Conversations about faith

On her show, “Speaking of Faith,” Krista Tippett asks guests how they come to hold the truths they believe. Photo by Janet Hostetter.

On her show, “Speaking of Faith,” Krista Tippett asks guests how they come to hold the truths they believe. Photo by Janet Hostetter.

Krista Tippett is the founding host and producer of the one-hour weekly radio program “Speaking of Faith,” distributed nationally by American Public Media, which airs Sundays at 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. on Minnesota Public Radio. A journalist and former diplomat, Tippett is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and a former Fulbright Scholar.

She spoke to a sold-out crowd at the College of St. Catherine in October to kick off its “Faith, Values, Women and Politics” series. Before the lecture, she spoke with MWP.

Q: Women seem to have made great strides in Judeo-Christian faiths in particular, in terms of ascending to more authority. Would you agree?

A: We could point to that in many traditions. Among Roman Catholics, although not ordained, lay women have become more important in ways that are both official and unofficial. It is an ongoing struggle that exists in every tradition. Many have the assumption, for example, that Buddhists are wonderfully aware and enlightened, but there is as much struggle for women to assume positions of authority there as in the monotheistic faiths. … What interests me is not necessarily what’s happening with the official hierarchical structure of institutions, but how women live with authority and dignity. To me, that is just as powerful as what position they hold.

Q: Most of the fundamentalists I hear about are men. Are women ascending in the fundamentalist ranks as well?

A: It is interesting, when we did a show about the power of fundamentalism, that there were three male voices. There is a strain of religious experience that does sometimes seem to be a privilege of men. And there is a distinction between violent fundamentalists and conservative expressions of religion that do get blurred. … But it’s important to recognize that we need to be careful and curious to learn what the struggles really are. We recently finished a show with Egyptian-American Leila Ahmed about Muslim women. Americans generally make assumptions that Muslim women need us to worry about them, but Islamic women don’t often know what we’re talking about. It’s not about wearing veils, for example, as a sign of submission.

Q: Politically, the country seems divided largely on religious convictions—different ideas of how moral values should shape our public policy. Do you agree?

A: I’m not sure that the country is divided along those lines. I think it’s the way it is being presented to us, analyzed, sliced up. There are divisions, but there is a tendency to focus on the most strident voices that don’t represent most of us who aren’t at either one of those poles. There is a need to speak into that most vast middle. About abortion and gay marriage—the most accepted examples of the views in which we are hopelessly divided—a majority of people, 60 percent in an exit poll after the last election, could agree, for example, that they were in favor of abortion with some limits, or in [favor of] civic unions. We need to be talking much more in that space where we can agree, rather than just shining the light on irreconcilable differences.

Q: Some fear that the voices of fundamentalists, bringing private, moral issues into public conversation, are “driving the political bus,” so to speak. Whether we’re talking Protestants of the past, or fundamentalists today, is religion inextricably linked to politics? Is the separation of church and state even possible?

A: I think what we’re starting to see now is a reaction to a very brief period of time, in the latter half of the 20th century, when we felt we needed to separate who we are as spiritual people from who we are in public life. That’s not an assumption the Founding Fathers had. The relationship of church and state has always been a work in progress. There are serious questions that we have to wrestle with as society. Whether we are Christian or Jewish or Buddhist, it’s okay to know that about a public official, how they apply it, when it matters, when it doesn’t. I think we’re entering a more honest phase.

Q: How can we be satisfied with our own personal authority, knowing that others have a stronger hand in shaping the larger world? Who is “fighting the good fight” who might not be famous, but who deserve our support for tending to the social values we hold dear? Not many in the headlines seem to be women.

A: I don’t feel qualified to generalize about women as drivers of public policy. I think that in my show I draw out people and women who are making a difference, but often not by the traditional routes of authority. They are in every case people who are living their ideas and beliefs and putting them into action. In hearing these kinds of voices, my experience is that others are heartened and empowered to make a difference, perhaps by innovative means, in their own spheres of influence. I realize that this may sound abstract, but the voices and stories in the program week after week are vivid and particular and concrete.

Q: Bush’s latest selection for Supreme Court justice opened up a debate, one writer said, between those who believe the country needs to be run by the heart, and those who believe it needs to be ruled by intellect. You straddle both the heart and the intellect on your show. Why do you think it is so hard for the two to co-exist, particularly for those involved in public office?

A: In our lives, this is exactly what we’re most struggling to connect up—our ideas and our experience, what we believe and what we know because we’ve lived it. There is a magic of speaking to each other, hearing about the intersection of our faith and public life. When we can speak as human beings, putting faces and voices to doctrines, we still may not agree, but we can listen to each other. When we started doing the show, there was an assumption that people would be angry talking about religion. But we don’t allow people to claim to speak the whole truth, but that “this is my truth.” We have found that it doesn’t make people angry—it makes people think. Atheistic and evangelical, and everything in between. This method works.

To listen to past conversations on Speaking of Faith, visit the website at