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Our Rich History: TMU’s Institute for Religious Liberty in pursuit of promoting civil dialogue

By Dr. Raymond Hebert
Thomas More University

Part 52 of our series “Retrospect and Vista II”: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021

It is not surprising in today’s contentious world that confrontation often eclipses dialogue and civility. The level of polarization is corrosive, and the lack of mutual respect is equally as corrosive.

Douglas Laycock from the University of Virginia’s School of Law has written an opening essay in a recent publication called Deep Commitments: The Past, Present, and Future of Religious Liberty. In discussing the so-called “culture wars,” he concludes that “both sides seem to be equally intolerant of each other.

A group photo taken on the evening of the February 10, 2016 inaugural IRL event. William T. Robinson III, Bishop Roger J. Foys, Aaron Bludworth, Brett Greenhalgh, His Excellency Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, Ambassador for International Religious Liberty Rabbi David Saperstein, Dr. Gary Zola, Rabbi Kenneth Kanter, and Thomas More University President David Armstrong. (Thomas More University Archives)

And these attitudes make it very difficult to protect religious liberty.” He then adds that First Amendment rights should not be a partisan, party-line issue, but religious liberty is in great danger of becoming just that” (Laycock, in Deep Commitments, p. 33).

It is precisely in this context that the Thomas More University (TMU) Institute for Religious Liberty (IRL) strives, through dialogue, “to advance the American concept of religious freedom as an inalienable right and the protection of that right for all people” (IRL Mission Statement).

Historically, it was in late 2015 that William T. “Bill” Robinson III, a prominent Northern Kentucky attorney, who had just completed a year-long term as president of the American Bar Association, approached Thomas More President David Armstrong with an idea about first an event and then, he hoped, an Institute that promoted “Religious Liberty as an Inalienable Right.” It had been his experience, particularly among his fellow attorneys (like President Armstrong), that there was interest in religious liberty cases and that there was not an institute of this type at any other faith-based institution to bring attention to them. The idea was to foster interfaith programming, while promoting the First Amendment and an emphasis on civil dialogue.

The first IRL lecture of 2018, featuring Kevin C. Walsh, J.D., University of Richmond School of Law (pictured at the podium). (TMU Archives)

Robinson recommended that the first step be a partnership with the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, with Dr. Gary Zola as the liaison. Zola was, and still is, the Executive Director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the Jewish American Archives, and a leader in Greater Cincinnati interfaith programming. Helping to keep the focus on interfaith aspects of the original mission were Thomas More University board member Robert Sathe (Lutheran) and two local leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: Aaron Bludworth and Brett Greenhalgh.

Sadly, Bill Robinson passed away in May 2017, though he was part of the planning committee for the creation of the institute and his long-sought-after programs on: “Religious Liberty: Common Origins – An Interfaith Dialogue” (November 8, 2017) and “Religious Liberty at a Crossroads: Legal Perspectives” (January 24, 2018).

Prior to that, however, President Armstrong and the planning committee began the process for an inaugural event on February 10, 2016, during St. Thomas More Birthday month, with the theme of: “Religious Liberty: An Interfaith Right.” Hebrew Union rabbinical students and St. Mary’s (Athenaeum of Ohio) seminarians were invited with their leadership teams and the speakers were: Rabbi David Saperstein (the U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom), and the Most Rev. Joseph E. Kurtz, DD (Archbishop of Louisville and President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops). The event was a major success, and the Institute for Religious Liberty was born.

Since each member of the planning committee had a full-time job, it was decided to create a new position for a Thomas More faculty member who would continue to teach half-time while serving as Executive Director of the IRL for the other half of the academic assignment. Selected was long-time senior faculty member, Dr. Raymond G. Hebert, who relinquished his other duties in the History Department and as Director of the Gemini Dual Credit Program to focus on the IRL and its future programming, in addition to his teaching.

Secondary steps taken in early 2017 included the expansion of the executive committee for
broader input by gender and religion, as well as an experimental venture into the world of an academic symposium. The headline speaker for that event, held on Friday, February 17 and Saturday February 18, was President Armstrong’s favorite author, Joshua Charles, the best-selling author of The Original Argument (with Glenn Beck) and his more recent New York Times Best Seller, Liberty’s Secrets: The Lost Wisdom of American’s Founders. The keynote Friday evening event was a major success, but due to weather complications and the illness of one of the speakers, the Saturday event was sparsely attended.

Since then, the strategy has been to focus on an interfaith event in the fall and a more targeted “religious liberty” event in the spring semester every year. Of course, with St. Thomas More’s birthday month being February, some weather risk is always assumed but deemed to be worth it.

Fr. Gerald Twaddell, the evening’s moderator, hands Archbishop Lori a copy of a graded paper Lori wrote years earlier when he was a student at St. Pius X Seminary in Erlanger. (TMU Archives)

During the 2018-2019 academic year, the fall event featured Dr. David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame, speaking on “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.” Campbell was the co-author of the best-selling book by the same title. In the spring, the program featured the Most Reverend William Edward Lori, S.T.D., the sixteenth Archbishop of Baltimore, and the topic was: “Religious Freedom: Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.” In his writings and his presentations, Archbishop Lori had been a courageous voice for religious liberty, striving to protect the apostolic governance of the Catholic Church, first as the initial head of the Ad Hoc Committee, for Religious Liberty of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and later as its chair.

Again, working in partnership with the Greater Cincinnati Jewish community (at a time
nationally when antisemitism was on the rise), we then hosted the nationally respected Jewish historian, Dr. Michael A. Meyer, on October 30, 2019. His keynote address was entitled, “Exploring Anti-Semitism: Then and Now,” with commentators Dr. Todd Walatka of the University of Notre Dame, and Shakila Ahmad of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati.

For the spring of 2020, we were blessed to have scheduled our event, which had been planned for two years, just prior to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. On February 13, 2020, we welcomed the Most Rev. Kristen Farrington from the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute in Washington D.C. as the keynote speaker, with the theme of “Civil Dialogue: An Antidote to Polarization.” Adding to the importance of promoting civil dialogue were two active practitioners in the process: Dr. Sherri Goren Sloven and David Lapp. Sloven is a well-known Cincinnati mediation attorney, and the lead trainer and designer of the “Beyond Civility” Communication Workshops. David Lapp is a co-founder of what is now the “Braver Angels” organization, a national bipartisan citizens’ movement that brings together red and blue Americans to depolarize America. Sadly, as follow-up workshops were being contemplated, the COVID-19 virus arrived just weeks later, during March 2020.

While it has been more difficult to continue our work during the pandemic, we nonetheless
pursued Zoom sessions and hybrid programs temporarily. The fall 2020 Interfaith Event featured Cincinnati’s own Dr. James Buchanan, the Executive Director of the Brueggeman Center for Dialogue at Xavier University, who is internationally known for his interfaith work. His talk was entitled “Beyond Dialogue: The Power of Interfaith Collaborations.” Dr. Buchanan’s work in the creation of the Xavier University-sponsored annual “Festival of Faiths” exemplifies his dedication to interfaith matters. The two commentators were Gary Zola and Aaron Bludworth who, in their respective faith traditions (Jewish, and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) have been heavily involved in regional interfaith collaboration.

TMU President Joseph Chillo, Dr. Ray Hebert, Dr. John T. Spence, Dr. Jeanne Schindler of the John Paul II Institute, and IRL Keynote Speaker, Dr. Patrick Deneen of the University of Notre Dame. (TMU Archives)

In spring 2021, the focus shifted to well-known academic author, Dr. Paul Gaston, the author of multiple works on the transformation of general education and accreditation at colleges and universities, whose presentation was entitled: “Reclaiming the ‘Publick Happiness’: American’s Higher Education Legacy.” Dr. Gaston, an Association of American Colleges and Universities Distinguished Fellow, and former Woodrow Wilson Fellow, is a retired provost from Kent State University, and a priest in the Episcopalian Church, based in northern Ohio. Commentators included: Dr. Debra Humphreys, the vice president of strategic engagement for the Lumina Foundation of Indianapolis, Indiana, and Dr. Kim Haverkos, Thomas More’s own Dean of the College of Education and Health Sciences. The focus was on the state of education and the role of higher education credentials in the ongoing reform movement.

With the fall 2021 semester, Thomas More again turned to its partners from the Greater
Cincinnati Jewish Community and, more specifically, the Cincinnati Chapter of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). With their help, we were able to bring to the Cincinnati area (for our evening interfaith event and two sessions with students and a fundraising AJC dinner the next night), the American Jewish Committee CEO from New York City, David Harris, who has led the AJC since 1990 and has been described as the “Dean of American Jewish organizations.” He also had been dubbed by the late Israeli President Shimon Peres as the “foreign minister of the Jewish people.” The commentators were two local favorites who had spoken previously: Shakila Ahmad of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, who afterward joined the IRL Executive Committee, and Dr. James Buchanan, recently retired as Director of the Brueggeman Center at Xavier University.

For spring 2022, Thomas More hosted keynote speaker, Dr. Patrick Deneen, the David A. Potenziani Memorial Chair of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and author of Why Liberalism Failed. Delayed by the pandemic, he appeared at the Athenaeum’s St. Mary’s Seminary on February 23, 2022, followed by the IRL at Thomas More University on February 24. Dr. Jeanne Schindler of the John Paul II Institute at Catholic University in Washington D.C., and Dr. John T. Spence of Thomas More University were the commentators. Professor Deneen gave an inspired presentation on what he called: “The Problem with Religious Liberty.” This program was also one of the featured events of Thomas More’s centennial celebration.

Thomas More University IRL Spring 2022 event featuring left to right: Dennis Caffrey, TMU President Joseph Chillo, John A. Koehlinger, Dr. Cate Sherron, Dr. Ray Hebert, and Fr. Athanasius Habtu Ghebre-Ab. (TMU Archives)

TMU’s centennial celebration furnished the IRL an opportunity to hold a second spring 2022 program. It featured practitioners from Cincinnati, Kentucky, and Nashville (Tennessee) who work with refugees in need. The title was: “Fleeing for Freedom: Local Impact and Responses.” Panelist #1 was John A. Koehlinger, the executive director of the Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM), an organization active in Louisville and Lexington who only recently had opened an office in Northern Kentucky. Panelist #2 was Dennis Caffrey, Nashville’s Older Adult Volunteer of the Year, who has been a volunteer Spanish medical interpreter for the Siloam Health Center for over a decade (over 5,000 hours). Panelist #3 was Dr. Habtu Ghebre-ab (Fr. Athanasius in the Eritrean Orthodox Church) who, in addition to serving on the University of Cincinnati faculty in African History for 25 years, has served the Eritrean refugee families in Greater Cincinnati for almost three decades. The event was held in Thomas More’s Mary, Seat of Wisdom Chapel, with representatives from other groups who also work daily with area refugees, including Esperanza in Covington, Catholic Charities from both the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and the Diocese of Covington, and Cincinnati’s Immigrant and Refugee Law Center.

Looking ahead to 2022-2023, it remains a priority to continue to examine aspects of international religious liberty, bringing us back to our inaugural event, for the fall and in 2023, to host a 5th anniversary look at religious liberty legal cases. On November 3, 2022, Thomas More will host the State Department’s Ambassador for International Religious Liberty, currently a Muslim scholar named Rashad Hussain, and, in the spring of 2023, will feature the trailblazing work being done by the Religious Liberty Initiative (RLI) at the University of Notre Dame Law School. The executive director there is Stephanie Barclay. No date has been selected as yet for this event, but it is likely to be in February, the St. Thomas More Birthday Month.

It is important to close by recognizing the talented volunteers who serve on the executive committee of the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Liberty beginning with the current President of Thomas More University and staunch supporter of the IRL, Dr. Joseph Chillo, as well as Joan Robinson, Bill Robinson’s widow. In addition, the leader of the effort to raise the funds for naming the IRL after Bill Robinson was Robert Sathe. The other committee members include Shakila Ahmad, Aaron Bludworth, Jackie Congedo, Caitlin Dwyer (faculty representative), Brett Greenhalgh, AJ Schaeffer, and Dr. Gary Zola.

As for the future, in addition to the ongoing pursuit of quality speakers who value the “promotion of civil dialogue,” it is significant that the IRL will become part of a new Center for Faith, Mission, and Catholic Education when a new academic building opens on TMU’s campus in 2023-2024. By that time, it is hoped that a more direct link between the IRL and students interested in religious liberty will lead to scholarships for newly created “Institute for Religious Liberty Junior Fellows,” who will help to create subsidiary programs/book discussions and even participate in annual religious liberty seminars for academic credit. Thomas More University is proud of what has been accomplished to date by the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Liberty and looks forward to its bright future.

Dr. Raymond G. Hebert is a Professor of History and Executive Director of the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Liberty at Thomas More University. He has just completed his 46th year at Thomas More and, with that background, will now serve as the General Editor of the official history of Thomas More College/University from 1971-2021. With a projected title of RETROSPECT AND VISTA II, it will serve as the sequel to Sr. Irmina Saelinger’s RETROSPECT AND VISTA, the history of the first 50 years of Thomas More College (formerly Villa Madonna College). He can be contacted at hebertr@thomasmore.edu .

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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