Is the ’God Gap’ Closing?
One significant pattern in the 2004 presidential election was the tendency of religiously observant Americans to vote Republican and the less observant to vote Democratic. But recent events suggest that this pattern, dubbed the “God gap,” may be changing, as reflected in the results of the 2006 midterm elections and the increased references to faith by Democratic presidential candidates. Is the “God gap” closing in 2008?
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life invited E.J. Dionne Jr., author of Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right; Amy Sullivan, author of The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap; and Ross Douthat, co-author of the forthcoming book, Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, to discuss the issue.
Ross Douthat, Associate Editor, The Atlantic
John Green, Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
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Sullivan on the changing evangelical vote
Dionne: The era of the religious right is over
Catholics as swing voters
Douthat on religion in politics
Points of tension for liberal Christians
Sullivan and Dionne respond
Q&A with journalists
JOHN GREEN: Welcome to another one of our ongoing series of luncheons with journalists. Today we have a particularly exciting event because all of our panelists are also working journalists and very fine ones on top of that. My name is John Green. I’m a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which is a project of the Pew Research Center. As you all know, the Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan organization that does not take positions in policy debates.
Let me first just talk about how we’ll proceed and then I’ll introduce our panelists and then we’ll get started. Our format is going to be really pretty simple. I’ll introduce our participants and ask each of them to talk for just a few minutes about their books. Then we’ll have a response from our respondent, who I’ll get to in just a moment. Then we’ll have a little bit of colloquy up here at the head table, as they say in the Senate. I’ll ask a few questions using my prerogative as the chair of this meeting. Then we’ll turn to you all and have questions and answers.
Let me introduce our guests today who, of course, need no introduction, but it’s customary. To my immediate right – your immediate left, well, whatever – is E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, who has written a new book that he is going to talk about today, which is called Souled Out. And we have some copies of these books out on the table. Please feel free to pick one up.
Then, right beyond E.J. is Amy Sullivan of Time magazine, and she is going to talk about her book, The Party Faithful, which has a very fetching picture of a donkey. I think that’s really very clever. And then, to respond to both E.J.’s and Amy’s remarks about their books is Ross Douthat of The Atlantic, who is on the far right.
ROSS DOUTHAT: Absolutely.
GREEN: Well, down there, who is going to give us some comments. But let’s begin with Amy Sullivan. Amy, why don’t you tell us a little bit about The Party Faithful.
AMY SULLIVAN: Sure, well, John had asked us to spend just a few minutes telling you kind of what brought us to write our books, and in my case, writing about Democrats and religion came somewhat naturally. I grew up in a home where we had portraits of Jesus and Bobby Kennedy hanging on the walls, and that was assumed to be quite natural in my house. I grew up in Michigan, going to a pretty conservative Baptist church but with obviously liberal Democratic parents.
I returned to that church in the summer of 2004 when the campaign was in full swing and was sitting in the pew just a few feet from where I’d become a Christian decades before, when I heard the pastor of the church say in the sermon that you couldn’t be a good Democrat and be a Christian, or a good Christian and be a Democrat. Sorry, that makes a difference.
That was a little disturbing to hear. But I admit I had heard rumblings like that, particularly from the religious right over the last few decades, as all of us have. What disturbed me even more, I guess, was after the election – after George Bush was re-elected and there was all the uproar about values voters and whether they swung the election -. I think E.J. and I share the view that they did not in fact, that that was overblown. But in any event, that was seen to be the case, and there was a backlash. Even though there had been kind of a brewing discontent and suspicion on the left, particularly of evangelicals, that really just went into full boil after the election.
I’m sure many of you saw the Internet graphic that was emailed around sort of gleefully that depicted the United States of Canada, which was all of Canada and then the two coasts of the U.S. and “Jesusland” in the middle. That was kind of the “us vs. them” mindset after the election. And I started to hear more and more comments that I guess I have an ear for, being an evangelical who used to work in Democratic politics.
I spoke on a panel in Manhattan a couple of months ago about Democratic efforts to reach out to religious voters, including evangelicals. After I was done, a man stood up and said, well, don’t you think that Democrats reaching out to religious voters is the same as collaborating with Nazis, to which I said, no. I spoke again in Palo Alto last fall, and was approached by a woman afterwards who tried her very best to convince me that illiteracy rates had actually skyrocketed since evangelicals had become more popular in the country, which again actually is not true.
And most consistent, I guess, throughout all the comments that I would hear from people about evangelicals was the idea that they were absolutely not Democrats and that there was no way that they could become Democrats. And the only possible way for that to happen would be for the party to change itself so radically and move so far to the right that it wouldn’t be worth it. It would be betraying the Democratic Party to even try to reach out to these voters.
What we know when we actually take a look at the numbers is that’s just not the case. Time magazine did a poll a few weeks ago of under-30 voters. And what we found – this wasn’t the point of the poll, but it was an interesting little data point that I found when I looked through the demographic numbers – was that 35 percent of under-30 Democrats are evangelicals. And 35 percent of under-30 independent voters are evangelicals as well. That’s probably the largest group that’s been moving away from the Republican Party. There’s a real generational shift going on in the evangelical community. It represents an opportunity for Democrats, but certainly not if they write off evangelical voters as completely un-gettable or not worth their time.
There has also been a change going on at the same time in the evangelical community. Before the 2004 election, Rick Warren , who is really one of the rising leaders if not already a leader in the evangelical community, sent out a blast email to a couple hundred thousand pastors with his list of five non-negotiable issues for that election. They were abortion, human cloning, gay marriage, stem cell research and euthanasia.
I had a chance to ask him about this last fall, and I couldn’t even finish my sentence before he said, that was wrong. That was absolutely wrong. It was wrong first to send out a message like that right before the election – he thought that was inappropriate. But second, it was very wrong, he thought, to imply that those were the only issues that mattered to evangelicals. He said, I’m still pro-life; I still care about all of those issues. But in the three and a half years since that election, he’s now become a leader on everything from environmental causes to battling Third World poverty, AIDS in Africa, anti-torture, a number of different issues that have really broadened the plate of priorities among evangelicals.
And so, we’ll – I’m sure – have time to discuss this, but we’ve seen changes in the Democratic Party, kind of reacting to this but also coming out of the wakeup call that 2004 represented. I think a lot of religious Democrats themselves were upset by the characterization, both from their own side as well as from Republicans, of the “God gap” being split into religious voters voting for Republicans and secularists voting for Democrats. What we know from consistent public polling is that about 85 to 87 percent of Americans say religion is an important part of their lives, and Republicans are not getting 87 percent of the vote, which means a lot of Democratic voters consider religion important to them.
GREEN: Well, Amy, one of the things I thought was most interesting about your book was you talk about a lot of this diversity among evangelicals. And that won’t come as a great surprise to most of us here today. But why do you think that there is this stereotype or this sense among a lot of people that evangelicals are monolithic?
SULLIVAN: Well, I think there would be three main reasons. One is not irrational at all, which is coming off of the last election when I think it was the mid-80 percent of conservative evangelicals voted for Bush. Now again, those are conservative evangelicals. And I think it’s the Pew polling that’s found that a good 40 percent* of evangelicals are politically moderate. So you’re not talking about all of the evangelical community. But I think that’s related to the second reason, which is that conservative evangelicals really have been the face of evangelicalism for the last few decades. That’s a combination of the fact that leaders like Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell really were much more media-savvy and did much more organizing than moderate leaders.
But I think it also was a reaction or a result of the marriage between the Republican Party and some leaders on the religious right. It just was a natural combination but also led to those figures having much more visibility than others. I think the third point comes out of that as well, which is that folks like me, progressive evangelicals, really kind of silenced ourselves. You didn’t want to be associated with the Pat Robertsons of the world.
And in my case, in fact, one of the interesting outcomes of the process of writing this book for me has been discovering that I still am an evangelical. For a while I would describe myself as someone who grew up evangelical or used to be evangelical. And it was only realizing that I had made the mistake as well of conflating a theological description with a political identification that I realized, no, if I go through all the steps, yes, I believe in the authority of the Bible and a personal relationship with God and all this. Oh, I am an evangelical too.
I think that’s a process that’s happening right now. In fact, I’ve seen through writing the book a number of people within Democratic politics who kind of come out of the closet to me when I’m speaking at Democratic events, through reading my writing will say, you know what, that’s me too. And we haven’t provided models either for the general public or for our colleagues in Democratic politics to see that you can be an evangelical and not sound like Ralph Reed.
GREEN: In your book, you talk a lot about how the Democrats have made a bigger effort to appeal to religious voters, evangelicals but others as well. But realistically, what chance do Democrats have with evangelical voters this fall?
SULLIVAN: Well, fortunately, we had the example of the midterm elections in 2006 , so I no longer have to just put out these crazy theories and not have to back them up. We actually – it’s a testable hypothesis and we tested it in 2006. There were a couple of different states, including your state of Ohio and mine of Michigan , where the state parties spent a good year focusing on religious outreach. And it wasn’t an attempt to try to change the minds of religious voters. It did not involve moving to the right or moderating their positions.
It really was literally as simple as spending a year sitting down with 500 pastors and Catholic leaders and voters and saying, all right, let’s get to know each other. We haven’t talked to you in years. Explaining where they came from, sitting down and – although they had feared that abortion would be where the conversation started and stopped, what they found was when they got a chance to talk about the moral complexity of abortion, when they got a chance to discuss the fact that whether you’re pro-life or pro-choice, you want to see fewer abortions and there must be ways to protect women and reduce the abortion rate at the same time, they really got past the suspicions on both sides. The end result was two pro-choice, pro-gay rights Democrats, Jennifer Granholm and Ted Strickland won the governorships of those two states with about half of the evangelical vote in their states.
And again, they did that without moderating their positions at all. They allowed the leaders in their states to see that even if they differed, the Democrats had moral principles from which they drew their positions on any number of issues. They had a chance, finally, because they weren’t so scared of coming to a standstill on abortion that they could actually get through to other issues. So they got to talk about health care and education and the economy and find that they had a lot of things in common.
At the end of the day, even if those pastors didn’t end up voting for the Democratic ticket in November, what they accomplished was far more important because those pastors didn’t get into the pulpit the week before the election and tell their congregations that it was their Christian duty to vote against Democrats. And that sounds, again, very simple but it’s extremely influential. It then kind of frees the congregants to use their own judgment.
GREEN: Well, thank you very much, Amy. Now, let’s turn to E.J. E.J., tell us about Souled Out.
E.J. DIONNE: Well, the first thing I want to say is I look forward to the next generation of religious Democrats having pictures of Amy Sullivan up on their wall. And I want to thank Ross for agreeing to do this today. Ross is about to publish a book of his own. That puts one, one hopes, in a compassionate frame of mind toward others’ books, so his sharp mind will be devoted to compassionate conservatism today.
Just a brief point on where this book came from. I note in the book that I grew up in one of those households where we violated the rule that you never talked about religion or politics at the dinner table. We always talked about religion and politics at the dinner table. And one of the most fun parts of the book to write was a kind of rather personal introduction, where I talked about how I had been obsessed with this question pretty well my whole life.
I am one of the handful of people you’ll meet whose favorite course in college was called Eschatology and Politics, a great course taught by Harvey Cox up at the Harvard Divinity School. I always told people that students often ask, what are useful courses to take professionally? And I always said that actually Harvey’s Eschatology and Politics was the most useful course that I ever took because when it came to cover the Vatican back in the ’80s and we were covering liberation theology and the condemnation of folks like Gustavo Gutierrez , Harvey Cox had had us read these guys in mimeograph up from Latin America.
I wrote papers on subjects such as Stalin’s relationship with the Orthodox Church during World War II and the way in which different Catholic diocesan papers dealt with McCarthyism in the ’50s and the relationship between the Spanish mystics and the Spanish anarchists. And so, it’s been something that’s fascinated me for a long time.
This is about the only book on religion that actually begins with a joke. Some of you have been subjected to this joke many times. I promised my friends that once it was at the beginning of the book, I’d stop telling it. But the spirit is willing and the flesh is weak. And besides, the joke still works for the purpose of the book.
For those of you who haven’t heard it, it’s the story of Mrs. O’Reilly and her son who was dutifully taking her to the polls on Election Day. Mrs. O’Reilly always voted straight Democratic. Her son, a successful member of the upper-middle class had become an independent and voted for a lot of Republicans. As was their routine, the son asked the mother how she would vote, and she replied as always, straight Democratic. And the impatient son looked at her and said, “Mom, if Jesus came back to earth and ran as a Republican, you would vote against him.” And Mrs. O’Reilly snapped back, “Oh hush, why should he change his party after all these years?”
We’re having these conversations because a great many Americans came to believe that he had indeed changed his party after all these years. On significant parts of the right and the left, there was a sense that religion had always been and always will be a conservative force. There were Republican candidates and political operatives who assumed that religious people lived on the right, cared primarily about issues such as gay marriage and abortion, and would forever be part of the GOP’s political base.
There were liberals, though fewer than conservatives think, who bought this Republican account and wrote off religious people as backward and reactionary busy-bodies obsessed with sex. It’s interesting – Amy and I were both offended by that Jesusland cartoon that both of us cited in our text.
Souled Out insists that religious faith does not lead ineluctably to conservative political conclusions. It argues that the era of the religious right is over. Its collapse is part of a larger decline of a certain style of ideological conservatism that reached high points in 1980, 1994, and perhaps 2002, but suffered a series of decisive and, I believe, fatal setbacks during President Bush’s second term.
The end of the religious right does not signal a decline in evangelical Christianity. On the contrary, it is a sign of a new reformation among Christians, if a Catholic may be permitted to use that term, who are disentangling their great movement from a political machine. This historic change will require liberals and conservatives alike to abandon their sometimes narrow views of who religious Americans are and what they believe.
In truth, as we all know, religious people hold a wide array of political views. Religion is not the enemy of reason or science. People of faith are not blind automatons who never question themselves or their deepest belief. At the heart of my argument is the view that religious faith, far from being inevitably on the side of the status quo – maybe it’s the influence of that eschatology and politics course – should on principle hold this world to higher standards. Religious people should always be wary of the ways in which political power is wielded, skeptical of how economic privileges are distributed. They should also be wary of how their own traditions have been used for narrow political purposes, and how religious figures have manipulated faith to aggrandize their own power. The doctrine of original sin, the idea of a fallen side of human nature, applies in principle to people who are religious no less than to those who are not.
I have, in the course of the book, a couple of arguments with our friends, the neo-atheists. And we can talk about that. But it seems to me that religious people should be utterly willing to accept the fact that religion has indeed been manipulated for political and even dastardly political purposes in the past. This does not prove the neo-atheists right. Indeed, I think for religious people to take on the neo-atheists, their first act is to say to themselves, by our work shall ye know us, and to act accordingly.
The title of my book can be read two ways. It speaks to our country’s exhaustion with a religious style in politics that was excessively dogmatic, partisan and ideological. It was a style reflecting a spirit far too certain of itself, far too insistent on the depravity of its political adversaries. Linking religion too closely with the fortunes of one political party or to one leader or group of leaders is always a mistake. It encourages alienation from faith itself. Where, after all, did Voltaire come from, and where did the neo-atheists come from?
It does so by turning a concern with the ultimate into a prop for temporal power. It distorts great traditions by requiring their exponents to bob and weave in order to accommodate the political needs of a given moment or the immediate requirements of a given politician. Thus do great traditions drain themselves of their critical capacity.
I do not for a moment portend that this tendency is unique to political conservatives. But for more than a quarter century, it is the political right that has used and – I believe – abused religion in our elections. A great many people, including a great many religious people including, as Amy said, a great many evangelical conservatives, have had enough.
They’ve had enough for the reason embodied in the other sense of the title. Reducing religion to politics or to a narrow set of public issues amounts to a great sellout of our religious traditions. It is common to speak of religion as selling out to secularism or selling out to modernity or selling out to a fashionable relativism. But there is a more immediate danger, particularly right now in the U.S., of religion selling out to political forces that use the votes of religious people for purposes having nothing to do with the religious agenda and often enough for causes that may contradict the values such voters prize most.
It is a great sellout of religion to insist that it has much to teach us about abortion or gay marriage but little useful to say about social justice, war and peace, the organization of our work lives, the death penalty, immigration policy, or our approach to providing for the old, the sick and the desperate. Religion becomes less relevant to public life when its role is marginalized to a predetermined list of values issues, when its voice is silenced or softened on the central problems facing our country and our government.
My book reflects impatience with the very way in which “values issues,” in quotes, had been defined, especially by pollsters who stack up moral values as a choice apart from economic or foreign policy issues. Voters worried about poverty, the war in Iraq or the justice of the tax system, or for that matter conservative voters worried about American security or the dangers of an over-weaning government in economic affairs, these voters are just as concerned about values as those voters who are primarily concerned about abortion or gay marriage.
I could go on a bit, but I won’t. I just want to make a few quick points in closing. The first is, I think what is striking is the so-called liberal media has often followed this portrait of religious people as being primarily people of the right. In the past, we paid attention to a broad range of religious figures from Reinhold Niebuhr , who is a real hero in my account, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, John Courtney Murray, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King Jr.
Beginning in the late ’70s, the focus of interests narrowed, to be sure. Pope John Paul II, whom I write about a lot in a later portion of the book, earned his share of coverage. But in the U.S., the attention lavished on Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell and James Dobson suggested that to be religious was to cling to a narrow set of political views. The public face of religion was deeply inflected with the accents of a very particular form of Southern conservative evangelicalism. Just ask yourself, can you imagine a TV talk show booking Reinhold Niebuhr today? And that is one of the problems we face.
Two quick facts and then I just want to go to the concluding line of the book, which sounds suspiciously like it’s out of an Obama speech, although it was not intended that way. It’s actually always been one of my favorite lines. Two of my favorite facts that may overturn conventional wisdom: You may not know that evangelical Christians, conservative Protestant Christians, are marginally more likely to watch PBS news programs than other Americans, with the exception of those who have no religion at all, who watched at about the same rate as conservative Protestants. Father Andrew Greeley wrote in a book with a scholar called Michael Hout, “If one finds the temptation irresistible to picture all Jesus people as religious fanatics, one should picture a fifth of them glued to PBS stations every evening.” No doubt, they’re there to watch our friend David Brooks.
Other favorite fact in the book: I argue in the course of the book that this notion, not only that religion always lived on the right is wrong, but even an interest in government-sponsored, faith-based initiatives is solely a new creation of the Bush administration. Well, of course, we know it goes back to the Clinton administration. But I ran across a wonderful young scholar at the University of Chicago called Omar McRoberts who discovered that back in the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt paid close attention to the needs and political power of the African-American churches in his effort to woo religious African-Americans from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party.
And he tells the wonderful story of a pre-election rally at Madison Square Garden organized by a group that targeted African-Americans and organized labor. At that rally was unfurled a painting of the three liberators: Jesus, who liberated us from sin; Abraham Lincoln, who liberated us from bondage; and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who liberated us from social injustice. After they read Amy’s book, you wonder if you will see a painting dedicated to a new set of liberators at this year’s Democratic Convention.
The last line of the book, which sounds Obama-like: A friend said maybe I’m picking an argument with St. Paul who has said that of faith, hope and love, the greatest of these is love. But I argue that self-righteousness is the enemy of righteousness and that hope is the virtue on which faith and love depend. I think that Obama’s focus on hope is a very important form of rediscovery of religion that goes beyond Obama’s own very careful sort of talking and writing on the subject.
In fact, in the book I note that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are unusually religiously literate, and that already marks a change in this campaign, as does Mike Huckabee’s strong showing, which showed that many evangelicals were quite willing to abandon their established leaders to follow someone who they thought was an authentic voice. Mike Huckabee did particularly well among young Republican voters, reflecting the importance of these young evangelicals. Obama is waging his campaign in the spirit of hope. I wrote this book in a spirit of hope. And I am very grateful to Pew and John and Ross and Amy for this opportunity.
GREEN: I can’t resist to ask you a perhaps less hopeful question, E.J., which is about Catholics. And the standard view – and I think probably the correct one, at least up to the moment – is that when it comes to the ballot box, American Catholics are divided. Some of them vote Republican; some of them vote Democratic. Some of them don’t know what to do and therefore they swing around. Where do you see the Catholic vote going in 2008?
DIONNE: Well, in the book I argue that there is no Catholic vote, and it’s important. And by that I mean that to say there is now a bloc Catholic vote – its existence was always exaggerated. We look at John Kennedy’s election where he got 80 percent of the Catholic vote – 78 to 80 percent – and view that as typical. In fact, just the election before, Dwight Eisenhower got 50 percent of the Catholic vote, so Catholics have been swinging around divided by ethnicity, even though they’ve been, broadly speaking, Mrs. O’Reilly sort of Democrats. That began to decline, particularly in the McGovern election. It declined in ’68; it declined again in ’72.
Catholics I see as a kind of 40-40-20 group. And if you are looking for swing religious groups, I think they are Catholics, because they are less Democratic than they used to be; mainline Protestants, because they are less Republican than they used to be; and perhaps those you have identified, John, as moderate centrist evangelicals. Amy has written very well about freestyle evangelicals. I love the sound.
SULLIVAN: That was John’s term.
DIONNE: Oh, and it was originally – see, we all depend on one – we are part of one another, as St. Paul says.
But I think that Catholics will swing around. What you saw, Clinton kind of won back some of the Catholics in the 1990s. Gore barely held on in ’92.* And Bush made a significant dent in the 2004 election. One of the things that happened is that Karl Rove was smart enough to organize among Catholics and Democrats weren’t. Karl Rove saw very early on that this critical 20 percent middle of the Catholic vote – the 20 percent that switched around – could be appealed to in a variety of ways. I think compassionate conservatism was made to order for moderately conservative Catholics.
I also argue in the book, proving that I am Catholic, that I believe the Catholic Church’s job is to make every Catholic feel guilty about some public issue. I think when the church is doing its job, it actually makes liberal Catholics think twice about abortion, stem cell research, doctor-assisted suicide. And it makes more-conservative Catholics think twice about their stance on the unfettered market, the poor, the death penalty and a belligerent foreign policy. I think the church will continue to play that role.
I think what you’ve got now – and I’ll close on this – is a sort of disjunction. There is a significant progressive ferment, I think, going on among Catholics as the progressive Catholics get organized in the way the conservative Catholics had been before. But the hierarchy has decidedly moved more toward a conservative side. The hierarchy is not right-wing, but it’s more conservative than it was in the 1980s. In the book, I talk a lot about the debates in the 1980s over economics and peace. And we’ve almost forgotten how progressive the bishops’ documents were in those periods. It was a very fertile period for progressive Catholic thinking. So I think within the church you’re going to see sort of an interesting friction between certain tendencies toward the progressive side that you saw already in the 2006 election and a certain moderate movement in a more conservative direction in the hierarchy.
GREEN: Well, thank you very much, E.J. And now we’ll turn to Ross Douthat. Please tell us what you think of these books.
DOUTHAT: I think they are wonderful books, and I’m completely delighted to see liberal Democrats engaging with questions of religion and politics. I think the question of how to apply Christian teaching specifically and religious teaching more generally to politics is one of the more vexing questions there is, and it’s particularly difficult when it’s a one-sided question, when only conservatives seem to be having it, which has too often been the case for the last couple decades.
I also think that overall the association of – again – Christianity specifically and religion more generally with a single party or, as E.J. says, a single political machine can only be bad both for religion and for that political party in the long run. It associates religious belief with partisanship, where you both have the idea that if you are a Christian, you must be a Republican. You have the idea that if you are not a Republican, you cannot be a Christian. I think both of those are pernicious ideas. In the party itself, it creates a sense of self-righteousness that is ultimately somewhat inimical to long-term political success. I think the case of listening to, say, Tom DeLay talk about religion and politics is enough to turn, even me, a conservative, off from their conflation.
I also think that the idea that religion must be associated with conservatism and more generally the notion that it must be associated with a sort of spirited anti-intellectualism has created a real false understanding of both the liberal past among liberals and generally the American past. I think what you’ve seen over the past decade especially is the emergence of these two dueling and both completely incorrect narratives of American history.
On the one hand, you have the sort of narrative that was summed up, I think, by Mike Huckabee’s remark in one of the debates. He was talking about – I think – the Declaration of Independence. And I’m going to get the specific number wrong. It might have been the Constitution. But he said, oh, well, you know, half the people who signed that were ministers. And of course, that’s not true at all. I think there was one minister who was a signatory to whichever document it is. And I’m forgetting which one. But it reflects the idea of the sort of Christian nation theory of America, which is far too prevalent, I think, on the religious right.
And on the other hand, then, you have the theocracy panic on the American left, where you have this idea that American politics persisted in this pristine separation of church and state right up until maybe 1980 or so when Jerry Falwell came along and started tearing down the supposed wall that had existed between religion and politics up until then. And of course, that’s absolute rubbish as well as anyone with any knowledge of American history can tell you. Both progressive and conservative causes throughout the American past have been permeated by religious language, debates about the proper relationship of theology in politics, and so forth. And indeed, the great achievement of American politics has been to create a landscape where different religious faiths can argue about religion in politics without threatening the political order and without any one faith gaining the upper hand to the point where something like persecution becomes – or religious intolerance becomes – a real possibility.
So I would say that in praise of these books. And I would also praise them in the spirit of what E.J. said about my own book for managing to not be overtaken by events. I think one of the great dangers facing anyone who publishes a book is that you finish a book and then the publishing house says, well, that’s wonderful. It will come out 12 months from now. And you say, well, it’s a book about contemporary politics and that might create a problem. But I think that both – and Amy and E.J. have touched on this – but I think both parties’ primary campaigns have served to vindicate their arguments more than they have served to undercut them.
I think on the Republican side, as E.J. mentioned, the success of Mike Huckabee [is] both a sign that religious conservatism and evangelical conservatism remains a potent force but also a sign that it’s a changing force in Republican politics. Even the debates, I think, about evangelicalism versus Mormonism that were occasioned by the sort of Huckabee-Romney fight, particularly in Iowa, are actually healthy for religion in American democracy. I think too often there has been a danger among religious conservatives because of the idea that we’re up against the evil liberals and therefore all theological differences have to be set aside in the pursuit of this great mission.
It’s almost reached a point where theological differences are assumed not to matter. And I think theological differences do matter. Even if Mike Huckabee’s comments about, oh, wasn’t Lucifer Jesus’ brother in Mormon theology might not have been the most intellectually high-minded way to go about it, I think ultimately it’s a good thing for evangelicals and Mormons to recognize that they do have theological differences. Those theological differences do matter for politics, and they are something that, if we’re serious about our religion and our politics, should be taken into account. So all that’s been going on, on the Republican side.
Then on the Democratic side, you had the emergence of Barack Obama. I think the best way to look at this is through – and again, I’m going to mangle the exact details – but there was one of those wedding pieces in The New York Times recently, I think the last couple weeks. It was about this couple. I think they were both in their 30s, and they were both clearly like some of the most pious people you’ve ever met, certainly more pious than I am. They had both – they had gone out on a few dates, but they were both so serious that they exchanged lists of things they were looking for in a mate. The guy, I think, his parents had run a Catholic Pre-Cana marriage counseling retreat for a long time. And you know, clearly totally devout. Of course, the end of the piece was they’re both now happily married and working for the Obama campaign. (Laughter.) So there you have it, I guess. And I think that more generally, Obama has done a remarkable job of reclaiming some of the language of religion and almost eschatology, you might say, that used to be the preserve of progressivism in the United States.
So all that’s going on. And even though in a sense the current moment is not so good for my own side – it’s been a tough few years for conservatives – I think that reading both of these books filled me with a certain amount of hope for the future. I’d like to quote something E.J. wrote. He said, it’s impossible – and this is talking about sort of the issues that inform the culture war debates. He said, “It’s impossible to talk about parental responsibility, healthy family lives, reducing the number of abortions, and creating communities that nurture our moral sense without dealing with issues related to the structure of work, the distribution of wealth and income, and the promotion of equal opportunity.”
As a conservative, I would say that’s true. But the reverse is also true. And where you place the emphasis, on culture versus economic structures, determines whether you’ll be on the left or the right ultimately. But I think in these books, you can see at least the seeds of a hope that there might be real common ground where people who place emphases in different places can nonetheless come together for the common good.
So that’s all my praise. So then I’d just like to throw out a few points of tension, if that’s okay –
(Cross talk, laughter.)
DOUTHAT: Yeah, it’s all downhill from here. No, but so these would be a few, what I see as, points of tension for liberal Christians in particular. Conservative Christians have their own points of tension, but we can get to that at another time. The first is sort of obvious, but it’s Roe v. Wade. I think that this is an issue that both E.J. and Amy do an impressive attempt to address in their books because I think it’s one of the biggest challenges, the issue of abortion. I think it’s clear that this is probably the biggest issue that is at the root of the God gap, what have you, the issues out of which these books came.
And one of the big questions for liberal Christians who take their faith seriously is, well, how do you address the issue of abortion and what does it mean to be a pro-life liberal, or a liberal who would like to see the number of abortions reduced, let’s put it that way. Both of them talk a great deal about the efforts of liberal Democrats who are also Catholic or evangelical to come to terms with this issue.
I would just submit – and I’d be curious to hear their thoughts on this – that the nature of America’s abortion regime as established in Roe v. Wade and modified in Planned Parenthood v. Casey makes it extremely difficult, one, for serious Christians to give their assent to the system – to the extent particularly that it removes the issue from the space in which normal democratic activity, lawmaking and so forth, takes place – so it makes it very difficult on the one hand. And it also makes it very difficult to find compromises and common ground.
I imagine that Amy and E.J. would disagree with me to a certain extent on this, but I think what ends up happening for liberal Christians is you end up spending an enormous amount of time talking about attacking the root causes of abortion, talking about attacking the conditions facing unwed mothers, talking intensely about family planning and particular sex educations in schools, and so forth.
It would be my contention that there is very little evidence based on the experience of developed countries – both in the United States and comparing it to Europe, which has different abortion laws and in many cases more restrictive abortion laws – it’s very difficult to imagine that the abortion rate can be significantly reduced in the United States so long as there is no real ability to place serious restrictions on it in the first two trimesters. As long as there isn’t that ability, it remarkably reduces the amount of space for compromise on the issue. And so you end up with things like, on the one hand, religious conservatives in South Dakota pushing a complete ban on abortion, no exceptions for rape and incest and so forth, which is immediately repudiated by the voters because the percentage of Americans who support that is very low, and on the other hand, all that liberals can ever talk about is teaching more about condoms in schools, making the morning-after pill more widely available and so forth, both of which affect abortion rates on the margins but really only on the margins. So that’s I think one real stumbling block for liberal Christians going forward.
The second stumbling block is the sort of broader – well, call it secularism, call it neo-atheism, call it what you will. E.J. calls it, quoting Korin Davis, I think, calls it an overreaction to an overreaction, essentially the overreaction among secular-minded people that the religious right has summoned up. I think that even if one can call it an overreaction to an overreaction, it is a significant force now. It’s there and it has to be recognized, and it’s a significant force in liberal politics in particular.
One of the interesting things about the 2006 election is that yes, Democrats increased their percentage of the vote dramatically among Catholics especially, and to a lesser extent among evangelicals. But what really put them over the top was their consolidation of the growing bloc of the country that considers themselves secular and non-churchgoers and so forth.
And we’re still in the early stages of this. Maybe that percentage of the country that sees liberal society and religion in adversarial terms won’t get above 7 percent of the population or whatever it is today. But particularly if it keeps growing, I think there is going to be a real push to make American politics more European, in the sense that liberalism will be really associated with the dream of a purely secular state and conservatism will have heavily associated with a religiously infused politics.
To the extent that that becomes a reality, I think it poses, one, a major challenge, and it poses the danger that liberal religious people will essentially become a kind of – stalking horse is the wrong term; what am I looking for – essentially a fig leaf in a way for a heavily secular political party, which I think is the way a lot of religious conservatives see liberal Christians, see figures like Jim Wallis , as sort of people who say, well, look, stem cell research, for instance, is a very morally complex issue and we need to be very anguished about it. But when push comes to shove, no restrictions are going to be placed on that because the secular side of the party is in the driver’s seat. So that would be the second challenge, both the rise of secularism and the extent to which it would propose a stumbling block for a more liberal Christian politics.
And the third and – well, next to final one, I guess, is the challenge of Europe. I don’t want to go too far sounding like Mitt Romney in saying that all liberals just want to turn the United States into Europe. But I do think that there is an extent to which European societies represent a real model and are arguably the only significant model for a long time for where the American left has wanted to take the United States, toward essentially more generous welfare states across the board. I think that one thing that liberal Christians have to reckon with, particularly as we enter a moment potentially of liberal ascendancy, is what impact those shifts have had on religion in Europe.
Maybe these things are completely unrelated, but it is true that the European model of society seems to be at once – it seems that Christianity – let’s put it this way – it seems that Christianity has flourished much more intensely in a more freewheeling, free-market, capitalistic society than it has in the welfare states of Europe, which were often designed – I mean the leaders of Europe in the 1940s and ’50s from Clement Atlee to Konrad Adenauer and so on were often intensely Christian politicians who had a Dionne-ish view, shall we say, of the obligations that Christians in the public sphere have.
And I think 50 years on, you can look at their work and say, well, to a certain extent, Europe is a model for Christians in terms of how it treats the poor and how the welfare states work and so on. But at the same time, it seems to have completely drained the life out of religion in Europe. And it’s drained the life, to a certain extent, out of European society I think, the declining birthrates of Europe -. Again, you can overstate this problem, as many conservatives do, but it is a real problem and particularly a problem for Christians who look to Europe in any way as a model.
And then the final thing is just an obvious one – and it’s obvious in the wake of George W. Bush, and I think it’s obvious in the case of Barack Obama – is just the temptation – and I don’t think either E.J. or Amy would disagree with me – of confusing religion and politics and seeing politics as too much of a method of establishing the kingdom of heaven on earth. And I think, to a certain extent, this has been one of the difficulties for conservatives in the Bush years in foreign policy much more than in domestic policy. The second inaugural address , I think, is a classic example of a particular kind of Christian overreach, you know, seeing foreign policy as a landscape on which God’s purposes are to be worked out by us.
So this is clearly a temptation for right and left, but I do think that it can be more of a temptation for the left because the left traditionally has more confidence in the ability of government to remake society. And, therefore, while I am in many ways, like many conservatives, an admirer of Barack Obama, I also see in the way he uses religious language, in his view of the government’s role the possibility of that temptation returning from a left-wing point of view and potentially having some of the same unfortunate effects that it’s had from the right in foreign policy over the last few years.GREEN: Thank you very much, Ross. I promised E.J. and Amy that they’d get a chance to respond to Ross, but I’d like to ask you both, if you choose to respond, to be very brief.
SULLIVAN: Okay, that’s going to be difficult but we’ll try our best. Thank you for the thoughtful comments and the questions. It’s interesting to me that many of them are the same comments I hear from the left and critics on the left. (Chuckles.) So I’m not surprised that you identified them, but it is interesting that those are kind of the critiques that come up. I’ll try to just take them briefly in order.
On the first, it is generally assumed that abortion is the big stumbling block, that it’s been such a controversial issue that you just can’t get past it. And I admit, when I starting working on the book, I assumed I would find that as well. In this case, I’m not sure that events overtook me so much as events provided evidence that I hadn’t thought would exist.
Part of that is what I talked about in terms of the 2006 elections and just the ability of Democrats to sit down and find that the conversation keeps going even when abortion comes up. Some of that is from the success of things like the reduction in the teen pregnancy rate over the last 15 years, which is really – that’s not on the margins; we’re talking about a 30 percent drop at least in teen pregnancies and that’s not a result, necessarily, of skyrocketing abortion rates among teenage girls. That’s a combination of kids having less sex. And when they do have sex, they are much more likely to use contraception. So it’s in some way a marriage of the approaches from both the left and the right that turns out to work.
In fact, it’s worked so well that the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy has had to change its name because it’s moving on to the generation of women, the cohort in their 20s because that is now the largest group of women who are having unplanned pregnancies. It will be interesting. There’re obviously different implications. People can get much more behind the idea of trying to prevent teenagers from getting pregnant than telling 20-something women what to do. And, yet, there are some signs that they might be able to have some success in preventing that as well.
So I think, once you start talking about how to prevent unwanted pregnancies, that becomes a very different issue than just focusing on restrictions to abortion. And that’s where we’ve seen a lot of common ground.
The second, about secularism, I hear from a lot of my liberal friends who say, well, isn’t this just a waste of time for Democrats because aren’t the demographics moving in the direction of real growth in terms of secularists? And for that, I guess there are two main points. One is the movement you saw in 2006, I think, was much more a reaction against Republicans than it was necessarily a flood of Democrats or secularists to the Democratic Party.
The second is that the growth of secularists in the U.S. has definitely been overstated. We have seen an increase in the last few decades, but there are two reasons for that. One is that we have now just a larger cohort of people who are unmarried or haven’t had kids. We know that a lifecycle effect is that people kind of fall away from their religious tradition when they leave home, go to college, or enter the workforce. But then they go back when they have children because people still seem to feel that it’s important to raise their kids in a religious tradition.
That continues to happen. People are just waiting a little longer before they have kids so that group of people who are for now defined as secularists is much larger than it was in the past, but from everything we’ve seen, they continue, once they get married and have kids, to move back into an affiliation with a religious tradition. So it’s I don’t think accurate to classify them as people who want to see religion out of the public square. They may be temporarily disconnected from a religious tradition, but that’s very different from believing that there should be a sharp line there. I would add that we know that immigrants tend to be much more religious than your average voter. So whatever growth you’re seeing in the ranks of secular voters are outweighed a bit, I think, by religious immigrants.
On the question of Europe and what sort of cautionary tale that might provide, I think you’re right that the free market is closely related to the vibrancy of American churches, but it’s the free market of churches. And that’s an important historical difference between churches in Europe and in the U.S. Because in the U.S. churches were never state-supported, they really had to scramble and compete for congregants and compete for funds from their congregants. It was the state support of European churches that really led to the decline more than anything else. And there’s no reason to see – and particularly as megachurches continue to grow and get into the marketplace – there’s no reason to think that that’s going to abate anytime soon.
And the fourth, I would say, is something I’m always very concerned about. It bothers me just as much when I hear people say, well, Jesus would be a Democrat, as when I hear people say, Jesus would absolutely be a Republican. I think that the religious liberals who are starting to wake from their slumber and have more of a voice see very clearly what happened over the last few decades on the right as a cautionary tale for them, and they have no desire to be taken for granted or used by the Democratic Party the way they saw their brothers and sisters on the right being taken for granted by Republicans.
And, in that way, just to end by touching on Obama , I do think that he is an important figure for American politics even if he doesn’t end up securing the nomination, just because of the way he talks about religion. I agree with E.J. that it’s very thoughtful. I don’t know how much of that is because he didn’t grow up in a religious home and so he’s really come to this with adult eyes. He’s not a cultural Christian; it’s something he consciously chose and has obviously thought through in a very sophisticated way.
But there are two things that I think will have an impact, a lasting impact, on the Democratic Party. One is the fact that he refuses to draw lines. And we see that in all aspects of his campaign, particularly his insistence that he should welcome the independents and the Republicans who vote for him. But I think that’s important because it’s been all too easy for Democrats traditionally to fall into the us-versus-them breakdown. We saw this during the stem cell research debate when I think it was Chuck Schumer , but a couple of his other colleagues said, this is a choice between theology or science.
And forcing voters to make a choice like that is never helpful nor is it -. Obama tells a story quite often of getting an email from a pro-life supporter in 2004 who said, you know, I’m voting for you. I like you a lot. I have to tell you, I’m disappointed; on your website you have language about abortion referring to people who oppose abortion as right-wing ideologues. And I would like to think better of you and would like to think that you think better of me than to take someone who’s your supporter and refer to me with that sort of language. Obama now says he told his staff to pull that down and he told them, we can disagree without being disagreeable. I think that’s an important change in terms of just the tone that’s used: instead of separating people, to bring them together.
The second piece that he uses is when he talks, he uses the language that bothers you, but he talks a lot about “I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper.” And it implies that there is a government responsibility there. I actually think that he may represent a coming together of the two strands of communitarianism, which have been kind of separated on the left and the right. For years and years, folks on the left have insisted, well, we have an economic obligation to our brothers and sisters to provide for them. But when it comes to society and culture, well, what I do is my life and you can’t tell me what to do.
On the other side, on the right, we’ve heard that our lives absolutely in our culture absolutely impact each other and shape the community that we all live in, and we have some responsibility to if not patrol, at least understand our duties to each other when it comes to the society that we create. But when it comes to economics: hands off; what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours, and we have no economic ties like that. And I think Obama – we don’t know yet, but at least the rhetoric that he’s using implies a coming together of those two strands in a way that I think reacts to what American voters have been looking for.
DIONNE: I want to be real, real brief. I agree with much of what Amy said. First, I want to thank Ross for quoting the philosopher Korin Davis. Those of you who don’t know, Korin Davis is my assistant at work. We were talking about the neo-atheists one day, as I call them just to tweak them in the book, and Korin blurted out the line, “They are an overreaction to an overreaction.” And I liked the line so much I wanted to use it, but I couldn’t really bring myself to steal it so I simply quoted Korin in the book.
Secondly, I want to thank you for putting me in the tradition of Atlee and Adenauer since I admire both the British tradition of Christian socialism and post-war German Christian democracy.
DOUTHAT: A pleasure. (Laughter.)
DIONNE: Three quick points – your last point about the danger of the reappearance of a kind of social gospel. On the one hand, part of me says, we should be so lucky as to have that problem. I wouldn’t mind seeing a little dose of that. And I do think that Barack Obama is the first nominee I can think of since Teddy Roosevelt who could say, as Teddy Roosevelt said at the 1912 Progressive Party convention, “We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.” Can you imagine a major politician saying that at the end of his acceptance speech?
So I think there’s a danger there, and in the book I try to be very sensitive to the danger of replacing one over-politicized form of faith with another. I was always struck by Alan Keyes‘ great line in the 2000 debates. When Bush said Jesus was his favorite political philosopher, Alan Keyes , in a very theologically sound point said, Jesus wasn’t a philosopher; Jesus is the Word. (Laughter.) And it’s a good point. And we’ve got to keep that in mind.
Secondly, on Europe, I don’t think it’s capitalism that has kept this vibrant. I think it’s our long tradition of not having an established church. I think you could spin that out and I don’t think that the rise of – and, in fact, if you look at our own New Deal-ish welfare state, I argue in the book that it was remarkable the extent to which that came out of Catholic social teaching, was a kind of Christian democracy. The 1919 Catholic Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction in many ways foreshadowed what the New Deal did. It was not anti-capitalist, but it was critical of aspects of capitalism. But I think that the vibrancy of religion in the United States comes precisely from our longstanding lack of a national established church. But that’s for another discussion.
On abortion, I’ll leave it to what Amy said. I have this argument all of the time with both pro-life and pro-choice friends. To my pro-life friends, I say, do you honestly believe that even if Roe fell we would ever have a regime in the United States that broadly made abortion illegal, particularly in the first trimester or the first 20 weeks? The answer is no.
So then what can we do to save fetal life by reducing the number of abortions? The number of abortions has dropped – and I wish I had the exact figure, exact years in my head – but in about 20 years it’s dropped 400,000. Now that’s a lot. That’s a drop. Now we still have too many abortions; we could reduce it further. But I really do think – and then to my pro-choice friends I make the same argument in reverse. You want to preserve the regime of legal abortion because the threat to women who would have abortions anyway is so great, but why not join this effort to reduce this number of abortions because there is a moral sense in the country that there’s something wrong with abortion. Most people don’t choose to have abortion, would prefer not to have an abortion. And what Amy said about teen pregnancy is very important.
On stem cells, I agree that if liberal Christians just sort of worry and say, oh, this is very troublesome, that’s not good enough. I identify a lot with the things that the philosopher Mike Sandel wrote in his book*The Pursuit of Perfection . I think there are a lot of arguments Mike makes that pull together strands of liberal and more traditionalist thinking that could help us move forward on that. And I will just stop there. I’ll leave it at that so that we can have a discussion.
SALLY QUINN, THE WASHINGTON POST: I’m the co-moderator along with Jon Meacham of a feature on The Washington Post-Newsweek website called On Faith. I’m really interested in this whole issue of neo-atheism and how it’s affecting our politics. And I wonder if there is not – I’ve been doing a lot of interviews with people, particularly evangelicals from megachurches – whether there isn’t now – the overreaction to the overreaction is not being met with a reaction, a sort of moderate reaction. It seems to me that the – and I’m not quite sure what you mean by neo-atheist except for maybe it’s just that people aren’t so afraid to call themselves atheists anymore who used to be ashamed or embarrassed –
DIONNE: Could I just put in parentheses real quick –
DIONNE: The answer is that the new atheists are very much like a whole group of people who wrote many of the same things back in the 1900s. It’s not a brand-new – they are operating in a tradition, no less than believers are operating in a tradition. They’re new because they popped up again with new forms of this polemic – some of them are a little more science-based in [Richard] Dawkins‘ case or scientist-based, scientism-based. But that’s what I mean by new. The reason I sometimes use “neo” is because I think it is a reappearance of something that had been part of intellectual life before. I really do believe they are partly a reaction to some of the things I criticize in the book, a hyper-politicization and a sense that atheists – some on the religious right, some want to marginalize atheists altogether. And I’m very uneasy. I mean, I like atheists because I think atheists challenge believers in a way believers should be challenged.
I used a headline in a column that I took with attribution from The New Republic, “God Bless Atheists.” We have – (inaudible) and I got my favorite email ever from a reader who said, “Dear Mr. Dionne, I am an atheist. If I may say so, God bless you” – (laughter) – because I’m defending the rights of atheists and the intellectual legitimacy of the point of view, but anyway –
QUINN: Well, in that sense I think that is interesting – your definition. And as I say, I think a part of this rise of atheism is that there is less stigma to saying that you’re an atheist or agnostic or that you are secular. But it does seem to me in the last maybe even six months, a year to six months, that a lot of the people that I have interviewed who would have been thought of as Republican evangelicals or conservative evangelicals have moderated their position because of this whole rise of neo-atheism or secularism. So they are trying to meet in the middle.
They are not nearly – I mean, you and Amy were talking about Rick Warren, who was sort of considered off the wall three years ago. I remember he spoke at Aspen and had everybody climbing the walls. They were so outraged by what he said. I interviewed him last week, and he has completely moderated his position on a lot of things. He’s much more open-minded. I find people like him and people like T.D. Jakes much more, first of all, not political. They won’t choose a political party. They won’t give a political position. And then they seem to be opening the door for secularists, to say, don’t be afraid of us. Please don’t have this reaction because we’re not going to try to take over the country and try to force all of you to believe what we believe. Do you see what I’m saying? Or do you think there is any truth to that?
DOUTHAT: Well, one interesting thing and this is anecdotal, but a lot of people think that at least 30 percent of the sales of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and so on are Christians, rather than that a large portion –
QUINN: Yeah, that’s right.
DOUTHAT: – of what has made them bestsellers are religious believers buying the books out of, I guess, a spirit of engagement, you might say, rather than just people who are getting preached to by the choir. It’s unfortunate because they are quite bad books. But, you know –
QUINN: Well, but I had an interesting conversation with Sam Lloyd, who is the dean of the National Cathedral. And he was asking me about these books because I interviewed both of them and they are – Sam Harris and Dawkins and [Christopher] Hitchens are all on our On Faith panel. And he said, well, you know, I preached against Hitchens’ book last week. And I said, have you read it? And he said, no. And I said, well, have you read any of them? And he said, no. And I said, well, you can’t preach against them if you don’t know what they’re saying. And I think that –
DIONNE: That would get in the way of a lot of good preaching. (Laughter.)
QUINN: No, but I mean, I was for years an atheist until Jon Meacham said to me, you can’t be an atheist unless you know what you’re talking about. And you had better start reading about religion, which I did, and now I no longer call myself an atheist. And I said the same thing to Sam Lloyd, that if you’re afraid to be challenged, then you can’t do your job properly. I think that that’s what is happening now is that a lot of the evangelicals and the right-wing Christians and Republicans are reading these books by these atheists, and they are looking at them, and they are saying, well, yeah, the Bible does say that you’re supposed to stone your daughter to death if she commits adultery, and maybe that isn’t quite what they meant. So that they are beginning to see the arguments and actually be able to admit their own doubts, which I think is very healthy in this discussion.
DIONNE: Just very quickly. First of all, I think lots of believers always admitted their own doubts. I talk a lot about doubt in the book. And, you know, if Mother Teresa could live all those years without knowing that God is there, you know an awful lot of believers have struggled with these questions. There is a distinguished political scientist, whose name happens to be John Green, with whom I happen to be lucky enough to be writing a paper, who makes a very interesting point in his part of this paper that what you’ve seen in the United States in recent years is the simultaneous rise of evangelical Christians and the growth of seculars, as Andy Kohut likes to call them. And those two groups are growing side by side.
I think, to some degree, they may feed each other; the two growths may be related. But those two facts are there simultaneously. You could argue that that has sharpened the conflict around religion in politics because you now have a significant group of Americans – and they’re not all atheists; many of them are agnostic, but many of them are simply not connected to religious institutions. Some are hostile; some are simply neutral versus this rising group of evangelicals. I think, personally, the rise may have peaked, but you have those two things going on at the same time.
I think that dynamic has sharpened this discussion. And in a funny way, and I don’t want to put words in Amy’s mouth, but our books in some ways identify with that broad religious middle that’s existed in our country for a very long time that does not – it includes some evangelicals, but is not non-believing, but is also not part of this secularist movement. And, in a way, it’s that new group that is finding a voice, that that old group that’s been around for a long time that’s finding a voice again in the middle after this long battle between a certain style of believer and a certain style of secularist.
QUINN: But let me just say one thing about Sam Lloyd, he did read the books. (Laughter.) And he found them very enlightening.
TERRY EASTLAND, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: E.J., if I could take you back to eschatology for a moment, and Amy as well. Ross, if you have a comment – and this really goes to Obama and how you understand what he has to say, and it goes maybe to the conflation of Christianity and politics. I believe in South Carolina, maybe also in Iowa, he talked about wanting to build or create a kingdom of God on earth.
Now, are these just words, so to speak? Is this an appropriation of biblical language? How do we understand this? How do you understand what he’s trying to say?
DIONNE: I mean, as you know, building the kingdom of God is so much all social gospel language. But it’s not just the social gospel. There’s a little bit of William Jennings Bryan in it too. And I think one of the – it’s so interesting to hear Obama talk about this because he combines the sort of views of a liberal Protestant with the views of the African-American church; they are overlapped but they are distinct traditions. And I think he kind of, in his preaching – and it is a lot of times. I mean, there were two preachers in these primaries. One was Mike Huckabee and the other was Barack Obama.
So I think he draws on some of that language. Now if you look at the 2006 speech he gave at [a] Call to Renewal [conference], that’s one of the most careful parsings of these questions that I have ever seen. And in that speech, I think he’s very careful not to fall into all of the traps of social gospelism. Indeed, he’s quite robust in defending the rights of non-believers and the like, so it’s quite different from a pure social-gospel view or kingdom-of-God view.
I’ve always thought that – in the book, I actually talk about that phrase, building the kingdom, in a warning to people on the religious left not to sort of drain all spirituality out of the spiritual message for political purposes. And while some view the phrase “building a kingdom of God on earth” as a form of secularism, I always thought the key word was “building” because the implication was not that you could create it. In other words, it wouldn’t get built. It was a constant process of creation, which implies the earth until the final days is going to be an imperfect place that requires a constant act of building. Now that may be my own eccentric reading of the phrase “building the kingdom of God on earth,” but I think the I-N-G puts a limit on what the meaning of that phrase is.
EASTLAND: If I could just add to that, would you – I mean, I think you’re right to (inaudible) in some sense what the progressives of the early 20th century, the progressive Christians. Would you see him in general as a post-millenialist, in other words, a post-millenialist since I’m referring to eschatology here in that understanding of wanting to build something that is going to be greater, better, whatever, the kingdom of God on earth?
DIONNE: Again, he’s in that – I’m not sure I can answer that question, actually, so I won’t try.
EASTLAND: I mean the sentiment was very much the same a century ago is what I’m saying.
DIONNE: Right, and I think it’s a different circumstance. The social gospel was particular to a particular moment, and I don’t think one – I think it flows from the tradition but is quite different, you know, is not the same thing as the social gospel of that moment. Similarly neither he nor Mike Huckabee is William Jennings Bryan either, but there are certainly Bryan-esque aspects to Huckabee. As you know, I’ve always felt the whole debate about – in the whole debate about creationism, we forget that one of the reasons Bryan was so opposed to creationism is because he didn’t like the social Darwinism.
And he reacted against the way in which rich people use Darwinism to justify their own power and privilege on some ground that the survival of the fittest would benefit the species so, therefore, don’t worry about all of those folks at the bottom. And, as we all know, Bryan was deeply offended by that. So every once in a while, just to really annoy my liberal friends, I defend critics of creationism because I think some of their inspiration came out of a progressive impulse to oppose social Darwinism. And I certainly think there’s some of that, you know, Obama’s is not a creationist, but he would oppose social Darwinism for the same reasons.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: Thanks a lot. This is really, really interesting. I think, Amy, your statistics about people under 30 going Democratic – evangelicals under 30 going more toward Democrats and independents is really intriguing. I am stuck on this whole abortion thing. It’s hard for me to imagine that people, even young people who are strongly opposed to abortion would find themselves in the Democratic camp. Now maybe I’m wrong on that.
But what I’m wondering is, would this – and I don’t know whether to ask John this or who to ask about this, but would this younger cohort of people, are they shifting their priorities? Are these people who don’t put, say, abortion first and foremost, are they doing more of a weighting action, kind of weighing the pros and cons and saying, well, look, I care so much about AIDS in Africa and poverty and the environment that those are all worth 80 points and abortion is only worth 60. Do you see what I mean? Are we seeing a shift in priorities here?
SULLIVAN: Well, it’s definitely a combination. One is just a lack of patience or tolerance for the idea of being broken down into a pro-life camp or a pro-choice camp and the search for a new label, something where you can be pro-life/pro-choice and, in the absence of that, kind of recognizing that there are more gray areas in the middle there. That certainly reflects not just the views of the younger evangelicals, but in general when we ask people what one issue motivates their vote, the people who name abortion are 6, 7 percent of the electorate.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: How much?
SULLIVAN: Six to 7 percent.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Wow.
SULLIVAN: It’s very small. However –
DOUTHAT: Who name it as the one –
SULLIVAN: The primary, yes, yeah. But a third of Democratic voters, even for John Kerry – well, he got slightly under a third – but up until John Kerry, which I think was an unusual election, a third of Democratic voters are pro-life. They’re choosing to vote with the Democrats.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: But it’s not their No. 1 issue?
SULLIVAN: Well, it would be hard to say that it was if they’re siding with the Democratic Party. But I think the second thing you touched on is also – there’s a reordering of priorities, but there’s also an expansion of priorities. I think one of the huge things driving this shift in younger evangelicals is just being able to see with their own eyes what’s going on. A lot of them at Christian colleges take spring breaks that are mission trips or they do a January term in a Third World country. And they may go intending to pass out Bibles, but once they’re there, they see that these kids need clean water more than anything else or they see the massive public health and economic needs. And it’s hard to come back from that with the same eyes.
It’s a very different exposure than what used to happen in my church. Once every two years the missionaries would come home with their little slideshows on Sunday night. You would get some sense of what they were doing, but having it right in front of you is very, very different. And we’ve seen across the board – so not just with young evangelicals – but a lot of churches are moving away from permanent missionaries, who go out into the field for decades, and relying more on lay missionaries, who go for a couple of weeks or even a couple of months at a time. And so the pool of evangelicals who are really experiencing this firsthand has grown. And that accounts for some of the change for Rick Warren, somebody who’s now been to Uganda, been to a bunch of African countries with his wife and just says, I don’t see the world the same way anymore.
DIONNE: If Ross will forgive me for mentioning a competing book on conservative reconstruction, David Frum’s new book. David is a very strong right-to-lifer, and he makes the point – he talks about frustration with the continuing –
DOUTHAT: He’s not, I mean –
DIONNE: Oh, I thought he was.
DOUTHAT: He’s not.
DIONNE: Oh, he’s not, well, then never mind. (Laughter.)
DOUTHAT: He’s a pro-choicer who’s very sympathetic to pro-lifers.
DIONNE: Oh, I thought he was – oh, I did not realize that.
DOUTHAT: I think he’s always described himself –
DIONNE: Oh, because – well, I’ll quote him anyway, but the point is far less strong than it would have been if I had been right about that. (Laughter.)
DIONNE: No, thank you. Fraternal correction is welcome. I think there’s a frustration on the part even of ardent right-to-lifers, if David is not representative, of the same argument going on over and over again without result. And I think that part of what may create this broader agenda is how long do you have the same fight over abortion without succeeding in banning it versus all of the other things that are definitely also part of your agenda? And I’m just very curious if that’s part of this shift. I’m curious if Ross sees that or –
DOUTHAT: I mean, I think you do what – but I also think that this is, again, part of the way that Roe kind of warps Democratic politics because it boils down the abortion debate to the question of how many votes can you muster on the Supreme Court. I think absolutely there is frustration with that among religious conservatives and particularly younger religious conservatives. I think a lot of the things Amy is talking about are true.
I’m just skeptical that that ultimately can cut that deeply into sort of the association of pro-lifers. I don’t know; we’ll see. It’s so hard to say. If we have 12 years of Democratic presidents and we go back to a 7-to-2 majority on the Supreme Court for the current abortion settlement and it becomes stare decisis, becomes even more powerful and the idea of overturning Roe v. Wade slips even further out of reach, then I think, yeah, it’s possible that pro-life sentiment will become more focused as it already has been on sort of – you know. I think there’s an enormous frustration among pro-lifers with the idea that there’s the whole pro-choice crack that religious conservatives only care about children while they’re in the womb and don’t care about them afterwards.
I think there’s enormous frustration among pro-lifers with that stereotype because it’s pro-lifers often who are manning both the crisis pregnancy centers and the post-pregnancy counseling and so on. There is sort of an enormous on the ground – I think both pro-choicers and pro-lifers have done a lot sort of on the ground to help reduce abortion rates.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Can I just ask something really, really fast? And this is the way I should have asked it. Younger people, when you look at issues like gay marriage, they’re much more tolerant because a lot of their friends are gay, blah, blah, blah, all of that. I’m wondering if you’re seeing the same kind of softening on the issue of abortion.
DOUTHAT: More conservative.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Okay.
CHRIS HAYES, THE NATION: …actually come out of a similar tradition to E.J. My father was a Jesuit for five or six years before – in Jesuit seminary before meeting my mother and obviously not a Jesuit after that – (laughter.) – that’s why I’m here and grew up in a sort of Catholic-worker, Catholic-social justice tradition.
I want to talk a little bit about a point that Ross made that I think relates to the specificity of Amy’s book about evangelical voters because I wanted to just talk about, for a second, to clarify whether the category of “the religious” has meaning. And Ross said theology matters. And that, to me, is one of the things that is a little obscured in the conversations we have about religion versus secularism, which is that to call someone religious, I mean, the Sunni and Shia are both religious. The fact the Catholics were religious didn’t stop Oliver Cromwell. I mean religious is a – in some sense, it’s a category that only has salience in relation to a growing secular demographic.
But at the same time, there’s a specificity to the passion and depth of theological belief that is in a different category than other belief, I would say. And that specificity empowers precisely the thing that incites the fear of secularists, right? Which is to say, if I came into this room and said, I think that we should raise the marginal tax rate by 10 percent, people could say, you’re crazy. Of course, you write for The Nation, you think that, blah, blah, blah. But if I come in the room and I say, I think actually everyone in this room is going to hell, that – there’s actually a more – there’s a stronger potency to that.
And this relates specifically to what happened with Mitt Romney, which is, I guess, what I want to get your reaction to, which is that theology did arise to the level of politics. So, in some senses, we saw the gateway open up to – when you start telling candidates, talk about your faith, well, then, you start talking about your faith. And your faith says all sorts of things that you might not want to talk about in polite society, like, I think you’re going to hell, or I think that Jesus visited North America and talked to indigenous Americans.
So in the Romney example, I think – and I’m playing sort of devil’s advocate for the secularists here – the Romney example, a door seemed to open up on some of the dangers that secularists really do worry about. When you start moving from the category of “the religious,” which is sort of perfectly abstract and we can all talk about religious and secular, to talking about theology -. Ross thought it was salutary that you have Mike Huckabee taking a crack at Mormon theology in the pages of The New York Times Magazine. But, to me, that actually just spells out exactly the things that I’m worried about, the place the conversation goes once we open up this Pandora’s Box.
DOUTHAT: Yeah, I think I may have been a little bit too favorable to Mike Huckabee’s crack in the pages of The New York Times, though I think that if he was trying to make a subtle appeal to evangelical anti-Mormon sentiment, the pages of The New York Times Magazine are kind of an odd place to do it. (Laughter.) But, yeah, no, I should say that I am of two minds on this because I agree with you, Chris, that there clearly has to be – there are issues that are theological issues that aren’t political issues ultimately. And the question of Mormon teaching on the nature of Christ and how that relates to whether he is Lucifer’s brother, while a very interesting question and one that I’d be happy to be on a panel to discuss, ultimately isn’t a political question.
What I was getting at, though, is that there is a sense in which theology – there are senses in which theology matters for politics that get obscured by the religion-versus-secularism argument. And I think that we’re far enough away – and this may be too optimistic on my part – but from the danger of a country that’s actually polarized along theological lines that it is kind of salutary to bring up these theological distinctions and say, well, look, Catholic theology has very different – as E.J. will be happy to tell you – very different applications for policy than Mormon theology. And the difference between, say, the Catholic view of the United States government and -. Mormonism has essentially set up a private welfare state.
And this is something that’s occasioned by Mormon theology and that has profound impact on how Mormons vote and how they perceive politics. I mean Mormons are incredibly in favor of the welfare state; they just want it run as a sort of contained Mormon enterprise. And, again, I’m probably mangling the theology somewhat, and if there are any Mormons here, they can correct me on it. But I think it’s clear that those things make a difference, and I think that it’s not a bad thing if we debate them. And I think that one of the things that’s happened in the United States over the last 40 years is, since the age of Reinhold Niebuhr, is that the assumption, particularly in intellectual circles, is that the danger of sort of a theologically infused politics is so great that the separation of church and state needs to mean almost the intellectual separation of reason from religion, from theology.
So it’s no longer – you no longer have Reinhold Niebuhr in the pages of The New York Times Magazine because there’s an assumption that those are theological issues and they’re better off talked about out there in divinity schools and so on. And I think that’s a bad thing, and so I wasn’t all that sorry to see Mormonism and evangelicalism rubbing up against each other, even though I agree with your underlying point.
DIONNE: I think somehow we’ve got to figure out how to draw a fairly sharp line between what you might call, perhaps miscall, public theology versus other kinds of theology and that, for example, the Catholic teaching on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven, proclaimed as infallible in 1953, as far as I can tell, has no implications for public policy. And whether a politician –
DOUTHAT: That’s chapter seven of my book there. (Laughter.)
DIONNE: There’s actually a whole feminist rift that it was the church accepting the legitimacy of the body, but that’s over there. But I don’t think it has any more than some of these obscure views of Mormonism that people attacked or made fun of will have any relevance for how a politician would behave in office. And somehow, I think that for the purposes of a public discussion in a pluralistic republic, we’ve got to – it is not legitimate to – I mean, any voter can do anything a voter wants to do, but I don’t think it’s a legitimate public inquiry unless somebody can show that if you believe in the Assumption, it really has all of these other implications for how you would behave on welfare or war or taxes or whatever.
The best thing I have heard recently is Bill – on this whole question, my friend Bill Galston gave a fantastic lecture at the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, where he compared the Romney, Obama, Kennedy and Cuomo speeches on religion and public life. It’s one of the best short discussions of this question I have seen anywhere, so I’m just plugging my friend Bill.
TERRY MATTINGLY, SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE: I’m going to ask the same question, but with two different images. One is, is Mike Huckabee really just a pre-Roe Southern Democrat? That’s image No. 1. Image No. 2: While running for the Senate, Al Gore held up a picture of an unborn child from the cover of Life and defended his 85-90 percent pro-life voting record by saying, my children know that’s a baby. Could you picture Obama doing the same thing today?
DIONNE: Maybe the answer is yes and no. You know, in the book, I was looking for the passage that – I argue that one of the problems with our abortion politics is that we’ve required lots of politicians to lie or shuffle a lot and that as long as abortion was so clearly a litmus test in either party -. Mitt Romney had to move from pro-choice to pro-life or perhaps from pro-life to pro-choice to pro-life. And similarly, you had Gore and [Richard] Gephardt shift the other way.
And there’s just something very unsatisfactory about the way we discuss abortion in political campaigns and especially because I think there is a very substantial body of opinion in the United States that is deeply troubled by abortion, that on the one hand believes that there is such a thing – that does not deny that fetal life is either human life or something that’s a precursor to it that one trifles with at one’s peril, on the other hand, is very uneasy with the government making abortion illegal and, therefore, threatening the health and perhaps lives of many women who will choose to have abortions anyway, you know, the fact that a great many abortions are performed in countries where abortion is illegal.
These are two – it is not impossible to believe both of those things at the same time, but it is impossible to express that view ever in public in politics. It’s virtually impossible now to have any sort of nuanced view that perhaps it’s plausible to keep abortion legal in the first trimester but that it becomes more morally troublesome once you get beyond that – partly because of Roe. No, I don’t deny that. I know a lot of liberals who privately think Roe was a mistake for liberalism and hurt liberalism.
So I think our abortion politics is just unsatisfactory, so I think – and we can cite examples in both parties. Your first question, I thought much the same thing, that, in many ways, Mike Huckabee is a classic conservative – a classic Southern Democrat, including his love of public works. (Laughter.) I thought one of the most revealing moments of the Huckabee campaign is when he wanted to widen 95 going from Florida to New England. That sure sounded like the position of a good old-fashioned Southern Democrat.
GREEN: Let’s not forget rock-‘n-roll.
SULLIVAN: Yeah, I guess I have a slightly different view. I think Huckabee represents this change within the world of evangelicalism.
DIONNE: I agree with that.
SULLIVAN: That I think is new. It’s not necessarily a hearkening back to what we saw either from the neo-evangelicals in the ’50s and ’60s or the young evangelicals then. And I also heard him refer to – I can’t remember who the radio host was in Iowa, but it was right before the caucuses. He was going on and on about these liberal evangelicals like Mike Huckabee, and I thought, well, Jim Wallis would be interested to know that he and Mike Huckabee are in the same camp. I don’t actually think they are. They probably share more similarities than they do with others in the more conservative camp of the evangelical community, but I think he represents something new.
And I totally agree with E.J. that what we’ve seen since 2004 that is I think most remarkable has just been the fed-upness, if I can make up a word, of Democrats with the vice they’ve been put in when it comes to abortion. And Catholic Democrats have been taking the lead here. They’ve just reached a point where particularly once they saw John Kerry lose, in part they thought, because he was a Catholic and because of the pressure he came under from the church, felt like for years they’ve been pushed on one side by the party to support abortion legislation that they didn’t feel comfortable with or to vote against abortion restrictions that they would have preferred to support.
And they’ve been pushed on the other side by the church that wants to kick them out of the church or deny them communion. And they just couldn’t take the pressure anymore and decided out of that to see if there really wasn’t a way out of this question that’s just vexed the country for 35 years. So that’s how you get a pro-life Congressman Tim Ryan with the pro-choice Rosa DeLauro coming together to support and sponsor legislation to reduce abortion rates. I don’t think that would have happened if they hadn’t reached this point where they just decided, enough is enough; we cannot put up with these categories anymore and we’re going to try to chart a new way.
MATTINGLY: But that compromise still can’t have any restrictions in it, right, because you can’t cast a vote for a restriction, a vote against the current regime, to use Ross’ line.
SULLIVAN: Well, and this is – I mean, there’s no question that it’s a tricky road to watch, and what you’re seeing particularly from pro-life Catholics is instead of using the traditional Mario Cuomo line of I’m personally pro-life but in my public life, I can’t…, you hear, I’m pro-life and here’s what I’m doing to prevent abortions, not through restriction necessarily, but, again, pushing back against the idea that that’s the only way to lower abortion rates.
You hear, and I find it a fairly persuasive argument, that if you line up all of the kind of bit-by-bit restrictions on either the so-called partial-birth abortion, parental-notification laws, you find tiny changes in the abortion rate, in part because partial-birth abortion was not performed that much and there’s almost always another procedure you can use, so you’ve got a net change of zero there on the abortion rate. Parental-notification laws – also all of the studies have shown, the states where they went into effect, you really couldn’t get an abortion very easily to begin with. So you compare those to a much more broad-based – I know Ross and I disagree – he thinks it’s on the margins – the really –
DOUTHAT: I don’t – sorry. I know we’re running over. But I think the evidence of the last couple of decades suggests that broad-based cultural changes coming from different directions in terms of birth control, in terms of changing sexual morays – some of it I think related to AIDS – the shift actually, I think, in behavior toward oral sex away from non-oral sex I guess – (laughter) – came out interestingly. But all of these things have had a big impact as has, I think, the partial re-stigmatization of abortion that I think the pro-life movement has had a lot to do with, that if you compare attitudes toward abortion in the ’70s to attitudes toward abortions today, those are shifted too.
SULLIVAN: Also advances in medical technology – (cross talk).
DOUTHAT: Yeah, but what I’m skeptical about is the direct government programs. I’m not skeptical that the spread of contraception has reduced the abortion rate. I am skeptical that the spread of contraception is directly tied to increases in federally funded sex education, for instance. I think most of the evidence suggests that educational programs – that’s where the impact is at the margins. Obviously, if teens and 20-somethings use contraception at higher rates, which they have been, you’ll have a change in the abortion rate. I’m just skeptical of it at a programmatic level, of what the federal government or state government can do.
SULLIVAN: Well, just to take one example, there was a change at HHS last year I think that resulted in the price of birth control skyrocketing on college campuses, going from $5 or $10 to $50, which is prohibitive, or at least it makes some college students think twice about whether or not they’re going to buy the pill.
DIONNE: Just a last quick point on that – I mean, you’re right that cultural change is probably the most powerful thing in the long run, but when you look, to go to Amy’s example of teen pregnancy, you had a real culture war on that, where you have people saying it’s all going to be abstinence or, no, it’s all got to be contraception. And it turns out that both the basic instinct of American parents and what works are in alliance, which is that the evidence is that programs that teach both abstinence and contraception as a backup tend to be more successful than those that simply teach abstinence and that, clearly, everybody’s instinct about how abstinence will work is affected by whether you’re talking about kids over 13 versus a teenager who is 17 or 16 and that there is this subtlety parents are quite capable of grappling with without having a culture war over. And you can actually make progress on a problem through well-thought-through educational programs.
DOUTHAT: Sounds like a liberal to me. (Laughter.)
GREEN: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for coming. Please join me in thanking our panel.
This written transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling and grammar by Amy Stern.
- According to Pew Research Center surveys from 2007, the number of politically moderate evangelicals is around 30 percent.
- In the reference to the number of Catholics who voted for Al Gore, the year should be 2000.
- The title of Mike Sandel’s book is The Case Against Perfection.