Hundreds of St. Thomas students, faculty and staff, and other community members filled James B. Woulfe Alumni Hall at St. Thomas on Friday to hear Ross Douthat and Dr. Cornel West discuss Christianity and politics in today’s United States. Some 1,100 people watched the prominent intellectuals discuss, debate and often bring levity to some of the most serious issues facing our society today.

“This was the best program I have attended at St. Thomas in the the 25-plus years that I have been part of the community,” said Father Daniel Griffith of the School of Law. “The dialogue was relevant, substantive, humorous, humble, prophetic, inspiring and rooted in authentic Christian faith.”

You can watch a recording of the video here.

Bringing the two to campus to lead such a dialogue showcased for many the possibilities for civil debate and exchange of ideas between people of two seemingly competing sets of beliefs: Douthat, as the youngest op-ed columnist in the history of The New York Times, is well known for helping the conservative movement find a new relevance and constituencies in 21st century America; West is a prominent intellectual and adviser to Bernie Sanders.

“This kind of respectful dialogue is something we cherish and look to promote at St. Thomas,” President Julie Sullivan said in her welcoming remarks. “In a world that often seems polarized, we know we must resist categorizing those with opposing views or beliefs from our own as evil, stupid or ignorant. In fact, they may know and understand things we do not. It is only when we start with this assumption that no one has negative intent … that rational discourse can begin.”

Together the pair waded into a wide range of issues, from the current situation in Syria; to John Dewey and the splintered legacy of democratic education in capitalist-driven America; to the Black Lives Matter movement and its shifts and continuity of the spiritual core of the civil rights movement; to the role of Catholic universities; marriage; and the similarities and differences between Sanders and Donald Trump.

“It’s almost as good to hear two fine-tuned minds explore meaning-of-life issues as a John Coltrane solo,” one audience member said during the lengthy Q&A session of the evening.

In response to the evening’s final question, from a 16-year-old asking for advice on how to live her life in a country seemingly becoming more racist and xenophobic, Douthat encouraged her to seek out her experience of things in her everyday life.

“It’s useful to remember that real life is not the internet. The internet is a magnifier of anxiety. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have anxiety about the presidency of Donald Trump … but you should be most anxious about how they affect things in your real life,” he said. “There is a temptation to seek out virtual experiences that magnify your anxiety and don’t reflect everyday life, and the reality of life in 2017 is that America is decadent … flawed, fragmented, split apart … but most periods of history have had evils, some even greater than the ones we face now. People in those contexts have found ways to live their lives heroically and courageously without falling into a palsy of anxiety and victimization, where heroism and courage is what is called for. That’s the right way to live. … Live as fully as you can in fleshed reality whenever the possibility presents itself.”

The event was hosted by the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy, which is a collaboration between the School of Law and Center for Catholic Studies, with additional support from the College of Arts and Sciences. Co-sponsors included the Black Empowerment Student Alliance; Black Law Student Association; Catholic Students Incorporated; Center for Catholic Studies; Christian Legal Society; College Democrats; Lex Vitae; Minnesota Justice Foundation; Office for Mission; Office of Diversity and Inclusion; St. Thomas More Society; School of Law; Students for Human Life; and Students for Justice and Peace.

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