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Will the Pope's Visit Impact the Election?

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, asking Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke for some straight talk when it comes to the economy.

BRAND: First, this week, we are going to be hearing a lot about religion. Pope Benedict makes his first official visit to the United States. He'll say Mass in Washington and meet with President Bush.

CHADWICK: And over the weekend, faith and public life were big topics for rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Both Democratic presidential hopefuls spoke at the Compassion Forum held in Pennsylvania. They agreed, people of faith have a right to bring their religious convictions to public life. While they may have that right, but should they exercise it, and where should religion be in public life?

BRAND: Melissa Harris-Lacewell is here now to help us answer those questions. She teaches politics at Princeton University, and she writes extensively about religion in public life. Welcome to the program.

Dr. MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL (Associate Professor of Politics and African-American Studies, Princeton University): Oh, it's great to be here.

BRAND: Well, let's begin with the Pope. He is a world leader. There are some 70 million Catholics here in the United States. So how much of a role should he have in politics here?

Dr. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I mean, certainly, the Pope should not have any official role in politics here in the United States. But that said, it's not only Catholics, but the Christian church much more broadly, who often looks to the Pope at a minimum as a kind of symbolic leader of the Christian faith. So, while he certainly shouldn't have any kind of official role because we have a separation of church and state, I do think it's important to recognize the way that people respond emotionally and partially within Christian faith to the Pope.

BRAND: Well, as you say, we do have separation of church and state. Should he be meeting with President Bush? Should President Bush be holding a state dinner for him?

Dr. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Oh, certainly. The separation of church and state, in my perspective, means simply that we want to protect the state from the undue influence of religion, in the sense that we don't want the state to mandate what citizens believe, nor should any single religious institution be responsible for setting public policy. That doesn't mean that we don't expect religious life to inform the life of government. People who are themselves believers, whether they are political leaders or simply citizens, are going to bring those religious beliefs with them into the public sphere.

BRAND: Well, I guess, how do you make sure that politicians are drawing that bright line between what they believe in private and how they act in public? And I wonder if you could turn to the Compassion Forum over the weekend, where Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton spoke very forcefully about the role of religion or faith in public life.

Dr. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Within the context of the Compassion Forum, I mean, it's kind of a funny title. Again, in the middle of a hotly contested presidential debate, to say that we're going to think about compassion. But maybe it's a good thing to draw back a little bit from the battles, both within the Democratic Party as well as across the party lines, and ask some questions about how we ought to be living together as citizens.

BRAND: How do the Democrats fare these days? I mean, they used to be painted as out of touch with regular folks when it comes to religion.

Dr. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Now, they are painting each other as out of touch when it comes to religion with regular folks. It's an interesting turn of events. Now, they are actually, in some ways, using this question of faith as a point of political arguing with one another. Now, part of that is because states like Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, have not been very important in the presidential nominating process before. So Democrats have not had to distinguish themselves from one another on these questions.

That said, I don't think the Compassion Forum got either Democratic candidate much further with exactly those voters, those kind of blue collar workers, many of whom have faced deep economic crisis, not in just the past seven years, but really the past 20 or 25 years, and for whom their community life and their family life and their religious life has become an important part of how they make political decisions. I don't think that either one of those candidates last night in the Compassion Forum really moved the ball with those voters.

BRAND: Melissa Harris-Lacewell teaches politics at Princeton University. Thank you very much.

Dr. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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