Susan Jacoby and Dinesh D’Souza met here in Grand Rapids at Fountain Street Church on Thursday, April 26, to debate the merits of religion in public discourse. The debate, co-sponsored by The Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, was titled, “Is Christianity Good for American Politics?”

Susan Jacoby is program director at The Center for Inquiry and author of The Age of American Unreason and Alger Hiss and The Battle for History. She argued for the total removal of religious matters from the public square to avoid any tendency toward establishment of a particular religion.

Dinesh D’Souza is president of The King’s College in New York and author of What’s so Great About Christianity? His argument repeatedly returned to the difference between recognition and establishment and the contested meaning of the phrase “separation of church and state.”

Here’s a sample from their exchange:

Jacoby: The first amendment was intended to protect religion from government … Our whole tradition prohibits supporting an establishment of tradition. What would happen in this society, if the government were forced to consider every religion? It would require absolutely equal treatment … We are not allowed to make judgments about which religions to favor or not.

Dinesh: You can’t simply chant separation of church and state and declare the matter settled. What we’re trying to figure out is why we have a prejudice against religious figures who have had an historical, moral, political, and even lawful impact, while we don’t have that prejudice against secular figures similarly situated. You keep chanting the same phrase from the constitution, when it is the meaning of that phrase that is up for discussion … My question is the meaning of the word establishment.