University president speaks at ND Votes’ Pizza, Pop, and Politics event

Around 70 people gathered in the Geddes Coffee House on February 2 to hear University President Father John Jenkins, CSC, speak about the Presidential Debate Commission and the role of faith in politics. This “Pizza, Pop, and Politics” event was the first in a series held by ND Votes to address hot-button political issues.

Father Jenkins began by discussing his time on the Presidential Debate Commission, as well as the history of presidential debates in America.

For many years, presidential debates were sponsored by the League of Women Voters, he explained. In 1987, however, the two major political parties came together to play a larger role in orchestrating the debates. Their efforts culminated in the formation of the Commission, spurring the League to drop sponsorship, because they saw it as theatrical performance rather than true debate.

Father Jenkins shared similar concerns to those of the League in regards to present-day debates and warned those in attendance to be cognizant of this political reality.

“It has become so high stakes, these elections, and there is so much money sloshing around and such strong interest in these debates that there is a great danger always. I mean, both sides want to organize. The last thing they want is an open debate,” he explained. “The last thing they want is just throw it out there, give your ideas, and let the American people decide.”

He also discussed polarization and its effects on political discourse. He explained that if one person believes another has malicious intent or is corrupt, they will be less likely to trust the other and engage on important issues.

Emily Burns, a junior in attendance, told the Rover, “I liked that Fr. Jenkins mentioned the major problems we have with extreme political polarization, but I also didn’t feel as though he addressed that from a moral perspective. As in many of the most ‘polarizing’ issues tend to be identified by voters as moral ones, so how exactly should we deal with that without budging on our strong moral beliefs?”

According to Fr. Jenkins, he experienced this polarization in 2009 when President Obama was invited to speak at the commencement ceremony and given an honorary degree.

“[A]ll hell broke loose,” he said. “You know, I was surprised, I thought, ‘We got this newly elected president … first African-American president, how great? He’s going to speak at our commencement,’ I thought naively. It was just like I invited Lucifer himself.”

While acknowledging that each person has his or her own set of beliefs and should work to advance them, Jenkins urged the audience to be careful of the way they think about those with whom they disagree. He suggested an examination of conscience to determine whether one might be disparaging others and focus on avoiding that way of thinking.

One student asked a question about where the line is drawn regarding separation of church and state. Father Jenkins replied that he had no profound answer, but that it is important for us to engage with others who might not share our faith in a way that appeals to them. As for the relationship between government and religion, Jenkins said there is a large legal tradition that cannot be summarized easily.

In closing, Fr. Jenkins left students with a word of advice.

“There isn’t an option. We’re going to live with what the political process produces,” Jenkins said. “This country needs each of you to be engaged in it and be engaged in the conversation and bring your intelligence and your thoughtfulness to improve it. For all the temptation to cynicism, for all the temptation to checking out, don’t give in. Just engage.”

Burns said she was impressed by the questions but was disappointed with Fr. Jenkins’ responses. “[He] seemed to avoid answering a lot of the tough ones,” she explained. “I felt as though a lot of his responses just recognized that the question posed was difficult or complex or frustrating, etc. but he didn’t offer a whole lot of insight.”

Matt Connell is a freshman studying political science and economics. You can reach him at