Buchanan examines role of religion in common good versus individualism


Jessica White | Staff Writer

The Rev. John Buchanan has never fit the mold associated with religious leaders.

In his January farewell sermon after more than 25 years as leader of one of Chicago’s most prominent congregations, the newly retired pastor called on congregants at Fourth Presbyterian Church to love their neighbor regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, economics or politics.

In 1985, the congregation elected Buchanan to serve as pastor and head of staff at Fourth Presbyterian Church. Since then, the congregation has grown from 2,800 to 6,000 members while Buchanan tackled controversial issues ranging from the ordination of gays to the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Today at 2 p.m. in the Hall of Philosophy, he will discuss the contrast between individualism and community, and people’s responsibilities to one another for a common good.

His lecture is titled “A Sense of the Green,” referring to the green, or common area, in the center of old New England towns that was there for all and owned by all — a symbol of community and the common good.

The ideas of community and individualism fundamentally conflict, Buchanan said, and religion falls on both sides.

“At its worst, religion divides and separates people,” he said. “At its best, religion brings people together and strengthens community.”

Like several other speakers this week, Buchanan said religion also plays a major role in the upcoming elections.

“It’s a unique election year because we’ve got people running for office who in the past would not even be considered electable — an African American and a Mormon,” he said. “It wasn’t all that long ago that American culture was marginalizing both of those groups because of religion.”

Faith also falls on both sides of the American political divide, he said, with some religions supporting a conservative, individualistic approach, and other religions supporting community and common welfare.

Buchanan is the author of four books and editor and publisher of Chicago-based magazine The Christian Century. He has also served as moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Buchanan studied political science and government at Franklin & Marshall College, then joined the Chicago Divinity School in 1959. He was born in Altoona, Pa.

“I was compelled into theology, and I kind of fell in love with the church,” he said. “I realized that this is what I want to do with my life.”

Buchanan is known for his conviction that Americans are growing tired of religion that divides, judges, kicks out and keeps out. He said for clergy, it can be challenging to preach the basics of faith in a way that is helpful and not off-putting, but there are plenty of moments that make the challenge worthwhile.

“Every clergy person shares the experience of finding out that somehow they’ve created positive change in a person’s thinking or a person’s life,” he said. “It’s one of the real blessings.”

PULL QUOTE: “At its worst, religion divides and separates people. At its best, religion brings people together and strengthens community.” — John Buchanan, editor of The Christian Century magazine