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E.J. Dionne Souled Out – Chapter 2

Wednesday, March 5, 2008
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HH: Joined again by E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, my affable lefty columnist colleague. And he’s back because we’re doing a series of conversations about his brand new book, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith And Politics After The Religious Right. E.J. rejoins me today, we’re doing Chapter Two: Why The Culture War Is The Wrong War. E.J, before we do the specifics here, you’re coming out to the West Coast for a book tour. Where do people find out where you are appearing? Are you going to post it over at E.J.’s corner at the Washington Post?

EJD: You know, I can give you some of those details in a moment…

HH: Oh, great.

EJD: But I am speaking, I am speaking in a number of places, both in San Francisco and in L.A.

HH: You see, I always think when…

EJD: I’m speaking at USC, but well, let’s not detain your listeners. I will check these out and find them for you as we go.

HH: Great. Now let’s start with the overarching thesis of Chapter Two, which is maybe we don’t have a culture war, maybe this has always been going on, and that we ought to lay aside that kind of rhetoric and focus, really, on what divides us and how politics can heal that. Is that a fair statement?

EJD: I think that’s a partly fair statement. What I argue in the book is that whether we have a culture war or not, first of all, it’s an empirical question. And there are two ways of looking at this. One is James Davison Hunter’s way. He wrote a great book called Culture Wars way back in 1991. I always thought that he had the word before Pat Buchanan did in his famous speech. And if you look at the, say, 15% of us who are most conservative and religious, and the 15% of us who are most secular and liberal, those groups really do have enormous differences, and there is a culture war. And you can jigger the numbers a little bit, you could say maybe there’s more, 20% on the conservative religious side. But that’s a serious thing. But notice even if you up each side to 20%, that leaves 60% of us who, if we’re having culture wars, we’re often having them within ourselves. There is a broad middle of the country that really doesn’t much like the culture war. And so I think that’s the way I see it analytically, that James Hunter’s right if you look at the ends, and Alan Wolfe, who argues that the other way is right if you look at this broad middle. Now as a practical matter, I think that a lot of culture war arguments are more accusatory than they are about solving problems. For example, I think you and I would agree that the intact two parent family is on balance the best way to raise kids, and that the decay in the family has been bad for social equality, it’s been bad for kids, this is a real problem. But then, what do we exactly do about that? How can we strengthen the family? If we move instantly to arguing about, say, gay marriage, I think we’re taking a detour, because honestly, I think that we who are heterosexual are the people responsible for what has happened to the family, not gays and lesbians. If, on the other hand, you and I start a dialogue and say well, all right, we care about the family, how can we, can we do a little bit about the rules for work, can we perhaps jigger the tax system a little bit to be more friendly to people with kids? Then, I think we could get towards solutions. And so what I argued at the end of that chapter is the culture war exploits our discontents. And the task of politics is to heal them.

HH: And I’m going to come back to that, because I think maybe the task of politics is to accentuate them and let people decide. But that’s later in the hour. I want to begin, though, with this overarching view of the field. Do you think on balance that the 15-20% on the right, the religious conservative, or the 15-20% on the left, the secular liberal, hates the other more or less?

EJD: You mean who hates who more?

HH: Yeah.

EJD: It probably depends on the day.

HH: (laughing)

EJD: I’m not, I think it depends probably entirely on the particular person on either side you’re talking to. I mean, I believe there are plenty of religious conservatives who don’t hate the other side, and I know some secular liberals who don’t hate the other side. So I’m not sure. We’d have to do a detailed polling about hatred to figure that one out.

HH: How about is worried about the other side more?

EJD: Well again, I think that the whole, the origin of the religious right itself, I think, was in a legitimate impatience and unhappiness on the part of traditionalists, and particularly Evangelical Christians who thought that the mainstream culture was looking down its noses at them. They didn’t like how they were portrayed on television, they didn’t like the way intellectuals talked about them, and they engaged in what Nathan Glazer, a great sociologist, called a defensive offensive. And so I think there was a period of time when those were the guys who, the religious conservatives, were being most left out in the cold. But a lot has changed in the last twenty or twenty five years. And I think what you’re seeing now is some people on the secular left feeling some sense of marginalization, which is where I think the popularity of all these neo-atheist books come from. I think that’s the side that feels more embattled now.

HH: Now I think you may disagree with this, but I don’t believe that religious conservatives generally, and there’s always a fringe. I’m not talking about Fred Phelps nutters who are out there trying to antagonize. I passed them on the way to a military funeral once, and I thought to myself, what abject fools these people are, and horrible people. But generally speaking, I think that the left really, the secular left, really, really hates religious people. And religious people really don’t care about the secular left if they’re left alone. In other words, live and let live. You guys probably have to worry about God someday, but we are not here to judge you. But don’t try and aggressively bully us into being secularists. And I do believe, and you bring up the new atheists, I think that’s a perfect example. People sitting over on the right side of the aisle, the conservative, the Evangelical or the Opus Dei Catholic, and they go to the bookstore. And every time they see Letter To A Christian Nation from Sam Harris, or God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, or any of all these things, the Dawkins book, and they say well, the left is at it again. It’s not enough that we can live in a multi-cultural, pluralistic society. They want to drive us out, whereas I don’t think anyone could assert that religious conservatives want to drive anybody out.

EJD: Well, let me do two things. I want to half agree and half disagree with you. That sounds Clintonian to me, I suppose.

HH: You are often Clintonian in this chapter, admittedly so.

EJD: You know, where I would agree is one of the whole points of my book is to argue to fellow liberals that prejudice against people of faith is still a form of prejudice. And the honorable thing about liberalism is that it has opposed prejudices, opposed racism and anti-Semitism. And so I don’t think liberals have any business being bigoted against religious conservatives. And I say that, I think, pretty strongly several times in the book. The other side of it is we do know spokespeople on the religious right who have said things, for goodness sake, that are anti-Catholic, that are anti-Semitic, in some cases, some people have talked about a Christian nation. Some people have a kind of reconstructionist theology. Now I’d agree with you that that is not the mass of your average religious conservative in the pew or on the street or in your neighborhood. But those folks are out there, and they are the ones, I think, who incite the greatest reaction. And in terms of the books, I think these neo-atheist books have caused a stir, because you mentioned, there are three or four big ones, but you and I could walk into any chain bookstores, to the Christian inspiration section, and find book after book after book written by all kinds of theologically conservative Christians, theologically liberal Christians. So we’re not talking about a mass movement here. We’re talking about guys who have succeeded in selling a bunch of books. And at least one case with the help of Hugh Hewitt’s show.

HH: Well, yes. Why do you think it is that they have so much appeal to the media? Because the religious conservatives will say because the media is by and large secular left liberal.

EJD: Well, I’m not sure they…I mean, my book, I’m critical of the neo-atheists. I mean, I welcome their challenge, because I think believers should always be prepared to give an account of the faith that’s in them. But I think that the…I’m not sure that they’ve gotten massive attention from the media, except as a new phenomenon. I mean, the media helped build the religious right. You know, I thought back in 1980, I used to talk to Ken Briggs, who was then the religion editor of the New York Times, who had a much more nuanced view of the religious right than the dominant coverage. And I joke with him that there seems to be a conspiracy here between some liberals who want to build up the religious right as a big threat, and leaders of these organizations who welcome all of that attention.

HH: Well, you do reference in Chapter Two of the book that there is a fundraising aspect on both sides here, that there are some people who love the argument to be ongoing and forever boiling.

EJD: Right. And you know, I mean, we all have, I had a dear, wonderful Republican uncle, and he and I love to keep the argument going all our lives. And I still revere him for the arguments we had. But in this case, yes, there’s also money to be made out of the argument, which is, as you know, a powerful incentive.

HH: Always…And when we come back, this quote is the setting stage. “Morris Fiorina adds that the bulk of American citizenry is somewhat in the position of the unfortunate citizens of some third-world countries who tried to stay out of the crossfire while Maoist guerrillas and right wing death squads shoot at each other.” Do you feel like you’re in the crossfire, or do you feel like you’re one of those right wing death squads or one of those Maoist guerrillas shooting at each other in the culture war.

– – – –

HH: E.J, when I was going to break, I referenced Morris Fiorina. I’m not familiar with political scientist Fiorina, but you talk about his book, Culture War: The Myth of a Polarized Society. He correctly notes that fundraising drives some of this stuff. But I wonder about his description that I read right before we went to break, that Americans are often in the position of the unfortunate citizen caught in the crossfire. I think everyone is interested in these debates, feels a stake in them, but most just aren’t mobilized. I don’t think many people are threatened by them. Does he seem to believe, and do you agree, that people feel threatened by the conversation in the middle?

EJD: Well, I quoted that because Mo is provocative on this, and I say in the text that I don’t think it’s quite as bad as Mo described it. And his whole argument is that the culture war is exaggerated by people involved in it. I think we have to make a distinction here between real arguments over real differences. I mean, there are real differences on issues such as abortion or gay rights in the country. And there are a lot of different ways we can argue about those things versus a kind of exploitation of these debates, either for a political or fundraising purposes, and there’s also the question of extreme language and treating the other side as hopeless sinners or even much worse than that. Sometimes, I think our politics gets down to which side are the biggest bunch of sinners, you know, liberals who are…you know, these libertines are conservatives who have no hearts, and we’re just having a big theological argument all the time in politics.

HH: That theological argument got aired out this past Sunday by Barack Obama in Ohio. I want to play for you his commentary on civil unions and gay marriage, and get your assessment of if he is in fact trying to play the culture war here to his advantage. Here is the comment.

BO: I will tell you that I don’t believe in gay marriage, but I do think that people who are gay and lesbian should be treated with dignity and respect, and that the state should not discriminate against them. So I believe in civil unions that allow a same sex couple to visit each other in a hospital, or transfer property to each other. I don’t think it should be called marriage, but I think that it is a legal right that they should have that is recognized by the state. If people find that controversial, then I would just refer them to the Sermon On The Mount, which I think, you know, is, in my mind, for my faith, more central than an obscure passage in Romans.

HH: Now E.J, what he’s saying there is if you disagree with civil unions, you don’t believe in the Sermon On The Mount. Is that not playing an incredible bit of culture war warriorism there?

EJD: You see, I thought you were going to give him credit for understanding the double references to the Romans, for coming forward with the Sermon On The Mount and the Romans, and inviting us to a theological conversation about what does Scripture actually say. Seriously, I think a lot of people have used the gay marriage argument as a way of turning around and bashing gays, and that you know, what’s really striking on the gay marriage argument is that there is a new middle that has been created in public opinion. And the new middle is civil unions, that…and that if you look at the exit polls from 2004 that I cite, the largest group opposes recognizing…the largest group, actually, I think favors civil unions. A lot of people are against gay marriage, and then some people are for it. If you combine the civil unions people with the opponents of gay marriage, you have overwhelming opposition to gay marriage. But if you combine the gay marriage people with the civil union people, you’ve got a different majority in the country. And so I think Obama is reflecting a place that a lot of people have gotten to where they don’t want the marriage word used. And I make a case in the book, I should be out front, for gay marriage, but we’ll get to that later on in our discussion. But I think that Obama’s describing where the cultural middle is on this right now.

HH: He may be, but to press my argument a little bit, if he came out and said I’m for civil unions, and I’m not for gay marriage, I’d say okay, that’s just sort of a conventionally liberal, center-left position. He needs to keep his constituencies happy, and he’s going to try and get 55% of the people to vote for him. But when he says and I refer you to the Sermon On The Mount, I think he’s telling people that if you’re not for civil unions, you’re against the Sermon On The Mount, which is a pretty culture war kind of statement, isn’t it?

EJD: Oh, I don’t know. I think that what he is saying is that to have, to feel brotherhood and sisterhood with our brothers and sisters who are gay is consistent with the Scriptures, and I think he is reacting against some nasty things that have been said about gay people. But you know, I take your broader point that the culture war is to some degree in the eye of the beholder, and that we always tend to see the folks against us as being the aggressor. I just want to get the numbers right. It’s 37% oppose gay marriage, 35% favor civil unions, 25% favor marrying legally.

HH: Now you know what’s interesting about those numbers, and I think you’re giving Obama too much credit here, but I’ll let it go, is that whenever gay marriage shows up on the ballot, it is defeated, whether that means voting yes meaning no, it doesn’t matter much. It’s overwhelmingly beaten, and yet it keeps becoming…and civil unions are very different. If we understand what the new middle is, why do such numbers stand there and demand that prohibitions on gay marriage be encoded in state constitutional law?

EJD: Well, I think that a lot of people, when push comes to shove right now, do not want gay or lesbian relationships to carry the name marriage. And if you ask me the question are a majority of Americans, if given a binary choice, will they opt against it, right now, I’d say the answer is yes. It’s, by the way, heavily conditioned by age, even among religious people, where younger people are more sympathetic to sanctifying these relationships legally. And it’s very important, by the way. I think there’s a legitimate fear out there, even though I don’t see any legal grounds for it, that if the state did this, then Churches would be required to change their theology of marriage, and the state can’t do that. And nothing, in any of these gay marriage proposals, would require a Church that doesn’t want to marry gay people to marry gay people. But I think there’s a real fear that the state would impose that on Churches, and I think that breeds some of the opposition to gay marriage proposals.

– – – –

HH: E.J, Michael Barone writes on Page 49 of your book, “there is considerable truth to Michael Barone’s suggestion that religion has become ‘the great divider’ in American elections.” Now I’ll let you summarize your statistical walk-through. It seems that in 2004, that was very true, but a little bit of it went away in 2006. What was Barone referring to? And what are the numbers here?

EJD: Well, if you ask people the question how often to you attend religious services, people who attended religious services more than once a week voted roughly 3:2 for President Bush. At the other extreme, people who never attended religious services voted roughly the same margin for John Kerry. Similarly, weekly attenders backed Bush 58-41. Those who attended once a month split evenly. Those who attend occasionally voted for Kerry by about nine points. So there is clearly a correlation between going to Church, or Synagogue, and but particularly Church, because Jews are overwhelmingly Democratic, and voting Republican. And that’s just been a fact of our politics, now, for some years. Now you’re right. 2006 is very interesting, because I have fun with 2006 in this chapter, because there were stories that said the God gap has narrowed. I don’t like that term, but I’ll use it, because that’s the term they use. The God gap narrowed. And then other stories showed that it widened. Well, both of those were true at the same time. Technically, the gap widened, because Evangelical Christians in an election when a lot of people left the Republican Party, remained the most loyal Republican group. And those less religious people who had voted for Bush defected in a big way in 2006, so the actual gap widened. On the other hand, you saw religious issues being less salient in the way people voted, and Democrats did start making inroads in many, though not all, states among religious voters, among frequent attenders at Church or Synagogue.

HH: Now I’ll come back to that in a second. If it’s true, E.J, that frequent attenders are ‘better people’, meaning they do less hurtful things less often than infrequent attenders, and they give more money to needy people and needy things more often, and more of themselves, that would mean that Republicans are better people than Democrats, wouldn’t it?

EJD: Uh (laughing)

HH: (laughing)

EJD: I will let you say that to your listeners, who will love to hear that. I am not one of those who believes that people who never attend Church are bad people.

HH: I didn’t say that.

EJD: And not all of us who go to Church are good people.

HH: I didn’t say that.

EJD: (laughing)

HH: I just said if. I gave you a premise. If my premise is right, it just stands to reason. Let’s go back to the idea of what happened in ’06, because I think you also point out quite wisely that the reason that the God gap may not have narrowed as much as people think it did is because different issues dominated in ’06, and we also had the traditional very secular rule that if you’re in town for eight years, in the sixth year, you’re going to get hit with a hammer if you’re the president. And I think you noted that. And as a result, it may be one of those outlier elections where you really can’t draw much attention from these things.

EJD: Except the reason I don’t think it’s an outlier election is I think we could be, and we’ll find out by November, at one of those hinge moments where certain very large issues related to war and peace, and our standing in the world, and of course, an economy that a lot of people are worried about, begin to push back the cultural issues. I mean, think of it this way. In 1928, the two big elections were, the two big issues were prohibition and whether we should elect the first Catholic president, Al Smith. Then bang comes the Great Depression. By 1936, these are not salient issues anymore. Obviously, Franklin Roosevelt is not a Catholic, but the prohibition issue is gone. And I think we may be moving to a period where for a while, these other non-religious issues are dominant. It doesn’t mean people with religious convictions won’t have strong views about them, but that we will have less cultural politics in the country. I think that’s one thing that’s happening. And I think the second thing that’s happening is that you do have, among many Evangelicals, and we talk about this later in the book, so we’ll get to this, who are worried about issues other than the issues that became particular hot buttons in recent elections.

HH: Now you make the argument, this really gets underway, this wave of religious voting, or religious dominated politics, gets underway in ’72 with the acid, amnesty and abortion campaign against George McGovern. But what you’re really arguing is, this is a set up, that it’s run its course from ’72 to ’08, and that’s about the typical course in American politics, and that you would not be surprised, what, to see a generation where these issues no longer change electoral outcomes?

EJD: Some of these issues endure. In other words, there are issues that don’t go away, but don’t have the same electoral saliency. I mean, I suspect that we will continue to be talking about abortion for a long time, but it won’t, I don’t think, have the same electoral saliency that it had in other elections.

– – – –

HH: E.J, you wrote on Page 66, “In 2006, Americans seemed tired of culture wars, tired of polarization around moral questions, and tired of religion’s use as a political weapon.” I think I might simply respond no, they got tired of the Iraq War, and they got tired of corruption, and they got tired of Mark Foley, and they got tired of being tired, not that these issues didn’t matter.

EJD: I guess there are multiple reasons why the Republicans lost that election in 2006. Obviously, I don’t disagree with any single statement you just made. I think all those things were true. But I think that the degree of frustration with some of these problems fed this exhaustion with a kind of continued culture war argument. I want to go back to one thing we were talking about during the break. You cited the ’72 election and Nixon.

HH: Right.

EJD: We also tend to ascribe things to religion that aren’t necessarily ascribable to religion. A lot of people who happen to be white, Evangelical Christians also happen to be Southerners. And there was a turn away from the Democrats in the South, beginning with Barry Goldwater’s election in 1964. Some of this was related to civil rights, and more generally, it was just a conversion to conservatism among white Southerners. And that happened before there was anything like the religious right, so that the religious right, in some ways, pushed along a realignment that had already begun in the 60’s and early 70’s.

HH: I think you also make a fairly compelling argument that the religious right is shrinking its regional base quite decisively into the South. And of course, the Huckabee campaign of this year would affirm that, that in fact, in certain precincts, say, Western Iowa, Orange County, California, certain suburbs around Chicago, that you’ve got basically an active religious right limited in its reach to the Mason-Dixon line. Is that what you’re trying to say?

EJD: Well, I think there’s a lot of truth to that, and I also…Huckabee is interesting in multiple ways, because he also is a new style Evangelical, because as you probably argued on your show, he was a populist Evangelical as much as he was a conservative Evangelical. And he talked a lot about inequality. I mean, his wacky tax plan to the side, he talked a lot about inequality, about health care, about education. He was about the broadening of the agenda, but yes, this movement did have a very Southern feel to it. And I think we talked about this early in our discussions. Megachurches in suburban and exurban areas are not as Southern in character as some of the original religious right Evangelical preachers are. These are, a lot of the folks who go to those Churches are moderate or moderately conservative people, and don’t fit into the pigeonholes that we tend to create for those we call members of the religious right.

HH: How about this proposition, E.J, because you bring up Terry Schiavo and this tragic case of the brain damaged woman who was starved to death by the state on the orders of a judge, and on the demands of her husband in ’05, which affected ’06, that when the specific issue is outside of the electoral calendar, and all Congress is hearing from are Evangelicals who are motivated by the issue, they tend to win. But then if you take that issue and you put it into a generalized setting, there isn’t a single candidate out there for the last year who’s defended the Terry Schiavo law, although I still believe it was the right law, and was inappropriately decided by the court. But you don’t find anyone who agrees with that at election time. Is it possible that their dominance inside of the Republican Party is driving the Republican Party too far to the right on the cultural issues with the result that they are in a more precarious position, and this is apropos of your Karl Rove observation? He always had Bush talk in code to the Evangelicals.

EJD: Well, in fact, I think you just look at the Republican primaries, John McCain won this nomination partly because his conservative opponents were divided, but partly in, you know, certainly in the face of strong opposition from these established religious right leaders. I think that’s part of the evidence…I would argue that’s evidence for the decline of the religious right as we have known it. I mean, the Schiavo case is fascinating, because an awful lot of conservative, Doug Kmiec, your colleague out there on the West Coast, a conservative legal scholar, was very unhappy with what Congress did on the Terry Schiavo case. It was federal, you know, Congress overriding state courts, it was intervention in a personal decision. But I think Doug Kmiec’s objection was not on that, because I think on the underlying issue, he agreed with you. But he thought this was a terrible way for Congress and the federal government to proceed in a case like this.

HH: But given that it happened, and at the time, many Democrats joined in voting for the Schiavo bill, as you recall…

EJD: Yes, and many Democrats took a dive. I think that that was a very striking moment in both parties misreading where public opinion actually was on the issue.

HH: And how did they misread it? Why did they misread it?

EJD: Well, I think that your point is correct, that the loudest voice is the only voices they were hearing was from the religious right. I also think there’s another issue here, which is abortion, there have been millions of abortions, abortion has touched a lot of people, but the issue of making a decision at the end of life has touched practically everyone. This is a very live question for almost every human being in the United States. They either have dealt with it, or know they will deal with it. So this was not an abstract question. And I think a lot of people who are basically conservative, I’ve heard for example, and we probably agree on this, I’m opposed to doctor-assisted suicide. But I think a lot of people make a distinction between doctor-assisted suicide and the withdrawal of life support in a situation like this. And they were just very uneasy with this kind of intervention in a situation that’s hard to settle, even when the family is in full agreement, let alone when you have the mess that existed in poor Terry Schiavo’s family.

– – – –

HH: I want to thank E.J. Dionne for the third of our conversations, five more to go on his new book, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith And Politics After The Religious Right. E.J, before the break, I read a sentence in which you said it’s a hard argument, it’s much easier to scream across barricades about abortion, gay marriage or Terry Schiavo’s fate. I think that might be the one sentence I disagree with most. A lot of people who do these debates on both sides aren’t there because it’s easy. It’s actually very hard. It’s time consuming. It’s expensive. It requires sacrifice. But they feel like God obliges them to act in a certain way. Isn’t that a better characterization, that they do what they feel they have to do?

EJD: Well, I would not…I’m always suspicious of arguments from motive, so yes, I believe many of the people who are engaged in these arguments sincerely and honestly believe they have a calling to engage in the argument. But what I think I was referring to particularly was how these arguments are had on your typical, not your talk show, of course, but on your typical television talk show, where it’s just much easier for people to scream at each other, you know, somebody screaming at someone on one side of the Schiavo case saying they’re indifferent to human life, and someone screaming on the other side that you’re an officious, religious meddler, or something like that. That’s what I mean by easy, you know, an easy argument, and that the fact is that our freedom depends upon this balance between individualism and community. And I think that’s always a difficult and interesting argument. It doesn’t just divide us left and right. There are more communitarian conservatives, and more libertarian conservatives. And I think that we’re constantly engaged in adjustments in our country, because we value both liberty and community.

HH: You also close the chapter by saying the culture war exploits our discontents. The task of politics is to heal them. That’s a liberal statement. I think the task of politics should be to do no harm, and to do as little as possible, and leave the private sector as large as possible, and that in fact, if we’d done less trying to fix things, and a whole lot more of respecting differences and leaving people alone, that we wouldn’t have had the culture wars. I’ll give you the last word today, E.J.

EJD: I think politics in a democratic society is about the search for remedy. And so…and I’m fully prepared to say maybe that is a liberal view. It is what the New Deal was about. It was taking a capitalist system that had some great things about it, but was broken down, and trying to fix it. It’s about taking injustices such as discrimination against African-Americans, and trying to push aside those injustices, correct them. And I think politics can be about remedy. And as Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, in this spehere, we’ve had more successes than we’d like to know.

HH: E.J, always a pleasure. The new book, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith And Politics After The Religious Right. We’ll talk again next week.

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