updated 4/16/2006 12:58:45 PM ET 2006-04-16T16:58:45

MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Easter Sunday, a special edition: Faith in America. With us, Sister Joan Chittister of the Order of St. Benedict and author, “Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir”; Rabbi Michael Lerner of the Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in California and author, “The Left Hand Of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right”; Jon Meacham, managing editor, Newsweek magazine, and author, “American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation”; Sayyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic Studies, George Washington University and author, “The Heart of Islam:

Enduring Values for Humanity”; Reverend Richard John Neuhaus, editor, First Things, and author, “Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy and the Splendor of Truth”; and Joel Osteen, senior pastor, Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, and author, “Your Best Life Now; 7 Steps To Living At Your Full Potential.” And in our MEET THE PRESS Minute, almost 50 years ago, this program was examining this same topic with noted evangelist the Reverend Billy Graham.

(Videotape, June 9, 1957):

REV. BILLY GRAHAM: We have a great deal of church-going in America, but we’re not relating this church-going to our personal daily lives.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: And we welcome you all on this Easter Sunday morning to talk about Faith in America. Let me begin our discussion for our panel and our viewers by quoting Jon Meacham from your book, “American Gospel.” “As it was in the beginning, so it has been since: an American acknowledgement of God in the public sphere, with men of good will struggling to be reverent yet tolerant and ecumenical. That the Founding Fathers debated whether to open the American saga with prayer is wonderfully fitting, for their conflicts are our conflicts, their dilemmas our dilemmas. Largely faithful, they knew religious wars had long been a destructive force in the lives of nations, and they had no wish to repeat the mistakes of the world they were rebelling against. And yet they bowed their heads.

“More than two centuries on, as millions of Americans observe Passover and commemorate Easter, the role of faith in public life is a subject of particularly pitched debate. From stem cells and science to the Supreme Court, from foreign policy and the 2008 presidential campaign to evangelical “Justice Sundays,” the questions of God and politics generates much heat but little light. Some Americans think the country has strayed too far from God; others fear that religious zealots (from the White House to the school board) are waging holy war on American liberty; and many, if not most, seem to believe that we are a nation hopelessly divided between believers and secularists.

“History suggests, though, that there is hope, for we have been fighting these battles from our earliest days and yet the American experiment endures.”

Jon Meacham, were people more religious at the founding of our country and were we more divided on moral issues back then than we are now?

MR. JON MEACHAM: I don’t think so. I think there’s a continuum of both religiosity and division on important issues of the heart and the mind. What the founders wanted to do, I think, and what I think the American gospel is, the great good news about America, is that religion shapes us without strangling us, and that we are a religious people, by and large. Our public institutions tend to reflect that. While keeping church and state separate, in the sense of an established church which had come—brought no good to nations that had gone that way, we were able to preserve the connection between religion and politics because people’s faith is essential in politics because politics is about people. It’s about their values; it’s about what matters to them. It’s like economics or geography. It is simply a part of the air we breathe.

MR. RUSSERT: Father Neuhaus, 90 percent of the people in our country say they believe in God.

REV. RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS: Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT: Why is there so much anger, so much rancor between people—amongst people who believe in God over moral issues?

REV. NEUHAUS: Well, I’ll tell you, Tim, I’m not sure there’s nearly as much anger and rancor as one would get the impression by reading, if you’ll excuse the expression, the mainstream media. I think a lot of people are very exercised about the religious right, for example, the theocons, the theocrats, that term is being—now being kicked around. There’s a fairly—and here I’d agree with Jon Meacham—a fairly constant and, you might say, normal condition of America in terms of both the vitality of religious faith, overwhelmingly of that 90 percent, 80 percent or so think they’re Christian, and in some crazy, conflicted, confused way, it is a Christian society with small minorities of others always negotiating the relationship between that and what it means in terms of allegiances to a particular religious tradition and then a national experiment. But is there that much rancor? I don’t think nearly as much as people think. People are going about their lives trying to do, essentially—and here, again, I’ll agree with Jon Meacham—religion cultures, the air that they breathe, trying to make the connections as to how they ought to live their lives and how they ought to lives together.

Aristotle said politics is the deliberation of how we ought to order our life together. So it is, in its very nature, a moral enterprise. And, for the great majority of Americans, when they’re asked about the source of their deepest convictions, their moral convictions, the answer that they’ll give is, in one way or another, religious in character. They’ll say the Bible, the Christian tradition, the church, the Judeo-Christian ethic. In other words, these are inseparable. Therefore, the politics, culture, morality, religion connection is the norm, and, within this norm, we are, from the founding fathers up through great critical moments such as the Civil War and the civil rights movement of the past century, we are in a continuing conversation, which is not always a civil conversation, but we ought to work at it being a civil conversation about Aristotle’s question: How ought we to order our life together?

MR. RUSSERT: Professor Nasr, are you troubled that some use religion as an excuse to do things that aren’t right or even immoral?

PROF. SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: Yes, I am, definitely, not only for Islam, but also for Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism; each has a great tradition in its own way. But there’s a deeper issue that is involved here that very few people pay attention to, namely that in Europe, and not the whole of Europe, just in Western Europe. In the 18th century, in a sense, religion lost a public arena and so-called secularist philosophies became dominant in the field of politics, science, which is very important, but it talks about if you believe in God today. But many of them deal with a secularist science which brings about all these moral issues and economics and the like. Since the second half of the 20th century, there is a revival which one might call the desecularization of the world, in contrast what everybody thought in the 19th century and early 20th century. Now, this desecularization of the world has brought with it the claim of religion again, to have something to say about those very domains from which it was cut off.

In the case of Islam, of course, Islam always believed that the domain of Caesar and domain of God were somehow related. In fact, I would agree with what Father said about Aristotle’s view about ethics, that politics has to do with ethics, ethics has to do with religion, and, therefore, politics is inseparable from religion.

But even in the Islamic world, there had been a drift towards not talking about religion directly in political matters. As in Israel, as in the United States, there is this very important issue of a struggle going on between people who had thought they’d already won the battle 200 years ago, and now, through the thrust of modern technology and science, believe that they hold sway over the minds of people, even if they believe in God in an abstract way, against their religion, which has now made a major comeback. And unfortunately, we live at a time when this cataclysmic, you might say, or archetectonic, if I can use a geological term, change that has taken place through the continents of religion and of secularism are undergoing very profound changes.

MR. RUSSERT: Sister Joan, you had warned of the emergence of a new Puritanism.

SISTER JOAN CHITTISTER: Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: What did you mean by that?

SISTER CHITTISTER: Well, what, what, what I’m concerned about is I, I talk about society now being at a crossover moment in time bigger than anything we’ve seen since the 16th or the 13th century, meaning we have a new science, and—as other speakers have said. It, it purports to concentrate on life issues. It’s bringing us to see life differently. We have a new globalism. We’re not comfortable; we’re not in our own bailiwicks anymore. Everybody’s in the same bailiwick with us, which means we have to look at, newly, what pluralism really means again.

We have to choose now with whether or not we want religion, that is this thing that binds us together, that is somehow or other genetically wired in us, that, that Aristotle talks about, that all the churches talk about. Or do we want denominationalism. What, what church, what religion do we want? Do we want the religion of the Crusades and the Inquisition and the witch burnings and segregation and slavery and the oppression of women and Puritanism that led to Prohibition, that didn’t last because it was somebody’s creed imposed on everybody else’s creed? Or do we want the religion of the peace movement that Jesus talked about, and the, the labor movement and the civil rights movement.

This new Puritanism is this notion that somehow or other, by failing to honor honorable traditions, that we’ll be a better, holier people. It didn’t work before, it’s not working now, it’s not going to—it’s not going to take America into the future.

MR. RUSSERT: Rabbi Lerner, you said this in your book: “The unholy alliance of the political Right and Religious Right threatens to destroy the America we love.”

But you also said this: “Most of us in the liberal world thought that the family crisis was made up by the Right - but it wasn’t made up. It was real. There was this real spiritual crisis, and the Right earned tremendous credibility by articulating the crisis.”

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: Absolutely, and I give a lot of credit to the political right, and particularly the religious right for recognizing that crisis. There is a real spiritual crisis in the lives of most Americans, and in the book “The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right,” I interviewed 10,000 middle-income working families and learned in detail about the way in which spending day after day in a world of work in which the bottom line is to maximize money and power, and in which people learned that the common sense of the world of work, of our economy, is to look out for number one, nobody else is there to protect you, and hence to see other people from the standpoint of what they can do for you, how they can be of use, this utilitarian, instrumental way of looking at the world comes home into personal life where it undermines loving relationships and families.

Now, unfortunately, the political right has—and particularly the religious right—has often blamed the selfishness and materialism that, in fact, surrounds people and undermines loving connection, undermines families, makes—undermines friendships, they’ve blamed that very often on the demeaned others of the society. In Europe, the, the political right used to blame that on the Jews. In the United States, it’s now not only Native Americans and African-Americans that get blamed, but gays and lesbians, feminists and most recently, all secular people and all liberals are blamed as though we had introduced the selfishness and materialism into the society when, in fact, the—that selfishness is deeply rooted in the ethos of capitalism.

And in the—and see, what I, I think is critical is to understand that there is a religion that dominates the public sphere today, and it’s the religion that validates that which can be measured, and that which can be validated through sense datum. And everything else is seen as irrelevant or, literally, nonsense. And that dominant religion has—plays into an ethos of selfishness, because what can be counted is money, but what can’t be measured is love and kindness and generosity.

So what we’ve said is, in the, in the organization we’re putting together, the Network of Spiritual Progressives, that there needs to be a new bottom line in this society, and that means taking religion—all the religions of human, of human experience, not just Christianity. My grandparents certainly wouldn’t have come here if they’d thought this was a Christian country. They came here because they thought they were going to be protected from being—having a religion imposed on them. But all, but all the religious and spiritual traditions of the human race have a common wisdom that can be applied as a counter to this selfishness and materialism that dominates in the old bottom line. We need a new bottom line of love and caring and kindness and generosity.

MR. RUSSERT: Pastor Osteen at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, 42,000 people come every Sunday to worship with you. You said this last summer:

“I’ve never been political. I have thoughts. I don’t think that a same-sex marriage is the way God intended it to be. I don’t think abortion is the best. I think there [is] a better way to live your life. But I’m not going to condemn those people. I tell them all the time our church is open for everybody.”

Every—are there any standards that people have to adhere to in order to come worship in your church?

PASTOR JOEL OSTEEN: No, Tim, there’s really not. We love this place being open. I, I think that’s what the, the gospel’s all about. I mean, Jesus was a friend of sinners and, you know, I don’t believe in going around condemning people and telling them all what they’re doing wrong. Obviously, you know, we try to present the truth to them and present the biblical ways that we see it, but no, Jesus didn’t come and condemn people and so I think that, you know, when you show love, when you open your heart, it seems like that’s where people respond. So that’s what our message is, has been about all these years.

MR. RUSSERT: Father Neuhaus, our—every—are all people welcome to the Catholic Church even if they may have views that differ from the hierarchy?

REV. NEUHAUS: Oh my goodness, yes. The only qualification is that you’re a sinner and know that you’re in need of a savior and, you know, this is Easter Sunday so we should mention that the occasion is the celebration of the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ over sin and death. The Catholic Church is—James—“Finnegan’s Wake”...

Offscreen Voice: James Joyce.

RABBI LERNER: James Joyce.

REV. NEUHAUS: James Joyce was fond of saying that—and in my little book, “Catholic Matters,” I have a defense of the literary source in this because it’s controverted among some scholars—but James Joyce said the Catholic Church is “here comes everybody.”

SISTER CHITTISTER: Mm-hmm.

REV. NEUHAUS: “Here comes everybody.” Otherwise known as a holy mother church, and a very promiscuous mother indeed, who reaches out to everybody. And as our Lord said, you know, “He came not to be served, but to serve.” And the church is the embodiment of Christ, the body of Christ. Now at that same time, we are sinners who are forgiven sinners and called to be saints. And so there is a universal call to holiness and entering in to the church is not simply to be entertained and spiritually uplifted and to find little, you know, spiritual tricks that make you feel good. It is a call to follow Jesus, and that is a most demanding and challenging call. As he said to the disciples, “Take up your cross and follow me. In this people will know that you love me, that you obey my commandments. There is not greater love than this, than to lay down your life.”

The struggling with that, what does it mean to respond to the universal call to holiness? What does it mean to walk the way of the cross? And there, thank God, there are a great diversity of ways. You call them apostolates, careisms, whatever, and they don’t fit any left, right, liberal, conservative kind of template at all. I mean, what was Mother Theresa? A conservative, a liberal? It just doesn’t make any sense to, to talk in those terms. You’re talking about people who have been, in the words of the great John Paul the Great, who history will surely call John Paul the Great, and he said, you know, to all these in the World Youth Days—I was talking to an old man once in Poland who had known John Paul when he was still—before he was still a priest, and I said, “What is it that is this electrically charged relationship between John Paul and these hundreds of thousands and millions of young people that gather on these World Youth Days?” And he says, “Oh, it’s very simple.” He says, “Lolek”—that was his nickname—“Lolek has just been saying the same thing for all these years. He just finds a thousand different ways to say it.” And so I said, “Well what is that?” And he says, “Well, what he is saying to these young people is settle for nothing less than moral and spiritual greatness. That’s what God created you for, and don’t cheat yourself.”

And I think that’s right. And that’s the invitation of the Catholic Church. Here comes everybody. Wide open, great diversity, disagreements, arguments at times, but all joined by the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ and responding to the universal call to holiness.

MR. RUSSERT: Sister Joan, you wrote an open letter when our new pope was selected: “Dear Pope,” and in it, “Do not make enemies of us.” Are you concerned that some Catholics do not feel welcome in their church because they have disagreements on issues like stem cell research or on gay rights or AIDS and condoms, or abortion or death penalty?

SISTER CHITTISTER: I, I’m simply asking that all of us realize that the answers we have right now in those arenas may well not be final answers. That we’re all struggling to find the best answers. We all say that, that life is, is our greatest value, but life has never been an absolute value. It’s not an absolute value in war, it’s not an absolute value in prisons, it’s not an absolute value in self-defense, for instance. So now all of a sudden you have a completely new set of life questions that some of us want to absolutize. I, I consider that a holy act. But another—others of us, out of a completely and equally sincere concern for life, answer those questions differently.

MR. RUSSERT: Abortion?

SISTER CHITTISTER: Anything. Stem cell research, abortion, any of those. At one time, for instance, the church was against dissection for the sake of, of medical research. We grew. I’m saying that this is a time of a lot of new questions. I’m agreeing that we’re in this together, that, that we have to see life as, as our basic value that we have. We’re politicizing religion. Having religion in the public arena is one thing, politicizing it is another. If we, if we do that, we’ll lose pluralism for Puritanism. We don’t want to do that. We’re risking the country at the same time.

The function of the church is to form and shape consciences. We have two different kinds of laws. We have laws that require and laws that permit. Nobody—when Catholics did not believe in divorce—do not believe in divorce.

We never asked the United States government to outlaw the divorce procedure. We never said that’s the only way this can be an honorable nation. Now we’re back into those kinds of questions. If we’re looking for, for, for a moral standard, we have to do something about looking at the national budget. Your national budget is theology walking. If we’re really a pro-life country and not a pro-birth country, we, we won’t be taking from all the life bodies in order to feed a war body. Somehow or other, we have got to be willing to live in our denominations the best we can in those denominations, growing—open to growing into answers that are coming to us from other people, other places, other sciences. That’s, that’s my great concern. I believe it’s you all come. I don’t want anybody in a, in a time of great newness and emerging ideas to say, “Everybody, but you.”

MR. RUSSERT: Professor Nasr, does Islam have specific precepts, guidance on issues like abortion, stem cell research, gay rights?

PROF. NASR: First of all, to, to answer the first question you asked, Father, to be a Muslim, you have to accept the unity of God. That is the only condition of the prophet, or the prophet, as well as all the other prophets before, including, of course, Christ and Moses and Abraham. And therefore, since Islam accepts the whole of the prophetic chain before it, its moral problems are very, very similar to those of Judaism and Christianity. All the points that you mentioned, about abortion, about gay rights, about something much more complicated, that is bioethics, this new bioengineering, pretty soon we’re going to have robots that will be like human beings, and the definition of what it means to be human being, all these very colossal, really ethical issues that Christians, not only Western society, Christians and Jews in Western society face, Islam faces exactly the same issues.

As far as abortion is concerned, Islam believes that until the 100th day of the conception of the fetus, God does not as yet breathe soul into it and although that fetus is potentially human, it’s not actually human. And since legal laws, as in Judaism, are for actual cases, not for potential cases, before that, if there’s an absolute necessity, not just out of whim or fancy, it’s not a sin to have abortion. After that, it is because you’re killing a human being.

Over the question of gay rights, Islam, like the book of Leviticus, which is a Bib—part of the Bible for both Christians and Jews, of course, opposes sodomy. But there is no emphasis upon it outside that of Judaism and Christianity. And in Islamic society, it’s quite interesting that the practice of homosexuality has been, I mean, from the way of mathematics, statistics, about the same as, as in Western society, Japanese society, Indian society, and people have gone about their business. It hasn’t been that they’ve hanged a sodomist every day up in a tree. That’s never happened. But legally speaking, and point of divine law, it is something which is disdained by God.

MR. RUSSERT: Pastor Osteen, I want to raise something that you talked about last year. You said, “One reason I think people quit coming to church is because there is no joy. It’s like going to a funeral—We like to have fun. People don’t like to be beat down and told what you’ve been done wrong.” And yet, isn’t part of religion repentance, acknowledgement of wrongdoing and sinful behavior?

PASTOR OSTEEN: I think it is, Tim. But the Bible also talks about how it’s the goodness of God that leads people to repentance. And I think we certainly have to repent and live a holy life, like the Father said a while ago. But I do think that in times past, and no particular church or denomination, but, you know, you’d leave church feeling pretty beat down, it’s like, “Man, I can’t, I can’t attain to what God wants me to be.” Well, we’ve tried to flip that around and let people know that God is a good God, that he’s for and that he’s on your side. And, yes, we have to obey and, yes, we have to be obedient, but when we do, I believe we can rise higher. And, you know, it doesn’t bother me a bit that people criticize us for people leaving the church here on Sunday feeling better than they were before. But I want people to go out challenged and inspired to know that, you know what, you can rise higher, you can overcome bad habits, you can beat addictions, you can be a better person, a better husband, a better wife. So, you know what, I like the fact that they come, they get challenged, get your heart right, find the areas you need to change, but then go home knowing you can do something about it.

MR. RUSSERT: Are there consequences for immoral behavior?

PASTOR OSTEEN: I think there are. I mean, I think God’s—you’re not going to receive God’s full blessings if you don’t obey his commands. And, you know, we were talking earlier about being selfish and having pride and adultery and things like that, yeah, I don’t think you’re going to reach and become all God wants you to be, because God doesn’t bless a life of disobedience.

MR. RUSSERT: I want to turn the conversation to politics, Jon Meacham, and cite a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and read it for all of us. “By far the most powerful new reality at the intersection of religion and politics is this: Americans who regularly attend worship services and hold traditional religious views increasingly vote Republican, while those who are less connected to religious institutions and more secular in their outlook tend to vote Democratic. ...

“This divide was very much in evidence in the 2004 presidential election. Voters who attend church more than once a week,” which is about 16 percent of us, “supported President George W. Bush over Senator John Kerry by a margin of 64% to 35%. ...

“Among those attending a house of worship once a week,” about 26% of us, “the margin was 58% to 41% in Bush’s favor. The candidates were virtually dead even (Bush 50%, Kerry 49%) among monthly church attendees, 14% of us, “and among the 28% of voters who attend church a few times a year, Kerry had the advantage by a margin of 54% to 45%. The senator’s lead was widest among the estimated 15% of the electorate that never attends worship services; Kerry pulled 62% of that group, compared with 36% for Bush.” What does that tell us about politics and religion in America?

MR. MEACHAM: I think the Democrats have lost their historic claim to the language of faith. Franklin Roosevelt, the founder of the modern Democratic Party, the only thing he said on D-Day 1944 was to read a prayer of his own composition that he used from the—wrote using the physical “Book of Common Prayer.” John Kennedy’s speeches were rife with theological references, the kicker of the great inaugural, “On Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” Lyndon Johnson clearly saw himself as a deliverer of captive peoples, whether they be African-American or the poor or those who lacked health care. I think that the Democratic Party in the last 30 years has lost that capacity to speak in terms that resonate with people who hold a religious view of the world.

And what’s—to me, what’s very important about America, and to go to Father Neuhouse’s point about the Catholic Church, is the country has its arms open. George Washington said, “We shall give to bigotry no sanction, to,” excuse me, “to persecution, no assistance.” And it’s very important that we remember that the idea of religious freedom has a religious basis, which is that if God himself did not compel obedience, then who are we to try? And I think in our political realm, we have to both practice mercy, we have to practice charity, we have to be forbearing or we risk slipping into a more theocratic way of being.

MR. RUSSERT: Rabbi Lerner, you wrote this in your book, “Most of those on the Left ... feel queasy even thinking about allying with spiritual and religious progressives. ... Many on the Left, to be blunt, hate and fear religion.” Why?

RABBI LERNER: Well, there’s a long history of this, first of all, because the left emerged in the struggle against feudalism and sided with the emerging capitalist class and adopted a world view that said that that which is real is that which can be verified through senses or measured. But there’s another more immediate experience, and many of the people on the—who have come into liberal or progressive movements have had the experience of being in oppressive, hierarchical, patriarchal, sexist, homophobic or racist churches. And that experience has led them to, I think, draw the wrong conclusion, namely that they’ve said, “Well, this is all religion.”

They forgot the voice of Martin Luther King Jr., where the left was strongest when it was speaking from a religious perspective. In other words, they, in, in a way, bought what the political right has succeeded in doing: convincing people that religion only means right-wing politics. So they focus on a wedge issue, like abortion or stem cell research, one of those, those kinds of issues, homosexuality, and they forget that the Bible also is calling every 50 years for a redistribution of wealth, every seven years to forgive all sins. Where are the fundamentalists on that? Well, the fundamentalists are suddenly forgetting about the word, the exact word of God, when it comes to financial redistribution of wealth to the people in the, in the society, but they are very exacting over their narrow issues.

And the left then ends up—those people who fled from repressive forms of religion identify all religion that way and don’t understand that, in fact, the aspiration to connect to the holy is a central need of human beings, a central aspect of reality that must be validated. That’s why we’re creating this Network of Spiritual Progressives to not only challenge the religious right, but also to demand a space in the liberal and progressive world for a spiritual consciousness.

MR. RUSSERT: Sister Joan, do you agree with Jon Meacham that Democrats have lost their way in terms of their ability to articulate spiritual and religious issues? And should the Democrats adopt the Sermon on the Mount, Beatitudes, as a way of connecting with the American voter?

SISTER CHITTISTER: Well, the Beatitudes are my standard of life. I happen to agree with both Jon and, and Rabbi Lerner. I, I think that what is happened is, yes, the Democrats have lost an, an aura of spiritual awareness, no doubt about that. At the same time, I don’t see the religious right as any more religious. They have, indeed, chosen a few of these new scientific issues, and they are defining that as religion. I’m saying, who deleted the rest of the commandments? How is it that you can do—that, that, that, that you can simply absorb corporate greed, political greed? That, that you can sit by and say nothing about a doctrine of preemptive war that is already been proven wrong before it, it’s even, even become old? How, how can you do those things and not find that moral?

How can, how can you say so inconsistently that if a legislator votes for this, he’s not Catholic? But I didn’t hear it said about Supreme Court judges. I don’t hear it said about prison guards or wardens, where capital punishment or war is concerned. We’re, we’re, we’re shifting. We’re moving. We’re, we’re focusing. I’m not saying that what we’re focusing on is even wrong; I’m just simply saying it is not religion. It is not the totality of religion. It’s often the totality of denominationalism. It’s, it’s going to erode the, the real religious foundation of this country.

MR. RUSSERT: Father Neuhaus, when Samuel Alito was nominated to the Supreme Court, you said that he did not have an obligation to follow his Catholic teachings on the bench. And that, in fact, would be a violation of Catholic teaching. What about United States senators? Why is there a different standard for them in terms of voting for legislation?

REV. NEUHAUS: Tim, if I may just preface that with saying, as I said earlier, the hard thing to achieve is disagreement. So much that passes for disagreement is simply confusion. And a hard thing to achieve is civil discourse. And it does trouble me deeply that we’ve heard in this conversation, if I may politely and gently say, some terrible things said about people who presumably belong to the religious right, or fundamentalists, that they are hypocritical, that they are selective in their faith, etc., etc. I don’t find that to be the case. God knows I don’t know, but I know a lot of evangelical Protestants, and the marvelous convergence and civility and deepening of Christian faith with Catholics and others, it’s one of the wonderful things that’s happening in our time.

Now to come to your question, yeah, the difference between a Supreme Court justice and a senator: A justice is precisely to have an extremely and disciplined modesty about his role. His role is not to advance his preferred policy options. It must not be that. He is the servant of the law to interpret the Constitution in accord with a certain judicial tradition of precedence, etc.

The senator or the congresswoman or congressman is in a very different position. They are there precisely to advocate what they believe is the course of greater justice and greater fairness, etc., in the society. So therefore, when you have, for example, a Catholic senator or congressperson who stands up and persistently, publicly, unapologetically, defiantly, again and again, says, “I do not believe what the church believes with regards to the moral imperative of protecting innocent, unborn human life.”

If you have a senator who says, or a congressperson who says, “Yes, I agree that the goal is and, as a Catholic, I am convinced in conscience that the goal is every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life, but I disagree with the bishops as to how we might get to that goal,” that is a different thing and their the—his or her relationship with the church is not compromised or impaired. But when you have, as we do have, many Catholic political figures persistently defying the very teaching of the church, the most fundamental teaching of the church with regard to the dignity of the human person at every stage of development and decline, then you have a problem where the bishop is required, because the bishop’s a pastor, is required to say to that person, “Hey, we better talk, because you are compromising your relationship with the church.” It’s not a political issue; it’s a ecclesial issue. It’s an issue with regard to the integrity of the life of the church.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you agree with that, Sister?

SISTER CHITTISTER: I, I, I think the distinction is a good one. I don’t think that it’s, it’s totally accurate. Fact of the matter is that a legislator can work very, very hard for these issues that, that mean so much to, to all of us; at the same time, have to work, as Father said later, differently in that arena. At the same time, you, you have parallel situations where it’s not being applied. You have Governor Kaine from Virginia, who is a Catholic, who says that he is opposed to capital punishment, but he will maintain the law. That...

REV. NEUHAUS: But, you know, Sister, capital punishment and abortion are not at the same level of teaching weight.

SISTER CHITTISTER: Well, I don’t know that, see. I think that...

REV. NEUHAUS: Oh, really?

SISTER CHITTISTER: Yeah. I think they are at this...

REV. NEUHAUS: Oh I, I—consult the catechism.

SISTER CHITTISTER: I think they, I think that they are not at the same level of teaching weight. I’m saying I’m not sure why.

REV. NEUHAUS: Oh.

SISTER CHITTISTER: I’m not sure why they’re not at the same level of teaching weight.

REV. NEUHAUS: Ah.

SISTER CHITTISTER: Because either, either life is of value or it’s not of value. Are we saying get them all born, but you can kill them anytime afterwards and it won’t mean as much? I doubt that. I think that this is part of what I said at the beginning. These are new issues emerging. We need a lot of these good conversations, and we need a lot of awareness that, somehow or other, we’re, we’re growing into both a new country and, and a new religious network.

MR. RUSSERT: Pastor Osteen, before we take a break, are, are there criteria that a politician must meet in order to attend your church and be a member in good faith and good standing?

PASTOR OSTEEN: Well, you know, Tim, we’d like to believe that they’re going to follow the Bible and how we interpret it, but I can’t say that we give them any kind of test or anything like that and, you know, in our church, Tim, we’ve got Republicans, Democrats and all kinds of different, different people from different political backgrounds. So, you know what? We encourage them to vote, to search their own hearts, to feel their own convictions, but no, there’s not any certain criteria that they have to meet. We have, like I said, Democratic senators and Republican senators. And opening day, Nancy Pelosi was here and Governor Perry. You know, all different parties.

MR. RUSSERT: We’re going to take a quick break. We’ll be right back with more of our discussion, Faith in America, right after this.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: More on our discussion, Faith in America, on this Easter Sunday morning after this station break.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: And we are back.

Professor Nasr, after September 11, 2001, Americans learned a lot about Islam they didn’t know. Many hear words like infidel. What does that mean?

PROF. NASR: First of all, you have two currents opposing each other. A lot of people learn a lot about Islam, but a lot of people are also misled about Islam. A great deal of misinformation came into the market of ideas, you might say, as well as, of course, authentic teachings, and this itself helped those extremists in the Islamic world who wanted to have such ideas propagated in the West about Islam. So it was kind of like yin-yang situation. One helping the other.

As far as the word infidel of co—is concerned, of course, it’s—the Latin word means “lacking faith.” The Arabic word for it is kufr, which mean to cover a truth over. And the Quran, the sacred scripture of Islam, explicitly says that those who are infidels are not only non-Muslims—in fact, Christians and Jews can go to heaven, and they can be people of faith, and there’re people among Muslims who, if they do not follow their religion, they become infidels.

The usage of infidel as a political term goes back really to the consequence of the Middle Ages, especially during the colonial period when our Muslims consider those people who were colonizing them or, during the Crusades, killing us, being infidels. But technically and theologically speaking, infidel means someone who really does not have faith in God.

MR. RUSSERT: So we are witnessing a struggle for the soul of Islam.

PROF. NASR: Yes. I think also the soul for Christianity and Judaism and everything else. But the case of Islam seems to be so much in discussion because the Islamic world is a vast world. If we were like Tibetan Buddhism with just a few million people, nobody would talk about it very much. You have unbelievable transformations taking place within the Islamic world. Tensions; at the same time, remarkable revivals of a very positive kind. And this idea of the soul of Islam, I don’t like this idea very much, because the soul of Islam is, is given by God; there’s no struggle for it. That’s a God-given revelation like Christianity or Judaism or anything like that.

But there is a struggle, deep struggle, going on for the understanding of what Islamic teachings are and a kind of rebellion against what Muslims have believed and practiced for the last 1400 years by a small group of people extremely angry and bitter about the historical and military defeat of the Islamic world during the colonial period, the post-colonial period, and now a cultural economic domination with apparent, outward political freedom and no way of having an outlet, politically in their own countries because of various dictatorships, most of which are, unfortunate, supported by Western powers or were created during the colonial period to support certain economic and political interests of the British Empire or the French Empire at that time, which have survived to this day.

All of this has caused a reaction on, on behalf of a number of people. They’re very small in number but they do receive money from certain countries which are oil-rich and which like to follow extremist policies. The vast majority of Muslims do not participate in the world view, and they’re being pressured by that small group precisely because that small group claims that the governments under which they live are not just, authentic Islamic culture is being destroyed, and all kinds of things down the line. People keep saying that the vast majority of Muslims have a hatred for the West. That is completely wrong. They have hatred for the interests of the West of the Islamic world if those interests are against interests of Muslims.

MR. RUSSERT: Jon Meacham, when you hear the phrase “Christian Nation,” “Christian Society” what comes to mind?

MR. MEACHAM: That it’s not the case, that we are not a Christian nation, that there’s no such thing. As it says in Hebrews, “We seek—we have no lasting city, but seek the city which is to come.” The idea that we are a Christian nation, we are God’s chosen people, has often been used to cloak and to justify some reprehensible social behavior and I think Lincoln was right when he said, “We, we’re not God’s chosen people, we’re his almost chosen people.” And I think that—I think everyone’s temperatures will go down, their blood pressures would go down if we realized that every political discussion, every political fight does not have to be a religious one. If you go to what I consider to be American secular scripture, Federalist 10, James Madison said, “We’re not a democracy, we’re a republic. Let religion be one force among many as we work these things out and let’s let the soul’s journey go forward as it will.”

MR. RUSSERT: I wish we had three more hours, but I thought a good way to end our discussion would be to give each of you 20 seconds to offer a spiritual wish for the American people. Pastor Osteen, your spiritual wish for the American people on this Easter Sunday:

PASTOR OSTEEN: Well, my prayer is that people would come to know Christ and his love and his mercy and that they would draw close to him and in turn that they would live long, healthy lives and see all their dreams come to pass.

MR. RUSSERT: Rabbi Lerner:

RABBI LERNER: My wish is that we could overcome our nationalism, recognize that every—that our well-being depends on the well-being of every other person on the planet equally created in the image of God, equally valuable to God, and our well-being also depends on the future of the planet itself and that the central religious task of the 21st Century is to recognize the unity of all being, the unity of all human beings. And our central task to repair the damage that we’ve done for 150 years to this planet so that environmental crisis doesn’t wipe out the whole planet.

MR. RUSSERT: Father Neuhaus:

REV. NEUHAUS: All the people would come to know Jesus Christ is crucified and risen and find therein the deepest grounding of unity with other people. Because here is the incarnation of God himself. And the human project will not fail because God has invested himself in the human project, has faced up to everything that threatens the human project and has prevailed. And in America, this is the firmest ground for our living together with genuine pluralism, with real difference, because we are, in a sense, a Christian society. Not theologically speaking, no. We look for the new Jerusalem in the kingdom that is to come. But sociologically and historically, we cannot begin to understand what America’s about unless we understand the confused and conflicted Christian character of our history and present.

MR. RUSSERT: Sister Joan:

SISTER CHITTISTER: May we each grow in God and may we grow also in the awareness and the respect for the work of God in all others.

MR. RUSSERT: Professor?

PROF. NASR: I pray that first of all we will develop an inclusivism which is so embracing that it even understands exclusivism. Those who want to cling to their own religion as the, as the only religion, we must say even for them have respect. But there must be an overall inclusivism which embraces not only the children of Abraham, Islam, Christian, Judaism, but all other religions, and even those who do not follow religion. I know follow Father—Rabbi Lerner that question of the repair of the environment is of the greatest significance for all of our religious callings.

MR. RUSSERT: Thank you all. Layman Meacham, we’ll have to do you next Easter.

And we’ll be right back with our MEET THE PRESS Minute, the Reverend Billy Graham from June 9, 1957.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: And we are back. Nearly a half century ago, the Reverend Billy Graham appeared on MEET THE PRESS and talked about, you guessed it, faith, morality in America.

(Videotape, June 9, 1957):

MR. MARQUIS CHILDS (St. Louis Post Dispatch): You said the other night, Mr. Graham, that if this country is going to be destroyed, it will not be by communism but by moral deterioration from within. Now, you’ve been preaching for seven years and we’ve heard a great deal about the religious revival in this country, yet, year after year, we get new records of crime, juvenile delinquency and so on. How do you explain it?

REV. BILLY GRAHAM: That is—I explain it this way. First of all, I don’t think that this is a—that we have seen yet a genuine religious revival. I heard a president of a seminary say the other day that we’re seeing a revival of religion in America, but not necessarily the Christian religion. And one of the problems is this: We have a great deal of church-going in America, but we’re not relating this church-going to our personal daily lives. We have a hundred million people attending church in America, but those hundred million people are not going into their homes and their shops and their offices and in their business and putting Christ into effect. And that’s one of the reasons that I’ve been trying to emphasize in my preaching the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, trying to tell people how to apply Christ in their daily lives and in their social intercourse.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Reverend Graham is now 87 years old. On Monday, he received the 2006 George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service from the Bush Presidential Foundation at Texas A&M. In a career spanning more than 50 years, Graham has preached in 185 countries to 210 million people.

That’s all for today. You can find links to the books, bios and Web sites of all of today’s guests on mtp.msnbc.com. A lot to think about. We’ll be back next week. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.

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