Our Divided Political Heart
In the shoutfest that is cable news E. J. Dionne is a frequent and always thoughtful guest. He joins us this week to talk about his new book Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent and offers insights on the conflicts that overwhelm our politics and society today, as well as some thoughts on the current “religious liberty” lawsuits brought by Catholic institutions against the Obama administration. In addition to serving as a Washington Post opinion writer, he is a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: E. J. DIONNE
Welcome back to State of Belief Radio, I’m Welton Gaddy. Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne is a very frequent guest on political talk shows, and I’m always struck by the tone of thoughtful moderation that E. J. brings to that frequently contentious forum. As the battle lines have been drawn over the Obama administration’s contraception mandate, as contained in the health reform law, I can only describe E J’s approach to chastising the Catholic Church’s “religious liberty” rhetoric as – “caring.”
Since he so frequently demonstrates an ability to debate issues without descending into angry rhetoric, it’s only fitting that E. J. Dionne’s new book is titled Our Divided Political Heart: the Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent. And I am so very pleased to welcome the author to State of Belief Radio. E. J. Dionne, thanks for being with us![ED]: It is great to be with you Welton! Thanks for having me. [WG]: I’ve got to just ask right off, E J, are you, at heart, a peacemaker? [ED]: I don’t know about that, I would like to – they are blessed, so one would like to be one… And, you know, there are times when I sort of see arguments going on in Washington and sometimes in the rest of the country where, I believe, a little bit of charity might help people understand each other better. You know, take this HHS mandate that you mentioned in the intro – and, by the way, thank you for those very, very nice words – at the outset, I thought the administration was wrong, and said so in my column, because it didn’t give any accommodation to the Catholic Church; and I criticized them and said they needed to do something here, because there is a legitimate concern that we’re going to have a lot of religious groups providing social services in our country, and we honor them for doing that, and that the government can grant some room to them, not infinite room, but some room to them where their own doctrine is involved. And we obviously do that on religious hospitals and caregivers and abortion. So I wrote critically about the administration.
And then when they did come up with the accommodation, which I was very happy about, that’s when I became more critical of our bishops – and I am a Catholic – because I thought that the accommodation they offered was something that could be worked with. I would probably make some further changes in the underlying rule, but I don’t think the Obama administration’s behavior justifies the overheated rhetoric that suggests that somehow the president is the enemy of religion. That’s just flatly untrue.
So I don’t if that’s a peacemaker’s role or not; what you usually find is that when you, on the first column, many of my liberal friends were unhappy with me and then they, when I wrote subsequent columns saying, you know, we should work with this accommodation – my more conservative friends were unhappy with me. So maybe you don’t make any friends at all.[WG]: Well, I tell you why I opened with that question. The book lays out, very ably, reasons for our current divisions, as well as some prescriptions for how we can come together. But when you write about the need for us to come together – that seems to come from a deeper place in you. [ED]: I’d like to think it does. And I do think – I mean, I always say I grew up in a very politically diverse family, and so we argued about – extended family – and all family gatherings were the scenes of political arguments. And I loved many of the people I disagreed with passionately, and so it’s always struck me that it is possible to disagree and really care about the person you’re disagreeing with.
But what I argue in the book is: I think that America is characterized by a deep and healthy tension, and that there’s a real problem in trying to make us all one thing or all another, I argue that that tension is between our love of individualism and our affection for community – and that we’ve tried to keep these things in balance; and by extension, we’ve tried to keep the role of government and the role of the marketplace in balance all through our history. And I think, right now, you’ve seen the rise of what I call in the book a kind of “radical individualism” that really wants to say: “We’re only about individual liberty, the Constitution is only about individualism.” Now Lord knows you and I both believe passionately in individual liberty; but we are about – not only are we about community as well, but we understand that the task of preserving individual liberty is actually a communal task. You and I have to come to the defense of each other’s liberty, and I like to point out to people that the first word of the Constitution is the word “we”. It’s not “I”, it’s not something else; it’s the word “we” as in “We, the people” – and the Constitution lays out a whole series of goals that we want to achieve together.
And so I think that if we accept that we have this tension inside us, and that every generation we try to work out this tension in the right way, rather than denying it or pretending we’re just one thing – I think we’d have a better shot at healing our current divisions.[WG]: You know, I’m sure you hear – I know I do, often – people who say: “You all are just hung up on all this division stuff; it’s always been that way in our nation, and it’s no different today.” Is it different today? [ED]: I do think it is. In other words, we have never been, and don’t want to be, uniform. We’ve always had political conflicts, we’ve always had – except when George Washington was elected – contested elections; and we don’t want to get rid of that. I think the issue is: how far apart are we, and are the ways in which we’re talking about our problems getting in the way of solving them, as opposed to helping us solve them. And I think, right now, we’re in one of those moments where, you know, in my view, one side of the debate, a conservatism that I think has been radicalized from where it was before, really wants to end what I see as a long consensus that’s dominated our politics for about a hundred years, where both sides accepted that there was a fundamental role for government in any society that valued individual liberty and achievement. And conservatives may at times have been for a more restrictive view of government vis-a-vis the marketplace, but they broadly came to accept all of these programs, notably the New Deal programs, the Great Society programs like food stamps and medicare, and we argued within that consensus. I think right now the right end of our politics is challenging that consensus, and basically wants to blow it up and replace it with what I see as the politics of our gilded edge – that period after the Civil War until, probably, you’d date it to Teddy Roosevelt becoming president in 1901 – and so I think that’s different.
We always argue – but this is an argument about much more fundamental things. And that’s why I think it is so divisive. I’d like to think it’s not quite as bad as the arguments we were having in the 1850’s, which, as we know, ended in civil war. Well, I don’t think we’ve gone quite that far yet, and I certainly hope not.[WG]: What will it take for the warring factions in our society to see that it is ultimately in their own interest to find common ground? [ED]: Well, I think that’s part of the problem, is right now, it’s not clear to either side that that common ground exists. And again, I see the movement on the right side as being really important – for example, I think in general people say, we cannot have our budget so out of balance for the long run. I think in the short run we still need to stimulate this economy, because unemployment is too high; but for the long run, we need to be on a path where what we spend and what we take in are more closely in balance. I don’t see any way that we can achieve that balance without raising taxes.
Now, there are a lot of things we can argue about: we can argue about how much do we need to raise taxes, we can argue which taxes should we raise, we can argue about who should be taxed – I’m a progressive, so I think taxes should be more progressive, I could imagine my conservative friends preferring something like a value-added tax – but we could talk about all of this.
But if the argument over balancing the budget becomes, instead, an argument over simply reducing the size of government – and that that’s the only option – then we’re going to have a real problem coming together. I’d like to think after this election, we might settle some of these questions – but at this point, I fear it’s going to take us a bit to work our way through this very big argument.[WG]: Yeah. Well, you write about the difference between seeking to all come to an agreement to “all becoming the same thing,” in your words – and acceptance of our differences and finding it a healthy tension within those differences. So, not to be partisan, but what does it do to this acceptance when one political party loudly and publicly turns compromise into a dirty word? [ED]: Right, and you saw that most recently in the primary – the Republican primary in Indiana – where Sen. Richard Lugar was beaten by Mr. Mourdock, whose position was: “I’m against compromise.” And I was telling friends, I said: “You know, people said Lugar isn’t a conservative? His conservative rating, lifetime, from very respected, obviously conservative organizations was 77% – and that’s more then 3/4 conservative.”
And so, yes, that is a real problem – but I think the problem is that if your goal is not to reach agreement within the framework in which we have been working, but to get rid of that framework altogether – then “compromise” is a dirty word; then you can do things like take chances with the nation’s credit, as happened last summer in the debt ceiling fight. And so I think we’ve got to decide: do we want to continue and refresh the broad consensus on a balance between government and the private sphere, or do we want to go the other way and blow it up?
Now, I think that Americans, by substantial numbers, don’t really want to move that far to the right; and the question will be, how clear will those issues be in this election. I talk in the book a lot about brands of conservatism I have admired all my life. I speak very respectfully in this book, as I have in the past, about Bill Buckley; and it’s worth noting that Bill Buckley, the great conservative columnist – one of the last books he wrote in his life was a book called “Gratitude,” where he talked about the fact that those of us privileged enough to grow up in this great and free society owe something back to that society; there was a sense that rights carried responsibilities. So there is a communitarian brand of conservatism – but for now, it’s been shoved entirely to the sideline. And I want that form of conservatism to make a comeback. I think it would be good for conservatives, and good for the country.[WG]: You make an interesting point in Our Divided Political Heart when you write that Americans are more frustrated and more fearful than they need to be. Those are powerful triggers for the kind of anger we see today in our public discourse – the frustration and fear – but it’s valuable to look beneath the surface, which I think is what you’re telling us to do. Would you talk about that a moment? [ED]: Right, well, I always love to quote that great Winston Churchill line that Americans always do the right thing – after first exhausting all of the other possibilities. And so we’ve been here before, we’ve gone through really difficult periods, we’ve made mistakes as a country before – I mean, we had slavery and we got rid of it and we’ve made a lot of improvements in our lives. In the book I quote Toqueville: one of the things that great French observer of us back in the 19th Century liked best about us was that he really valued our capacity for self-correction. And I think within this traditional American balance between individualism and community lies a path forward that could get us out of this particularly difficult time. So my book starts by talking about fear of American decline – which I think is something that’s underlay our politics for about a decade now. But it’s not a declinist book, because I think that we have – both within the American idea itself, which I see as this idea of balance, and within ourselves – we have the capacity to move out of this period. And so I am very hopeful in the long run, and I hope we can make the difficult short run as short as possible. [WG]: You brought up in the very beginning, by an allusion to the Catholic dioceses, some of the conflict that we’ve been going through there; and now we have these lawsuits that have been filed by the Catholic dioceses and institutions against HHS with regard to the administration’s contraception coverage. Is there any political motive behind these lawsuits, or is it just straight-out Church policy? [ED]: I would put it this way: I think those who filed the lawsuits would insist emphatically that there is not a political motive; and I think if you look at some of the Catholic institutions that filed them, it would be hard to make the charge that there is a political motive. I mean, Notre Dame is a good case and point, where Notre Dame is part of the lawsuit; but they also invited, to great protest from conservative Catholics, President Obama to give their commencement address back in 2009.
I do think that there are some among the bishops who really would like to defeat President Obama. I don’t think they would ever say that in as explicit a way as I did; but I think that the bishops are divided on the matter of what is the proper attitude of the Church toward President Obama. Again, I’m not accusing them of violating their tax… Obviously, all Catholics are entitled to their political views, and Catholics have been a group that’s been on both the right and the left; I mean, we are a 40-40-20 group in politics. It’s very hard for Republicans to get less than 40% of us, it’s very hard for Democrats to get less than 40% of us, and the rest of the Catholics swing around. So I’m not making any charges of politicization here. I think there are some bishops who are just more critical of President Obama than others, and I think the Church risks looking more political than it ought to in this fight. I think some of the language that’s been used has been, as Commonweal, the liberal Catholic magazine put it, hyperbolic. And I think hyperbolic language on these questions in an election year creates great risks for the Church that its motives will be misread.[WG]: Let me respond to that hyperbolic possible comment with a ludicrous question – and I’m asking the ludicrous question. We have very little time left, but I’ve got to ask you – and don’t just laugh at me – can you offer any prescription for the healing of a divided Catholic Church? [ED]: Well, you know, it’s not a ludicrous question, it’s just a really, really hard question. And I look back even as recently as 20-25 years ago, with people like Cardinal Bernardin, who used to talk about the Catholic social teaching involving a seamless garment, which involved support for life and also opposition to war; and support for life not only in utero but also afterward. And I do think that within that seamless garment tradition is a very powerful, more unifying tradition.
You will still have political disagreements among Catholics. The way I like to put it is – and this proves I’m Catholic – the Church is doing its job if it makes everyone feel guilty about something; and I think the Church’s task is to challenge liberal Catholics to think really hard about their views about abortion and life issues, and it’s to challenge conservative Catholics to think really hard about their attitudes toward the poor, and our – both individual and collective – role in lifting up the poor. If the Church is balanced in the way it’s making people ask questions of themselves, I think it’s doing its job. It’s when only one side is being queried that I think the Church then has to worry about what it’s up to.[WG]: Oh, that’s a fantastic answer to that. E. J., one last question: are you at the end of writing this book – and I know you’ve done some book touring, signings and that kind of thing – are you going into this election year’s heating up to a white hot heat optimistic or pessimistic about what’s going to happen in this nation? [ED]: I’m optimistic about the nation, and worried about the conduct of the election. As I say, I think we have a pretty good track record in coming out of difficult times. I think this election threatens to be particularly vicious; and one reason it does is because of all the unaccountable money we’re going to have out there. I mean, in past campaigns, if I ran a nasty ad against you, my name would be on it, and I’d have to take responsibility for it; and that actually created a discipline on me as to what I’d be willing to say in my ad. Now, we’re going to have tens of millions – it sounds like a two or three billion dollar campaign – where a lot of that money will be from these outside groups whose donors in many cases don’t have to disclose themselves, and they will be able to say anything. And candidates will be able to say: “Well, that’s not me, I didn’t do that.” And I’m very worried about – first of all, I don’t like the influence of money in politics in that way, where a small number of very wealthy citizens have their voices vastly amplified over the rest of us – but also, I don’t like the unaccountability for it.
So, as I say, I feel that we will get out of this, but I’d like this campaign to help us, but I worry there are aspects of it where it’s not going to help us at all.[WG]: E. J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post who makes a lot of us do some thinking that we might not do otherwise. He’s a prolific author; he teaches at Georgetown University; he’s a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and he does all of those jobs well. His latest book, Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent offers both insight and inspiration for those of us befuddled by the endless rancor defining American politics and society today.
E. J., I admire you and benefit from your thoughts and the skill with which you write, and I thank you so much for being with us today on State of Belief Radio.[ED]: Well, thank you so much for your incredibly generous words and for having me on; I really, really appreciate it.
State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.
Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.
The host of State of Belief, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, leads the national nonpartisan grassroots and educational organizations, The Interfaith Alliance and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Welton is one of 20 international religious leaders on the Council of 100 Leaders, a group created by the World Economic Forum to improve dialogue and understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Welton emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is the immediate past President of the Alliance of Baptists and is a twenty-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, Welton served in many leadership roles in the SBC including membership on the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-1984 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-1977.
Welton received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.