STEPHANOPOULOS: President Obama at this year's prayer breakfast on the search for common ground. We're going to take up that challenge now, discuss the role of religion in our civic debates with a distinguished panel of scholars and pastors. Sojourners President Jim Wallis, author of the brand new book "On God's Side." Author and atheist Susan Jacoby. Her new book "The Great Agnostic" on Robert Ingersoll is out soon. Islamic scholar Reza Aslan. Reverend Calvin Butts of New York's Abyssinian Baptist Church. And Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Welcome to all of you. Happy Easter to those of you celebrating. And Jim, let me begin with you. I read your book this week, and you are a political activist, a preacher and a writer, but you took some time off during the last election and saw politics as a spectator, and you write that a lot of the motivation for this book came out of your depression from watching our politics.
WALLIS: I wrote the book on sabbatical, so every day I'd write and pray and read and study. And at night, I'd watch the news cycle, and it was depressing. And I realized we'd lost something very important. It's an ancient idea called the common good. And it says we can't take care of ourselves and our party and our side. We've got to take care of each other and our neighbor, and that is the foundation for all of it. That's the common good. It's in our religious traditions. It's in our secular democratic traditions. This common good idea I think could bring us back together. And I see it happening.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But it comes at a time when we have more polarization than ever, it seems, in our politics. You and Richard Land probably have polar opposites of politics, I'd say that, on most issues, yet you have come together at least on –
WALLIS: On immigration.
STEPHANOPOULOS: On the issue of immigration. So how does that work?
LAND: Well, I think first of all, when you're looking at issues of the common good, Jim's a Christian, I'm a Christian. We may have different emphases and different perceptions of parts of scripture, but we both understand that there is a difference between the authority of scripture and our understanding of scripture, and we have to be humble about our understanding of scripture, and we both agree that immigration reform is tearing the social fabric of the country. It needs to be done. The lack of doing it is causing havoc that will be difficult to repair in the social fabric of the country. And there is a way to do it. And the way to do it that's fair and a way to do it that will heal the country. And so we found that evangelicals and Catholics and Orthodox and Jews and Muslims, people from all across the religious spectrum and people of no particular faith have come together in what I think is a pretty impressive coalition to say that our – it's time for our leaders to stop acting like politicians who are concerned about the next election and start acting like statesmen who are concerned about the next generation, and get comprehensive immigration reform done.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And Dr. Butts, you actually have a similar but opposite experience with another major issue in the news this week, gay marriage. Your normal political allies have been strongly supportive of gay marriage. It is something that your faith does not believe in.
BUTTS: Well, it is something that we don't believe in, in terms of what we learn from the Bible. But in terms of men and women having their rights as citizens and human beings, we certainly affirm that. You should have every right as a citizen of this nation and every right as a human being to enjoy the freedom that we believe God has given you. The choice is yours, and I should not stand in the way of you making that choice. However, I have to extol what I believe my religion teaches, and it does not teach that a marriage between a man and a man or a woman and a woman is God's divine imperative. But I can't stand in the way of that, and I think that the Supreme Court should not stand in the way of that.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So that's the place where you have a strict separation between what you practice inside your church and what you believe should happen in the public sphere.
BUTTS: Well, I have to support that in the civil society, because otherwise I would not be a good citizen of my great nation and a participant in this great experiment in democracy. However, I choose to believe the book upon which I build my life.
STEPHANOPOULOS: I assume some of that is music to your ears. You wrote a fascinating article, Susan Jacoby, in the New York Times coming out of Newtown called "The Blessings of Atheism," and one of the things you write about is that atheists and nonbelievers often feel intimidated from speaking out on public issues as atheists.
JACOBY: I think we heard almost nothing and no secular chaplain, a person representing a secular organization, asked to be at the Newtown ceremony. I asked several of them about it, and they felt they were kind of afraid to. They felt that it would be – it would be taken the wrong way, as if atheists were trying to horn in on this ceremony, which was basically religious.
Let me say, what Dr. Butts said is music to my ears. If all religious people trying to influence politics could separate what they teach and preach in church, and which of course every religious institution and person has the right to state their convictions, just as I do. But the problem is, Newtown was a perfect example of it. There were people sitting in that audience obviously, if we believe the polls, that 20 percent of people don't belong to any church, and some of those people are atheists and some of them aren't. It's hard to tell because atheist is still quite a pejorative, but when President Obama, unlike some atheists who are sitting here, some will tell you that they objected to his mentioning religion at all at that service, which I think is ridiculous. There were a lot of religious people there. Religion is a solace for religious people in grief. But he could very easily have expanded that to say, whether we are religious or non-religious, he could have said that we are all united in our grief, and not made it exclusively, and he should not have been talking about Jesus Christ when some of the parents who lost children are people who don't believe in Jesus.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And he often has done that, and he even did that at the National Prayer Breakfast, talked about nonbelievers, and that is the fastest really growing group, people who are not affiliated with any particular religion right now in the United States. I want to talk about more in a minute, but first, let me bring in Reza Aslan as well, because I want to get you to respond to a notion that Jim brings up in his book when he was talking about the rise of Islamophobia, which you have also written about. The need to surprise our enemies with acts of good will and grace.
ASLAN: This is a fact. I mean, anti-Muslim sentiment in this country is at unprecedented levels. About two-thirds of Americans believe that Muslims should not have the same First Amendment rights as other Americans. About one third of Americans believe that Muslims should be forced to carry special ID's that identify them as Muslims. That's 100 million Americans who believe that.
Now, the important thing is, and Jim will tell you this, that this isn't Christian or Jewish based Islamophobia. This Islamophobia has much more to do with certain right-wing fringe groups that have managed to enter into the mainstream. The tragedy, however, is that Jews and Christians, particularly Jews and Catholics, who have dealt with this exact kind of xenophobia and bigotry in this country in the past, have not been the groundswell for standing up against Muslims in this country. Jim, of course, has been one of the leading voices condemning Islamophobia. But the important thing for, I think, religious communities, regardless of where you pray or how you worship, is that we have to recognize that all peoples in this country have a right to worship as they please, to believe as they please, and if we don't stand up for each other, then we are not actually being true to the values of our own faith.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And that gets to the point, it seems like so much of this search for common ground, Jim, is about how we practice our politics.
WALLIS: The largest affiliation now growing in the country is none of the above. A lot of young people. What I find is when people from the faith community, when religious people do what their religions say and say what they say, two things happen. People are surprised, and then they are attracted. I wrote this book to spark hope, to spark a national conversation on the common good. It's in all of our traditions and secular as well. The common good is the right question. It's about what does it mean to love our neighbor as ourselves. That's the golden rule, and that is the foundation for the common good. Who is my neighbor? Becomes the question here. And once we apply that to the economy, the role of government, to democracy, even to our households, how we live as parents and moms and dads and kids, I think this common good framework could change our politics. It could really change --
STEPHANOPOULOS: But a lot of easier on applying it to our households, taking personal responsibility, than when you try to translate those principles into actual public policy.
LAND: Well, I don't know. Look, you can disagree without being disagreeable. You know, and as Christians, we are commended to love our enemies, not just our neighbors, but our enemies. And you know, we can stand up for our convictions without demonizing those who are opposed to us or those who disagree with us. That's what -- supposed to be what America is about. We're supposed to be able to disagree and respect each other's personhood and respect each other's dignity and agree that, you know, one of the wonderful things about this country is no issue is forever settled. If we don't like the way the issue is settled now, we can come back and make a better argument in the next election.