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Outlook: An Epitaph for the Religious Right

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E.J. Dionne
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, March 11, 2008; 10:00 AM

"We are at the beginning of a new era in which large, secular problems related to war and peace, economics and the United States's standing in the world will displace culture and religion as the electorate's central concerns. ... This shift is already obvious from the results of the 2008 primaries. Focusing relentlessly on national security, Sen. John McCain has clinched the Republican nomination despite robust opposition from the party's cultural and religious conservatives. On the Democratic side, cultural and religious questions played almost no role in the battle between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. They spoke instead about economics, health care and the war in Iraq. Strikingly, both were intent on putting an end to religious divisions in the electorate and sought to welcome the devout to the Democratic Party."

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Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, author of "Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right," was online Tuesday, March 11 at 10 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article about how the arc of the current primaries bode poorly for the continued influence of social conservatives -- and the historical precedent for an era of secular politics.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors

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Orlando, Fla.: In "Culture Wars? How 2004" you wrote: "Precisely because I believe in a strong public role for faith, I would insist that it is a great sellout of those traditions to assert that religion has much to say about abortion and same-sex marriage but little to teach us about war and peace, social justice and the environment."

As a political moderate and a conservative Christian, I can only say "amen." It seems to me that many conservative Christians under 40 are wanting a "both-and" approach to so-called moral issues (especially abortion) and justice issues, rather than the "either-or" approaches the typical Republican or Democrat offers. I agree that justice issues are moral issues too, but my question for you is about the Republican's favorite moral issues.

I am given to understand that you are Catholic. The Catholic Church seems clear on what it thinks of, say, abortion, but you seem to differ with the Church. If you go against what your faith's tradition teaches on such an issue, aren't you just asking people to switch to the other side of the "either-or" and to continue letting their faith influence primarily a subset of moral issues, rather than all of them? That doesn't seem so different than 2004 to me.

E.J. Dionne: Good morning everyone, and thanks for participating in this discussion this morning. There are a lot of questions already, so I will get right to it.

On abortion, I don't disagree with my church's teaching, but I believe that we have had a fruitless argument for 30 years and that the way out of an either/or debate on abortion is to take a new approach. I talk about this at greater length in my book "Souled Out," but in brief, I think it is time that both sides on the abortion question agree that there are too many abortions in the U.S., and that we need to take steps to reduce the number of abortions sharply. This would include more emphasis on preventing unintended pregnancies through a combination of contraception and abstinence programs (the evidence is that the two work far better than abstinence-only programs) more adoptions, and real help for poor women who choose life and want to bring their children into the world. Legislation to this end has been introduced by pro-life Rep. Tim Ryan and pro-choice Rep. Rosa DeLauro. Many Americans are morally troubled by abortion, but also uneasy with a broad government ban -- indeed, a government ban would not end abortion. I think we can agree to work together to reduce the number of abortions, and that this would be a big step forward. I think people who are pro-choice or pro-life could agree on this. Thanks for your question.

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Yorktown, Va.: E.J., I think it's just a liberal conceit -- one rooted in Marx -- that you can eradicate religion from the people. You may be right that Hillary and Obama have ignored religion so far, but you can bet they'll show up on Sunday during the real campaign. Hell, either of them gladly would drag a cross down a public street if they thought it would win them a red state.

E.J. Dionne: I agree entirely that you can't eliminate religion from the public square, and I don't want to. (I specifically disagree with Marx on this in my book.) What I am saying is that at different moments, religious and cultural issues loom larger than at other times. I think we are moving away from one era in which those issues were quite important to another era in which they will be less central to politics. Many thanks.

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Fairfax, Va.: You present an interesting hypothesis, but what if we're seeing a recalibration of the issues most important to religious voters, particularly those on the right? Namely, what if they view the war on terrorism, Iraq and basically everything related to the Muslim world as the latest moral/social issue?

E.J. Dionne: Thank for that. This is certainly true of some. But I think most voters, including religious ones, look at this as a security issue for the United States -- and I also think that many religious voters are deeply worried about the economy as well.

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Arlington, Va.: I too am glad to see the demise of the groups that actually think you can legislate morality, but do you think their exit from the public stage will usher in an era like the New Deal? It's hard to believe that the ultra-rich who have wrested control of our government will roll over and allow government programs on that scale.

E.J. Dionne: Interesting point. Certainly whatever happens next will not look exactly like the New Deal, but I am quite persuaded, for example, that we will move toward universal health coverage through federal action. This would be the big step that neither the New Deal nor the Great Society managed to take. I also think reform happens when a segment of the business community decides that reform is necessary to keep capitalism afloat. This is partly what happened in the New Deal. I think with health care especially, many in the business community know something needs to happen, and many business folks are deeply worried about the credit crisis and its impact on the broader economy. I think the problems we face now point toward a new era of reform.

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Arlington, Va.: I wonder about the coincidence of these two swings in political emphasis: cultural in 1980, and economic/foreign wars today. It seems we had economic issues in 1980 and the USSR lingering (although our leaders knew in the 1970s the USSR would fall apart), so why do the war/economic issues take hold now? Was it Iran that sparked us to look at moral issues in 1980? Today, are we just sick and tired of the Moral Majority and like groups ?

E.J. Dionne: That's a very good question requiring a long answer, too long to give fully here. (To give a longer answer is why I wrote my book.) I think the Religious Right arose in response to a series of events in the late '60s and early '70s (the Roe v. Wade decision, the school prayer decision, the cultural revolution of the '60s and other things). Also, the Religious Right was a specifically political creation of smart GOP operatives. I think we have worked through a lot of those cultural questions since then, and the country is looking for a moderate resting place while we take on other large problems. I wish I could say more, but I want to move on to the many other folks who have joined this chat. Many thanks.

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Birmingham, Ala.: Thank you for your time today. I haven't read your book yet, but am very intrigued. Because I have lived my entire life in the South, the issues of faith and morality have been omnipresent in any political campaign that I have witnessed. It seems as though many of the same types of individuals who formed the Dixiecrat coalition of the mid-20th century find themselves as part of this alienated Religious Right.

Do you believe that a viable third party could be created to mimic the effect that George Wallace had nationally in the '60s and '70s -- a mix of economic populism and social conservatism? Because truly, the socioeconomic ideals held by this group are not furthered by the D.C. Republican establishment. The D.C. Republican establishment has given the Religious Right little reason to vote Republican, only reasons not to vote Democratic (thus breaking up the FDR Democratic coalition).

washingtonpost.com: George Wallace and Huckabee: 1968 to 2008 (Fox News, Jan. 3)

E.J. Dionne: I am skeptical that third parties can succeed unless there is a very large issue motivating them that the other parties are not dealing with. (The anti-slavery movement created the Republican Party -- that was a genuinely big issue.) Sometimes third parties can agitate from the side for a particular point of view (the Dixiecrats, the old Socialist Party) and that is one of their classic roles. I don't see a third party having a major role this year -- but I could be taken by surprise. Thanks for your thought.

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Arlington, Va.: Someone once told me not to worry too much about the extreme religious right. He said that every time they gain political power, they reach too far and alienate the majority of the country, a regular cycle that has occurred several times in the past couple of centuries. Is this what's about to happen again?

E.J. Dionne: I think votes in this essentially moderate country always pull away when they see overreachining. And it's important always to bear in mind that the vast majority of religious voters are not extremists -- we are an essentially moderate country on cultural questions. Thanks for the thought.

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Gainesville, Va.: I am an evangelical Christian who was raised as a liberal Jew. I am also a Ph.D. economist. I am instinctively liberal on most issues (and Obama moves me), but abortion remains the bright line issue for me. If one believes, as I do, that it is murder, there are few choices outside conservative Republicans. This is not merely a "cultural" issue; this is a fundamental moral question, and I don't see its pull eroding no matter how the political environment shifts.

E.J. Dionne: That's a very thoughtful note,thank you. I would refer you back to my earlier answer on the abortion question. I honestly don't see the U.S. enacting a broad national ban on abortion, and believe such a ban would create a variety of problems. I do think we can do far, far more to reduce the number of abortions. I think there are many pro-lifers who see problems with an abortion ban, and many pro-choicers who would like to see fewer abortions. From there, we might move forward on this issue.

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Arlington, Va.: Oh, c'mon Yorktown. E.J.'s article was just identifying a historical pattern, comparing 1920s with 1980 to today. E.J. has no reason to distort truth or make a philosophical claim here.

E.J. Dionne: Thank you! Nice of you to defend me, but I don't mind the questions -- it's why I'm here. But I appreciated your generous instinct.

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Bethesda, Md.: An interesting analysis but I suspect the focus is too narrow. I think the religious tone of later years has been growing for quite some time -- and not only in the U.S., of course. I see it as a phenomenon a couple of centuries in expansion (think of the incredible rise in sectarian groups throughout the 19th century, here and in Europe), and I recognize it as another round of world-wide millennial angst.

There was a similar spasm in the human consciousness about the turn of the previous millennium, with similar consequences (the growth of Doomsday religiosity and spread of religion vs. religion violence). I suspect and hope that the abatement of such ridiculousness is nigh, possibly hastened -- as is everything in modern life -- by the rapid pace of progress.

It's easy to see a sea-change between Democrat Kennedy's disavowal of papal allegiance and Democrat Lieberman's fervent embrace of Orthodox Judaism, but I think they may be simply a difference of degree; it's harder to imagine a politician of the past century bold enough to go entirely without god, as did those who wrote the U.S. Constitution.

I personally worry that Democrats will look back some day on Obama as the one who opened the door to evangelicals, the way Reagan did for Republicans, and that soon we'll have Democrats arguing about whether or not Jesus would sign the Kyoto Protocol. I bristle constantly at his presumption, in each overture to evangelical religion he makes, that morality comes from religion.

(It's religion that has given us homophobia, race-based slavery, and the human superiority that has allowed us to commit grand-scale barbarity on other species -- all things I as an atheist find unconscionably immoral. Really, if Jesus loves Michael Vick, I have kind of a problem with Jesus. When we atheists do something unforgivable, we remain unforgiven. I guarantee it's a much better system for keeping one's lesser self in check -- but all of this is a digression, sorry).

Still, the fact that I support Obama is fuel for your argument that overt religion is losing force -- whether in the face of greater material forces, as you say, or just in the course of the historical relaxation we'll feel worldwide at having survived yet another forecasted Armageddon. I hope, of course, that I'm right, since my way predicts the decline of both the Falwell and the bin Laden brands of bigotry, and sees people of the near future asking not some god's but each other's help solving the greater secular problems we face.

E.J. Dionne: Thanks for that long post, which I can't fully answer in the time I have, but wanted others to see. I disagree that "it's religion that has given us homophobia, race-based slavery." The culture and politics produces such things, and religion often plays a role in that cultural-political process. The truth is that religious voices and committed religious people were at the forefront of the movement to abolish slavery in the U.S. and Britain. There are many religious people opposed to homophobia. As for Christians and the environment, I think it is a good thing that they are searching their consciences on the issue and trying to understand what their faith implies in this sphere. I appreciated your note on what your support for Obama might tell us. (You wrote: "the fact that I support Obama is fuel for your argument that overt religion is losing force -- whether in the face of greater material forces, as you say, or just in the course of the historical relaxation we'll feel worldwide at having survived yet another forecasted Armageddon.") It was the sort of thoughtful introspection I admire. Many thanks.

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mehuwss : In times of peace and prosperity, people "can afford" to think about moral and religious values. Conversely, in times of urgent problems such as war and economic distress, people have other more immediate concerns.

E.J. Dionne: Thanks. There is definitely something to what you say -- although I think moral and religious issues are always there, they are just more or less central at a given moment. But your point squares with what I was suggesting when I noted that Prohibition seemed far less important an issue after the economy fell apart in the Great Depression. Many thanks.

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Washington: Is it possible (and maybe you have addressed this previously) that the religious right never had as much power as we give them credit for? It seems to me that "compassionate conservative" politicians like George W. Bush exploited religious voters by talking a big game on issues such as gay marriage, abortion, etc., that never really were on (or near) the tops of their agenda.

E.J. Dionne: Yes, I think liberals and perhaps the media, too, sometimes gave the Religious Right more influence than it had -- and the Religious Right was happy to have them do so -- partly to make excuses for particular failures. For example, religious issues were important in the 2004 election, but I don't think they were decisive. (I make this point in my book -- sorry to come back to the book again, but I can't possibly say in this brief chat all I would like to in response to all these good questions.) Good point, and thanks.

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St. Simons Island, Ga.: I wish you were right that the social gospel would become the prevalent form of evangelical Christianity, but alas, I don't believe most evangelicals would agree. The conflict between those who believe in "good works" as the path to salvation and those who believe in revelation and a personal relationship with Christ as the path to salvation goes back to the period right after Jesus's death, and it was the latter, lead by Paul, that prevailed.

In the evangelical churches today it's Paul and his letters that dominate, not the four gospels. On the losing side, James, the brother of Jesus, writes: "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds. ... Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. .... You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Issac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. ... You see that a person is justified by what he does, and not by faith alone." But it was Paul, who never even met Jesus -- and most likely never even knew the teachings of Jesus -- who prevailed, not James.

E.J. Dionne: I don't have enough time to discuss the lovely theological/biblical issue you raise, but wanted to share your thoughts with others. Many thanks. Paul's influence is not just important now, but as you suggest has been key through the entire history of the Church, partly because his letters were written so early. I share your appreciation of James. Wish I could go on longer about this!

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I would consider myself conservative and religious: and in a perfect world, people would act morally (much more so than many do now). That said, morality must come from within -- others can't make you fair, honest or just. No matter how much you punish, scold or criminalize, teens are having sex, gays exist, people get divorced, abortions will occur, people will take drugs to cope with various pains, and apparently men will get caught soliciting prostitutes.

So, after years of having so many politicians and pundits trying to browbeat others into being "moral" (like them?) now I find myself just looking for someone with a little bit of realism to their leadership. We don't live in a perfect world and never will; I'd just like to be led by someone who is trying to make it a little better than it is, not someone who will "go for broke" and lose on every battlefront.

E.J. Dionne: A very thoughtful post. Your realism has echoes of my theological hero Reinhold Niebuhr. A politics that does not take into account human imperfection is doomed to failure. And taking human imperfection into account does not preclude seeing human possibility. They are two sides of the same idea, I think. Many thanks.

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Holland, Mich : Our nation was founded on Biblical principals. God blessed nations that seeks after him; those who opposed the Lord got judged or have yet to be judged. The Ten Commandments are very important: Do not kill, do not steal, do not bear false witness against your neighbor, etc. We have the crime rate rise significantly since government removed God from schools. We need to bring morality back and do what is right in God's eyes. We will face judgment one day. Help me Jesus to be faithful to you. My desire is to make a positive impact for God's kingdom, touching others lives for the better. It is what we do for Jesus that will last forever.

E.J. Dionne: I wanted to share your witness with others. I believe that the Bible certainly influenced the Founders, but it was not the only influence. Enlightenment rationalism also played a role. I don't think faith and enlightenment rationalism are enemies. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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Washington: In regard to your thesis, I recall two pieces written in The Post in the past couple of months. One was from a former gun lobbyist who saw that as the movement gained strength, it lost its way and became about perpetuating the movement (and enriching its leaders) rather than changing policy. The second was published just recently by Brent Bozell, about how McCain -- despite a lifelong opposition to abortion, and strong deficit-hawk and national-security credentials -- somehow is not conservative enough for Bozell.

E.J. Dionne: Thanks for sharing that thought.

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Kensington, Md.: Ever since the 1992 presidential campaign, when George H. W. Bush sang loud and long about certain unspecified "valley ewes," it has dumbfounded me that Democrats do not play up their hand on "values." I long have felt they had superior values, in fact, but just don't realize that their platform is based on them. Yesterday, the Pope of all people finally validated my (silent) thesis -- he declared environmental degradation one of the "new sins." Holding healing the sick to be more important than further enriching the wealthy -- as a certain Galilean Jew preached 2,000 years ago -- is another value. Why do you think it has taken liberals so long to discover the "V" word, which has been a winner waiting for them all along?

E.J. Dionne: Amen to that, and from what my friends who know tell me, the Pope's concern for the environment will be something that will mark the rest of his Papacy. The short answer to your question is that I can't understand why it took so long for Democrats to think through the values issues. One possible answer: The Democrats are a complicated coalition of more secular and more religious voters. These issues can blow apart the coalition. Another answer: going way back, the Democrats have tended to be the more laissez-faire party on the public enforcement of morality. But your point is well-taken. Many thanks!

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Baltimore: Had you seen the story about the Vatican issuing a new set of "Seven Social Sins," presumably to update the Seven Deadly? I'm heartened to notice that numbers five through seven have to do with what I believe is the greatest moral purpose of religion -- combating poverty.

washingtonpost.com: Vatican Updates Its Thou-Shalt-Not List (AP, March 11)

E.J. Dionne: Amen. Yes, this is a very interesting development.

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Falls Church, Va.: My mother grew up in the Depression and still tells me about it. She didn't have shoes at some points when she was a child. Their large family had enough to eat because the children worked. My deceased father spent five years in the Pacific with the U.S. Navy during World War II. Even with the economic cycles that our economy goes through today, I cannot see the comparison between what we have today and the sacrifices of my parents.

E.J. Dionne: Very good point. So far you certainly are right, and I hope things never get to where they were in the Great Depression -- but we are, I think, in an economically threatening time, and the public (along with a lot of economists, bankers and labor leaders) certainly is worried. But I appreciate your point.

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Boston: E.J., you say that "we are moving away from one era in which those [religious] issues are quite important to another era in which they will be less central to politics" -- and I generally would agree with you on this. Yet it seems it may be more nuanced -- one of the lessons from the most recent presidential election cycle was the importance of being able to reflect your faith -- authentically -- in the public square. While I believe Kerry is a man of faith from personal experience, he never found his voice on this.

It seems to me that both Obama and Clinton are bleeding in references to their faith throughout the campaign. What are your thoughts on this? Has their been any research that you know of that has looked at the candidates reference to their faith and/or God thus far, compared to the last presidential campaign and/or McCain? While the change you are speaking of may be transcending issues, could it also be an era where the American electorate is becoming more spiritually mature and feeling more comfortable seeing authentic expressions of faith?

E.J. Dionne: Very important point. I think Obama and Clinton indeed have spoken about these questions very thoughtfully. As I suggested in my article, I their openness on religious issues will make it easier to end the culture war and reduce polarization around these issues. In this they are like FDR, who moved us away from the cultural polarization of the 1920s. Again, before I close, I want to underscore that I think religious people have and always will have an important role in American politics. It is a legitimate role. But I think after the period we have just gone through, that role needs to be rethought and redefined. It's why I wrote my book and it why I have been concerned about these issues for such a long time, as many of you have.

I am sorry I have to bring this to a close. I want to apologize to those whose questions I could not get to and thank everyone who participated.

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washingtonpost.com: Continue the discussion at E.J.'s Precinct.

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