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Part 2 of the E.J. Dionne debate series over his book, Souled Out

Thursday, February 21, 2008

HH: This hour is part two of my extended series of conversations on the role of religion in American life with Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. He has written a brand new book, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith And Politics After The Religious Right, which is shooting up bestseller lists across the United States, in bookstores now. I’ve linked to it at We started this conversation last week with a little bit of bio on E.J. E.J, welcome back. You’ve had a whole week to reflect upon round one. What did you make of last week upon reflection?

EJD: Well, you know what? I didn’t have a huge chance to reflect, because I got decked by the worst flu I’ve had in my entire life. And so for two reasons, two things, one is I apologize if I still cough a little bit for your listeners, and number two, I ask you to exercise your greatest compassion with me since I’m still coming out of the flu. But I very much enjoyed the conversation last week.

HH: You know, that flu is ravaging the East Coast, isn’t it?

EJD: It’s very bad. I have not felt that sick in 25 years.

HH: Wow.

EJD: It made me actually realize I’m pretty lucky.

HH: Yeah. Let’s get into the substance of Chapter One, which is entitled Is Religion Conservative Or Progressive, Or Both? Now there are two understandings here, E.J. I want you to set up the thesis that, which I think is the point of part one. It depends on where you sit what you see when it comes to whether or not religion is conservative or progressive.

EJD: Right. Well, in fact, this is the chapter I thought you might like best in the book, partly because I come to the answer that it is both, and that in fact, the very fact that we’re having this dialogue fits in with the very sort of last section, the last couple of paragraphs of that chapter. If I can just sort of read a few sentences, “Religion is necessarily both conservative and progressive. Religion is rooted in tradition, and survives through development and change within tradition. It applies old truths to new circumstances. It also reexamines old truths in light of new circumstances. The conservative insists that tradition not be distorted merely to accommodate passing fads and fashion. The progressive insists on purifying and clarifying the tradition by freeing it from the distortions and incrustations of the past.” It seems to me that religious traditions stay alive precisely when progressives and conservatives who are both loyal to the tradition engage in argument and dialogue. And obviously, it takes discernment to figure out when you are overthrowing a cultural incrustation, and I might see more of those than you would, and also, when you are accommodating a passing fad. And I think a lot of the arguments we have within traditions are arguments over such things.

HH: Now it’s undeniable that some…the late 50’s forward, mainline Protestant denominations cratered, in terms of people attending those Churches. Was that because the conservatives didn’t do their job, or the progressives did too much de-encrusting?

EJD: You know, it’s intriguing. There are a lot of…first of all, there is a lot of floating around back and forth among congregations. I think that what you’re seeing right now, and I think this is a backwards way of answering your question, you know, why are the mega-Churches doing so well? The mega-Churches are a very peculiar combination of conservatism and modernity, because the mega-Churches, on the one hand, many of them are theologically conservative. They present a sort of rather traditional view of Jesus, of salvation and the like. On the other hand, they also are very well adapted to the communities in which they exist, often suburbs and exurbs. They are very open in terms of music and the nature of liturgy. Many of them, like Rick Warren’s Church, have scores of different kinds of liturgy for different kinds of people. I mean, a lot of the people who go to such Churches are actually not all that doctrinally conservative. They’re not all that doctrinally conservative at all. And I don’t say that to put them down, I say that to describe their attitude toward faith, which is not as a series of complicated propositions that people who are Catholic like you and me are accustomed to. I think when you look at the 1950’s, I think some of that was the result of demographic change. Some of it is the result of simply the decline of the old Protestant establishment, the rise of new groups in society. You have Latinos becoming a very important force, which both increase the size and importance of Catholicism. But also, as Latinos have converted, have increased the size of Evangelical Churches.

HH: Now I’ve preached at Rick Warren’s Church. He’s a friend. And I’ve preached at Mariners, another mega-Church, and I’ve attended a lot of the big mega-Churches of Southern California. When I’m out on the road, I try and go to a mega-Church just to see what the quality of worship is like. And you know, they de-encrusted, to use your term, a lot of liturgical staleness. But they’re very orthodox, E.J. I mean, you will find Rick Warren is a Baptist, and he’s a Baptist at the beginning of the day, and he’s a Baptist at the end of the day.

EJD: Well, I agree. I’ve talked to Rick Warren also, and he definitely is theologically conservative. There’s no question about that.

HH: And so what I’m getting at is, is the de-encrustation, or that reform process you talk about, necessary when it comes to making sure that people can use modern types of worship, but deadly dangerous and killing when it gets into doctrine?

EJD: Well, I think that, you know, there’s a great discussion. The simple way to put, and maybe it’s oversimplifying what you’re saying, is that when people decide they want to come to religion, they decide they want to come to the real thing. And they don’t want to go to a Church where the theology may seem so liberal that they’re not exactly sure where God is in the service, that sort of thing. And I think there is some truth to that. On the other hand, I think that there is an awful lot of theological liberalism that was necessary for the salvation of the traditions. I mean, I think the Catholic Church is a good case and point. When you look at what Vatican II did, and what Pope John Paul II confirmed, and we’ll talk about that in later shows in more detail, I think it was vital that the Catholic Church finally moved to an unambiguous position on religious tolerance, an unambiguous position on democracy and free institutions. And that really was an adjustment of Church doctrine. It really was a response to modernity. And I think both of us would agree that that decision to accommodate those parts of modernity that actually made sense, to accommodate the critique of people like John Courtney Murray, an American who got condemned by conservatives early in his career, and later became the voice of this new endorsement of democracy and pluralism. I think that was a very important, almost salvific thing for the Church.

HH: Yeah, but that’s at a level where…we’ll get to that. But I want to stay at a very basic level for the audience for a moment. For example, if a Church comes out and says look, we think that you can have gay-ordained pastors, and we don’t think that sex outside of marriage, whether between man and woman or between two people of the same sex, is always wrong, that when they do that, that’s when they begin to lose the ability…that’s not de-encrustation, as you put it. That’s revolution, and that it’s revolution that killed the Protestant Church in the mainstream. They began to abandon the core. Fair or not fair?

EJD: Not entirely true, I think, and here’s why I say that, is that all of these traditions preach far more power to women now than they would have fifty or sixty years ago. You know, if you take some of the sort of radical traditionalist groups within the Catholic Church that have been sort of thrown out of the Church, some of them will argue that a man should never be put in a position of responding to a woman in authority. Now no one believes that anymore. And yet, there were people with these very hard-line anti-woman, it’s not even anti-feminist attitudes, were part, were seen as an inextricable part of the tradition. Slavery, as we know, was not condemned by many of the Churches, including our Catholic Church, until relatively recently. And these were seen as vital parts of the tradition, you know, not opposing slavery, being in favor of racial separation. And these were seen as revolutionary. And people at the time, and I’m not saying you would have been one of them, but were saying much the same thing you are saying now about those things. You know, I think I would separate what one teaches about sexuality in general, and fidelity and marriage, and the importance of fidelity from where the Churches may be in fifty or a hundred years on the issues of gays and lesbians.

HH: Now see, E.J, that’s where it’s very…I think, because of my Congregationalist roots on my Dad’s side, that I always would have been with the abolitionists, and with the Catholic progressives in that regard. But I even think the Catholic progressives have got to bump up eventually against the idea not that homosexuality is sinful, that’s an inclination, but that you can’t have same sex pastors in couples, because it’s always and everywhere obviously a departure from basic doctrine. We’ll come back with E.J. about whether it’s progressive or conservative, or grey, black and white when we return.

– – – –

HH: You know, E.J, I’m pretty certain that most of these conversations will be listened to by my pal, Dr. Jim Dobson. He listens in Colorado Springs most nights. And if he’s driving home right now, I know he’s just shaking his head, because of the conservation we were having in the last segment, which is about that irreducible core of black and white rules, which are part of the Christian depository of faith. And I am reminded, I didn’t write down who said this in Chapter One, I just wrote it down because I loved it. Liberal Protestantism seemed to believe in a God without wrath, who brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross. That’s in your chapter. Who wrote that?

EJD: I think that was H. Richard Niebuhr, wasn’t it?

HH: That’s it. Okay, it’s Niebuhr.

EJD: Yeah.

HH: H. Richard Niebuhr. So…

EJD: No, and I quoted that line, because I think it’s important for liberal Christians like me to remember that. In other words, I quoted it positively, not negatively. And I do think that at some point, you, if you sort of remove the certain fundamental doctrinal elements, and certain core beliefs, then you have a really nice community association, perhaps, and not a Church.

HH: Exactly!

EJD: And so I understand that. Now if we’re honest, many people belong to Churches for a variety of reasons. And one of the important parts is to belong to a community of relatively like-minded people. Now because they chose to belong to a Church they do aspire to something beyond their own interests, their own life, indeed, only the things of this world. Would you permit me just one interruption in the course of this?

HH: Of course.

EJD: Because I want to go back to one thing we talked about. And you know, because we didn’t talk much about the introduction except the biographical part, I do think the mega-Church phenomenon, which I treat quite sympathetically in the book, is extremely important. And I quote Rick Warren at length about how he went about the very practical questions he asked in setting up Saddleback Church. You know, he went door to door, and he asked people if they went to Church, what, why, that if they went to Church, he said, I’ll move onto the next door, God bless you. And if they didn’t go to Church, he wanted to know why. And what he came up with, there were reasons. He said they desired inspiring sermons, a friendly congregation, a pastor who did not seem greedy, and a healthy concern with the lives of their children. And as he put it, it wasn’t that they didn’t like God. They liked God, they couldn’t stand Church. And I think that is a very realistic view of how people, especially in a society with so much choice as we have, choose a congregation. And the second point I want to make about mega-Churches that I think is so important is these are, in significant part, a suburban and exurban phenomenon. And one of the reasons I think that’s important goes to one of the core arguments on the book, which is I do not believe we will see religion, even theologically conservative Evangelical religion, living at the right end of politics in the future to the same degree it has lived there for the last twenty years. And that’s because suburban and exurban people are fundamentally moderate in their orientations. They may well vote Republican. Many, I’m sure that most of the folks that go to mega-Churches are more likely to vote the way you vote than the way I vote. But I suspect some of that’s going, the balance will change a little bit. But more fundamentally, these are not deeply ideological people, and that’s why I think you’re going to see a real change in the religious community, including the theologically conservative part of the religious community.

HH: Well, that’s interesting. You know, the pastor of First Baptist in Columbia, South Carolina, where I went and gave a talk once, once told me that nobody does a small town better than a big Church, and that they’re recreating communities which people long for. But at the same time, they’re intensely conservative in what they hope for their next generation. They have youth pastors who counsel moderation, who counsel chastity, who counsel don’t use drugs, and that these make them much anti-cultural elites. And you get into this in the first chapter when you talk about how religion of the left went from being concerned with the poor and the sick to being concerned with sexual license and with abortion, and that that’s when the bottom dropped out. And so I think the bottom’s being put back in, E.J, by the mega-Church when it comes to these core doctrinal issues about personal behavior and accountability in the Gospel. And that, I don’t know if it translates into Republican-Democrat, because you’re right. Most of the exurban Churches are very tolerant, very embracing of all sorts of people – gays and lesbians, all sorts of people. But they don’t want to be asked to deny core truths of the Christian Gospel concerning personal behavior. Do you think a Church can do that and survive? I don’t know of a single mega-Church, not one, that ordains actively gay people.

EJD: Well no, but what I think you’re going…I think it’s going to take time, but I think one of the biggest revolutions in attitudes in the United States in the last twenty years has been our attitudes toward people who are gay or lesbian.

HH: Of course.

EJD: That society is much more open, much less bigoted, much more accepting, partly because so many gay and lesbian people have come out of the closet, and people discover that brothers, sisters, cousins, dear friends, people whom they really love and respect, are actually homosexual, and that by that, just necessarily changes people’s attitudes, or at least makes them ask lots of questions about their former attitudes. And so yes, I would argue that in over some period of time, even the more conservative congregations will begin to change their attitudes toward homosexuality. Now I hope we both live long enough to discover either I’m right or you’re right about this, but I do think that change will take place, and people will have a much less, will not put this in that unchangeable category of…

HH: Well you see, that’s where I think we run into the…while I agree with you completely about attitudes changing, and I believe the Catholic Church teaching is correct, the inclination is not sinful, but that the prohibition on sex outside of marriage between a heterosexual couple is absolute in the Gospel, and that you can’t…I don’t know how you can hedge that, E.J, and still claim to be other than a revolutionary. If you hedge that, I think you’re overthrowing the historic Christian Church. And that’s not like slavery. It’s not like the attitude towards women, which is that’s practice, it’s not doctrine. Sexual morality is explicit in the Gospel. How do you get away from it?

EJD: Well, but I think, you know, sexual…you know, the Catholic Church went toward the rhythm method, for example, on birth control. There was an older school that felt even that was unacceptable, because it allowed too much, if you will, licentiousness in marital sexuality, so that I think that on many questions related to sex itself, and also gender, you have seen a transformation even in the most conservative and traditional institutions. And I think on some of these questions, and particularly, I believe, on homosexuality, there will be a change. I think on the idea of fidelity within marriage, I do not anticipate a change, I don’t desire a change. And in fact, in the book, I talk about how those of us who really do care about preserving the two parent family, who do believe as I do, and as you do, that the two parent family is such an important building block for both a working society, a society that works and a society that’s just, that we who are heterosexual should spend a lot more time worrying about how we hold the family together than worrying about homosexuality, because in my experience, marriages are not broken up by gays, people who are gay or lesbian. They tend to be broken up by people who are heterosexuals themselves.

HH: They tend to be broken up by an abandonment of the standard.

– – – –

HH: E.J, I want to make sure we get the spine of Chapter One in front of the audience when they go out to get this, and that is that there are three phases in America history with regards to the role of religion in America. The first is the era of white Protestant domination. The second is the rise of the separationist ethic, which really begins with Everson and the Supreme Court, the Warren Court. And then it runs through the reaction of the late 70’s and early 80’s against separationism and the rise of Jerry Falwell and others demanding sort of a reemergence in the public square of a vibrant and orthodox Christian faith. Now I think that’s fair, but let’s make sure we line it out a little bit. Even during the era of white Protestant domination, Washington’s writing to the Jews of Rhode Island, the Catholic Church is setline the frontiers. It’s never been just white Protestants in America.

EJD: No, in fact, I go out of my way when I say that to say that, I think I even use that dreaded word hegemony there.

HH: Yup.

EJD: And I argue that I do not use it in a pejorative sense, but simply in a descriptive sense, and then indeed, one of the great virtues of the Protestantism that was dominant in the United States is that it helped underwrite religious liberty, and that the Protestant leadership of the country insisted upon religious liberty. George Washington did send that welcome to the Jewish community in the Touro Synagogue up in Newport. They did allow large numbers of Catholics to come in the country. We had a huge argument over that, an immigration fight back in the 1840’s. It was about Catholics mostly from Ireland rather than about Latinos mostly from Mexico. But there was a deep tolerance, and that was important, because essentially, the white Protestant sort of ruling ethos almost allowed, and almost necessarily overthrew itself, because it allowed in all these other groups. And what I argue is that it began falling apart, its dominance, first during prohibition and the rise of the Al Smith-Roosevelt Democratic Party. And I say that on purpose to link the two. Prohibition was probably the last social experiment that both mainline and Evangelical Protestants lined up on the same side.

HH: You betcha.

EJD: They were both for prohibition.

HH: Yup.

EJD: And when it failed, when you had the Scopes Trial, and the reaction to that, although I am like Mike Keas, my friend at Georgetown, the historian, I am more sympathetic to Brian than a lot of liberals are, although partly because I think Brian was an authentic progressive. But after the experience of the Scopes Trial and prohibition, the Protestant dominance kind of went underground. And then John F. Kennedy’s election securing the position of Catholics in the country, really began this overthrow. And then you had the move toward a much stronger version of separation of Church and state. And you had the various Court decisions culminating in Roe V. Wade. I argue that the third stage was not an attempt, although some might prefer it to restore this old Protestant hegemony, but on the whole, I think it’s an attempt to take the advances in freedom won in that second stage, but then to say that we shouldn’t drive religion’s voice out of the public square altogether. Father Neuhaus, Richard John Neuhaus and I disagree on a number of things, but I identified with a lot of what was in his 1984 book, The Naked Public Square, where I think it is a mistake to pretend, especially in the United States, that you can drive religion out of the public square, or that someone doesn’t have the right to base his or her political conclusions on their religious faith. They do have that right.

HH: And do I detect in here a distinct note of regret at how far the separationists’ jurisprudence went, to the point where you have debates over whether the Ten Commandments, inscribed on the wall of the Supreme Court, can actually appear in a public building?

EJD: It’s a partial regret. I tell you, my regret is less about all of the jurisprudence. For example, I don’t think there should be proscribed prayers in public schools, because I don’t think the state should write a prayer. And I think that to win acceptance across all the denominational lines that might be represented in a school, you would insult all religions. You could imagine a prayer to the holy mother-father-life force, or something. And so I don’t disapprove of those decisions. What I do reject is the idea that religion is purely a private matter, that the public square can only be secular, that only secular voices are admitted there. That’s just not at all in the American tradition. And you know, many of the movements I value, and as a matter of fact, you would value, including abolition and the civil rights movement, would not have been so powerful, might not have existed absent the religious inspiration. It was Evangelical Americans who were at the heart of the early agitation against slavery.

HH: Absolutely right.

– – – –

HH: E.J, I note in the book an ambivalence about proof texting. I hate proof texting. I don’t let anyone do it on my radio show. People want to call up and say let me give you a verse from here, or let me read you a hadith from the Koran, or let me get you a saying of the Buddha. I just won’t let them do it, because it’s really impossible to take a single line and argue a political argument from it, no matter how clear that line is, because Scripture is too immense, and it’s not contradictory, but it’s just much larger than a single line.

EJD: Paradoxical, perhaps.

HH: Yeah, but you like it. You say you love throwing that stuff at conservatives once in a while.

EJD: Right. You know, I agree with you on the dangers of proof texting. The only reason I guess I occasionally enjoy it, or at the very least am amused by it, is that it sometimes forces people to be a bit more Biblically literate. And I like people to, you know, if one person throws a text out…in my religion in politics class today, my most Biblically literate student threw out one passage, used it very well from the Bible, and I sort of, at great risk since I regard him as exceedingly Biblically literate, he’s Evangelical, said I am taking a high risk, but I’m going to throw another piece of Scripture back at you. And then we went back and forth on the subject. And I think, you know, proof texting in that sense, in having a serious argument but not, but taking the emphasis off the word proof and on the word text, I think can be useful.

HH: Okay. Now by the way, where do you teach?

EJD: Oh, I teach at Georgetown.

HH: And what’s the class?

EJD: The class is called Religion In Politics. It’s a magnificent class, because the students who take it tend to be very, very committed to a point of view, and to action on behalf of that point of view. And the range of students is very broad, from very conservative Evangelical students to secular students who oppose the very title of the course. So it’s a very interesting…and then lots in between, obviously.

HH: Well let me ask you, are there more Catholic worker Catholics, or more Opus Dei Catholics in that class?

EJD: In that class, my sense is that the tilt is liberal on the whole. There are a couple of Catholic worker, there are a couple of people who are, I think, in some sense a part of the Catholic worker tradition. I think it’s more generally a kind of, if you will, an Obama liberalism that is popular among people who are that age right now.

HH: It’s so funny you bring up his name.

EJD: But there are others who are, you know, I have some very strong capitalist students who are uneasy with applying the Gospel in ways that they see as undermining capitalism. I have, you know, as I say, some conservative Evangelical students. But I say a majority is more on the liberal side. Now that may be because they took my course, you know?

HH: In Chapter One, you joke, at least I think it’s a joke, that Evangelicals, led by Karl Rove, want to reverse the progressive income tax. Now if it was true, absolutely true, E.J, that a 20% flat tax increased government revenues and economic growth, wouldn’t it be immoral to believe in a progressive income tax?

EJD: Well, if it increased revenues, and increased economic growth, it would not be absolutely immoral. It would depend entirely, it would depend in significant part on how that wealth is distributed, because you could produce enormous growth at the top, and not do anything for the people at the bottom of the economy. But I don’t believe that’s true in the first place. If you could ever prove that to me, I would take the argument seriously. But I, yes, I do believe in the progressive income tax. No, I’m not going to throw Scripture at you to justify that, Hugh.

HH: Yeah, but you slipped in sort of a moral argument, that it was moral to believe in the progressive income tax. It can’t be moral to believe in a tax code. It’s just got to be efficient or inefficient to believe in a tax code, right?

EJD: No, I think…well, number one, my argument there, let’s not sort of switch gears on what I’m actually saying, is I do not believe that there is a Scriptural basis in arguing for, say, a flat tax or the repeal of the inheritance tax. There’s nowhere I see Jesus endorsing a cut in the capital gains tax.

HH: Or opposing one.

EJD: So it’s sort of this linkage of religious politics to an economic policy which may not be unchristian. Mike Novak would defend many of these policies, but I do not believe is in any way obviously Christian. So that’s where I’m placing the argument. Now if you’re going to have, argue the question can a tax code be moral or immoral? Yes. A tax code should promote justice, it should promote hard work. It should make sure, it should do as best it can to produce a society that’s more just after the taxes apply than before.

HH: Now E.J, don’t you hear in Obama’s rhetoric an attempt to capture politics for a left wing Christianity, and to make it about the morality of political decisions, as opposed to their efficacy. I think it’s exactly happening on the left what you are inveighing against on the right in your first chapter.

EJD: Well, but…first of all, I don’t think morality and efficacy are at odds, necessarily. I don’t accept that sort of, the way you split that up. Indeed, I think many things, we adopt many forms of morality because they are not only right, but efficacious. We can go back and talk about the family. In Obama’s case, yes I think he is saying that there is a social morality, and that what I’m arguing for in the book is let’s return to a time when we looked at our religious faith and our religious traditions, we looked at it whole. Yes, you and I can and should argue about sexuality and marriage. But we should also argue about what constitutes a just society, where the Catholic Church as you know talked for many, many years about the living wage, about an economy that allowed people to provide for their families. I think these are moral questions. I think the way we organize work in this kind of society we have now, and whether men and women have the time to take care of their children. Jim Wallace, whom you’ll probably disagree with, tells the story of seeing a woman in Burger King with two of her kids sitting there in the corner doing homework. Now we have to be able to organize society a little better than that.

HH: Well E.J, what if the alternative to that is sitting on a street corner with her two kids in Delhi, India, begging? I mean, ours is a moral system that provides the option, though not the perfect option, not the immoral system that doesn’t somehow raise her up via…

EJD: No, no. But again, I would, of course you’re right that I would rather live in this country, and I think this country has many gifts to offer. And I’m grateful for them. But within this country of ours, we can do better than we are doing, and I think there are better ways. There ought to be better options for the woman who’s working in Burger King.

– – – –

HH: E.J, when we went to break there, you were talking about the good intentions of the left, and how we can do better in this country. You know, I think the left, the religious left especially, tends to let itself off the hook for the consequences of all the good intentions they had that went terribly awry. For example, the welfare state that Lyndon Johnson brought into being that crippled the American family, for example, the licentiousness that led to shattered lives and to drug abuse and things like that. Does the religious left own the massive errors of policy that its made in the name of the Gospel over the decades?

EJD: Well, first of all, I disagree with especially the first half of your statement. If you talk about Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Medicare has made us more just. Head Start, we can argue over the numbers and how effective it was, but Head Start was a good program. And there were a whole…just to take two of the core programs, Medicaid has brought health insurance to millions of poor people. What the Great Society actually spent money on did substantial things for the poor, and that the welfare system got transformed in part because of the unexpected rise in the single parent family. And I don’t, I think that the welfare reform, which I will say I oppose, because I didn’t think it was generous enough, was nonetheless right in saying this system doesn’t work, we have to change it. And so…but I think the Great Society, Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said of the Great Society, there are more successes than we want to know, and I believe that’s true. Now if you’re talking about the cost of the 60’s, again, the 60’s are an ambiguous legacy. I think racial equality, equality between men and women, is one of the great legacies of the 60’s, and we shouldn’t turn our backs on that. But is there a cost to permissiveness? I think we discovered there is. I mean, the society has clearly changed its mind on drugs over, since 1960.

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