johnston said. “Today we are encouraged to express our spiritual commitments but be tolerant of others.”
Johnston said the film series could help people understand the spiritual dimensions of people involved in politics, although he does not think the movies will be completely capable of changing one’s political ideals. “Whether such dialogue and conversation can have the specific payoff of defining one’s position, I doubt it,” he said. “But perhaps it’s necessary to get us in touch with the stories that inform our culture.”
The Center on Religion and the Professions has invited members of local churches to attend the screenings of the films. Kevin Larson, pastor of Karis Community Church in Columbia, said learning about different religions is a way to understand political candidates who talk openly about their faith during campaigns.
“Each politician, no matter what they say, is influenced by their world views,” Larson said. “We’re all coming from a set of assumptions, and everyone is making choices based on these assumptions.”