Is there room for faith in politics, even with the separation of church and state?
New York-based Union Theological Seminary hosted a day-long “Congressional Orientation on Faith and Governing” in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, aiming to address this very question.
The orientation allowed "members to explore how their spirituality intersects with their service to our country,” Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, said in a statement.
"Just as King Solomon knew that you couldn’t cut a baby in half and expect it to live, we know that you can’t separate faith, values, and politics and expect our democracy to thrive."
Timed to coincide with the convening of the 114th Congress, the orientation included three closed sessions led by Union faculty members -- "Faith & Politics vs. Church & State," "How to Talk About Your Own Faith" and "How Policy and Faith Interact" -- as well as a session open to the public in which members of Congress shared the ways in which faith plays a role in their lives and policy decisions.
Other panelists included President of the Healing of the Nations Foundation Jim Forbes, Harvard University Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein, Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Melissa Rogers and Robert Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute.
Congress members joining the event included Democrats Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, Representatives James Clyburn of South Carolina, Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and David Price of North Carolina.
Coons, who identifies as a Progressive Christian and attended Yale Divinity School at the same time as Jones, said he was "thrilled" to participate in the "Faith and Values Matter in Congress" public session.
"I think it's important for elected leaders to work from their faith traditions and for those of us who are progressive or who are Democrats... to not be hesitant about speaking about how our faith experience leads us to act," Coons told The Huffington Post.
In his own Christian tradition, the senator said he looks to the Bible's Matthew 25 and its iconic words, "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in."
"It is a simple, clear agenda for how we should engage with our neighbors and who we should be concerned about," Coons said. "To me the message of the Torah and the New Testament focuses on justice, to see our neighbors as broadly as possible."
The Republican-majority 114th Congress is expected to tackle issues ranging from the Keystone XL pipeline to immigration reform and national security. Many say dismantling the Affordable Care Act is also high on the agenda.
A recent Pew survey found that the incoming Congress carried a 92 percent Christian majority, while less than two percent reported "Unaffiliated" or refused to answer about their faith.
Some of the issues the Congress faces may be more impacted by faith values than others, but Jones argued that all of us "have moral convictions that inform the work we do."
"It is impossible not to be formed by our values," Jones said in the statement. "Moreover, for people of faith, it is impossible not to be formed by our faith."