Sunday, March 09, 2008

Even sociologists have Constitutional rights (John DiIulio)

The January-February issue of the University of Pennsylvania alumni magazine, the Pennsylvania Gazette, carried an interesting interview with the conservative social scientist John DiIulio, who has been a Professor of Political Science at UPenn since 1999. I've never met DiIulio personally, but I've long admired his work and the moral and political commitments that inform it. (Which doesn't mean that I've always agreed with his conclusions or with the public positions he's taken--we all make mistakes, after all.)

As NYTimes columnist Nick Kristof recently pointed out, many secularists, liberals, and other self-styled progressives find it hard to believe that there are conservative Christians who care deeply and constructively about the poor and oppressed, not despite the fact that they are conservative Christians, but precisely because they are conservative Christians. (Kristof's column starts out a little misleadingly by seeming to focus specifically on Protestant evangelical Christians, but he then makes it clear that he's talking about "conservative Christian churches" and "bleeding-heart conservatives" more generally.) Well, there are plenty of such people--I know some myself--and DiIulio is clearly one of them.

Leaving to one side the larger argument that DiIulio is trying to defend in this interview (based on his recent book Godly Republic), let me just highlight one passage that I think is both right in substance and pretty funny (first pointed out to me by my friend Jeff Nichols):
Now we know [the United States] is not a Christian nation, but by the early- to mid-20th century we have people going around saying, “Well, no, it’s meant to be a strictly secular state.” That ain’t true, either. And what I think has happened over the last 50 years plus is that the Supreme Court, under both liberal and conservative justices, has recovered the original-intentions jurisprudence, which is neither Christian nation nor secular state but really neutrality, so that whether you’re a Methodist, Muslim, Mormon, Quaker, Catholic, Jew, atheist, Wiccan, Scientologist—-I’d even say whether you’re a sociologist—-you’re entitled to all the rights of citizenship. Government can neither prefer nor prohibit any particular religious worldview, belief, tenet, and so on. And the end game for government is to be neutral in handling religion.
I've been teaching in both political science and sociology departments myself over the past decade and a half, which might make me a bit of an amphibian. But my Ph.D. is in sociology, and if I had to choose, I would still consider myself most fundamentally a sociologist (by vocation, if not necessarily by employment or by exclusive disciplinary affiliation) ... so I can only find this conclusion reassuring.

On the other hand, even if believing sociologists are entitled to the same legal rights as other Americans, I do think it would be very difficult for a self-confessed sociologist to get elected President of the US.

=> An aside: For whatever reasons, political scientists don't appear to face the same political barriers. Granted, if we exclude law professors, not many US Presidents have been former academics from any field. But Woodrow Wilson, a prominent political science professor, did manage to become President--though, technically, what he was teaching was not not mostly called "political science" then, and it's an open question whether or not someone like Wilson could make it to the White House nowadays. More recently, a number of former political scientists have become Congresspeople and Senators--Paul Wellstone comes immediately to mind. It would seem that there are even 10 current members of Congress with Master of Social Work degrees. As far as I know, however, for sociologists to get elected to the House or Senate is a different matter--though I could be wrong about that, since I haven't researched the question systematically. Getting a B.A. in sociology seems to be OK.

Sociologists with political ambitions shouldn't give up hope. A prominent Brazilian sociologist, Fernando Cardoso, was elected President of Brazil--a pretty big and significant country--for two terms from 1995-2002. So perhaps that can happen someday here, too.

--Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  And by the way ... For those who are interested in or curious about Philadelphia politics, that same issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette also includes an interesting article on Philadelphia's recently-elected new Mayor, Michael Nutter. This profile is perhaps a bit more worshipful than it might be, but my (non-expert) impression is that on the whole it's intelligent, well informed, and on-target.