By Madeline Kirsch
On Saturday, May 19, Professor of Political Science Emeritus Byron A. Nichols presented on “Religion and the 2012 US Presidential Election…OMG.” The Ramée Circle Society breakfast was held in College Park Hall and drew primarily older alumni.
Nichols, who arrived at Union in 1968 and taught courses on comparative and international politics and served as department chair, opened his presentation with an anecdote.
When his father became a pastor, Nichols’ grandfather (also a clergyman) told him to never talk about politics and religion in order to avoid trouble with his father’s congregation. He pointed this out as “the tension, not harmony, between religion and politics [most people] experience.”
Ever-prepared, Nichols handed out a cheat-sheet to attendees. It provided definitions of politics and religion and detailed the three “kinds of religion—sacramental, which includes ancient faiths and primitive religions; prophetic, under which modern Christianity, Judaism and Islam fall; and mystical, which includes Hinduism and Zen Buddhism.”
Though he only focused on prophetic religion, Nichols said, “What is being allocated [in politics] are society’s values—morally, as well as non-moral basics like efficiency and effectiveness.” This provided a broad link between religion, which the handout partly defined as “beliefs and doctrines…a moral code for how to lead one’s life” and politics.
He noted that despite the separation of church and state, “all of the political leadership has virtually accepted the role of Christianity as the basic way of thinking.” One example is the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement by clergy, especially in the Protestant denomination.
And though the Catholic Church has had some recent problems with abuses of power, many hospitals carry religious affiliations. “There is a great tradition of religions leading out front in human action,” Nichols said, “and this is the way we interpret the teaching of scriptures.”
Addressing why the Founding Fathers didn’t cite religious belief as the basis of what they were doing, he explained, “Most of [them] were Christian and they were deists, which is that God is all-powerful and all-loving who created the world, created man and then turned it over for men to run.”
With regards to the upcoming election, a 2006 Pew Forum survey showed that 38 percent of Americans would be willing to accept a Mormon president. The Mormon church is the only major religion not to have specialized clergy, and Nichols believes this may hinder their progress.
When asked to predict a winner of the election, he said he didn’t know, but it was “more a question of who will lose than who will win,” given some Democrats’ disappointment with President Obama and disillusionment about many of the early Republican candidates.
Nichols concluded, “It’s perfectly normal, natural and ideal that politics and religion get fused together in a context where church and state are separate.” Former Professor of Chemistry Alan L. Maycock, who created the Byron A. Nichols Endowed Fellowship for Faculty Development with Susan Mullaney Maycock ‘72, said, “[The lecture] was brilliant and exemplified why it’s important for that kind of teaching to go on at Union.”
Scott Muirhead ‘68 added that it was “interesting and thought provoking, and that it’s clear why Nichols won a Stillman Prize.”