Religion and America’s Political Conscience

September 6, 2018
E.J. Dionne
Journalist and author E. J. Dionne / Photo: Paul Morigi

This feature is part of an HDS Communications interview series offering students a closer look at selected upcoming courses. Below, HDS student Bo Clay chats with E. J. Dionne, renowned journalist and William H. Bloomberg Visiting Professor at HDS, about his fall 2018 course “Religion in America's Conscience and at the Ballot Box.”

Harvard Divinity School: I think it’s best to begin with an observation. When it comes to politics, many people tend to care (and thus vote) either about one or a few major issues––it could be economic policy, immigration, civil rights, foreign policy, etc. So to be frank: What are we missing when we ignore America’s religious influence at the ballot box? Why should the voter who is anxious about economic or foreign policy also be concerned with religion’s influence on politics and on election day?

E. J. Dionne: Well, a lot of recent political science research suggests that we are voting more and more to our cultural values and our identities—and those identities very much include religious identities. So, you can't really understand how politics works without being attentive to values, identity, and people's deepest commitments. And the polarization of American public life now is aggravated by a deep mistrust—this is to slightly oversimplify, but not a lot—across the lines of identity, religion, culture, and personal commitments.

On the one hand, attention to religion, which has always been important in American political life, is particularly important now. I've been doing work on this a long time, and one of the things that strikes me at the moment is that, for a long time, we looked at this question as "How does religion influence people's politics?" I think that right now, political division is so deep that people's politics are actually influencing their religion a great deal—which, by the way, I think is a real challenge to religious faith. People are picking churches, in particular, but also synagogues and mosques, not simply because of their theological commitments, but out of politics.

One of the things that we're also exploring in the class is what I see as one of the most striking developments in American life over the last 10 or 15 years: The sharp rise in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans, particularly among young people—Americans under 30. We're now up to 40 percent who say they are not affiliated with a religious tradition. Those are numbers unlike we have seen in any earlier generation of young people, and that is having a huge impact on politics.

The last point I'd make is: What you have is a very, very substantial group of Americans who are very conservative or traditional, or, as they would see it, orthodox in their religious beliefs; and then a growing group of non-religious Americans. That is a kind of polarization of view that is, again, quite different from what we've seen in the past, and I think it explains at least part of the neuralgia, if you will, in our political discourse right now.

HDS: Relatedly, and perhaps as a follow up to the previous question, you suggest that for some, party identity and loyalty may now assume the role that traditional religious faith once held—a kind of belief or faith to party that has replaces, supersedes, or, to use your pun, “trumps” religious commitments. What are the consequences of this mindset? How does this “party loyalty” affect American religion or American life at large, and what are some costs that you anticipate?

EJD: Well, to back up, a couple of scholars have talked about how, once upon a time in American public life, there were real arguments about religion itself and religious commitments. Back then, we actually argued a lot about whether it mattered that you believe in the virgin birth, or how churches should be organized, or who is Jesus Christ. These public conversations tended to divide people along theological lines, but we’re not really having these same kinds of theologically-based arguments now. We're arguing about issues such as gay marriage or abortion, and obviously, in the case of more progressive believers, there's a heavy emphasis on social justice and poverty.

The course is also organized to take the country's religious traditions seriously, and, if you will, on their own terms. So, the course is, in effect, organized in two broad categories. First, I want students to think about how, historically as well as in the present, Catholics, Jews, mainline Protestants, evangelical Christians, the African-American church, the Latino church, and Muslims have engaged in their particular ways in public life. And so, we look at particular traditions and important thinkers from these traditions, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Heschel, and many others. We’ll also have visiting speakers such as Susannah Heschel, a scholar and Abraham’s daughter, to speak about these figures.

But then we also look at particular issues in American politics where the religious voice is important. Issues related to social and economic justice, abortion and gay marriage—issues often cast as “culture war issues.” So, that is, in a sense, the basic structure of the course: A look at specific traditions, and then a look at particular problems.

And then we also obviously look straight up at the electoral connection. There's a class after the election that's going to compare religion's role in the 2016 and 2018 elections. And the last class, as you'll see, has a series of speeches by American political figures. I believe we got George Washington's letter to the Touro Synagogue in there. We have Lincoln's second inaugural. We have speeches on religion by Romney, Obama, George W. Bush, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

So, another element of the course is how religious themes, ideas, and language permeate American politics. Because even though there are people who aren't necessarily religious, religious language can be particularly moving, it can be particularly poetic, and it can be particularly powerful with themes of justice, inclusion, and various other forms of commitment—personal commitment and public commitment. These are some of the many things we’ll discuss.

HDS: You mention at the end of your course description that the course will address the “sharp rise of religious disengagement among young Americans.” How do you think the lack of religious involvement among young Americans has affected our current political atmosphere? Has it empowered the growing religious minority and their politics? And has it, at the same time, impacted the secular agenda that many young Americans support?

EJD: Well, I think that young people distancing themselves from religion is itself largely political. Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their book American Grace, make the point—and others have sort of done research that points in the same direction—that a lot of young people are alienated from religion because religion has become so associated in the public mind with very, very conservative positions—particularly on gay rights and other issues.

It’s interesting because I grew up in a time when one of the most powerful public expressions of religion was the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s book Strength to Love had an enormous impact on the way that I saw the world, and it was clearly the case that King used the gospels, the Old Testament prophets, and America's founding documents to make a case for reform and equality. In that era, other religious thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich got on the cover of Time magazine, which, in its day, was a pretty good test of presence in the mainstream of the culture.

But for the last 30 years, and probably even more so in the last 15 years, religion in the public mind has been almost entirely associated with the political right, and with issues like gay marriage and abortion. This is probably saying it in a bit of an extreme way, but the public conversation in the United States has gone from Niebuhr to Falwell. And that's a very different public voice for religion, and that is a major reason why some young people look at religion and walk away.

To put my cards on the table, I am a liberal Catholic, and the notes and music I hear in religion, as well as the set of principles, point me in a broadly-speaking progressive direction. But while I say all of that, I am very mindful that as a teacher, I'm not seeking to indoctrinate students in my own views. I always begin my classes by saying that and I want students to approach ideas they disagree with, including ideas I might disagree with, at least with respect and understanding. That doesn't mean you respect, say, those who try to turn religion into a justification for racism, or going back in our history, for slavery; but it does mean that traditional people deserve our respect.

To this point, I think the Yale theologian and historian Jaroslav Pelikan summed it up best by saying that “traditionalism is the dead religion of the living, but tradition is the living religion of the dead.” So, I'm respectful of people who respect tradition. I'm respectful in the very idea of tradition as a sort of conservative tug. While I'm very open about who I am to the students, I try very hard to have myself and my students grapple with views that may not necessarily be of their own.

HDS: In your career studying and writing about this, what is, in your mind, the most surprising way that religion’s influence has affected American politics?

EJD: Well, if I could sort of begin by speaking about something completely different, which is one of the reasons that I feel very privileged—I could even say blessed—to be able to teach at the Div School, is because two of the most important experiences I had as an undergraduate at Harvard College happened here.

I took two courses taught by Harvey Cox, a great progressive theologian, and just a wonderful man and teacher. And my favorite course on my college transcript is a course Harvey taught called “Eschatology and Politics.” This courses had both great practical value to me later in my life because I covered the Vatican for The New York Times at a moment when liberation theology was very contested in the Vatican, and had some combinations of liberation theologians. I read some of those folks 12, 13 years earlier in Harvey's class. So, that was on the practical side. And then on the personal side, Harvey introduced us to many different currents. One of the interesting things about Harvey is he is well known as a progressive, but he also engaged in very serious and respectful dialogue with people like Jerry Falwell. So, he is somebody with the capacity for sympathetic understanding, which is something I've tried to carry with me.

I say all that partly because it has surprised me over the 40 years since I took that course how much religion has become identified exclusively with the right. When I was in college, a very important and powerful wing of the anti-Vietnam, anti-war movement during the Vietnam years, was religion. So, the extent to which religion is now so broadly identified with conservative politics has been very surprising.

Another important thing, even though it’s not so much surprising, is the diversity of the American religious landscape between the time I took Harvey's course and now. There was a book sociologist Will Herberg wrote called Catholic, Protestant, Jew. His argument was that all of us become American and that there is a kind of deeper American idea that ends up affecting the way people are Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish in America. That book would now have to be called "Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, Confucian, Jain, Buddhist," and the cover would be, well, wonderfully ungainly. That's an extraordinary change in the country over a period of 40 years.

HDS: Given the combative and disruptive political atmosphere that we find ourselves in, what do you hope your students will come to appreciate throughout the course of your class? What do you hope they take away from your class come December?

EJD: You know, your question reminds me of one of my favorite encounters, where I was speaking to a group of religious people with a conservative writer and a friend called Ramesh Ponnuru. At one point, Ramesh said, and I'm paraphrasing here: One of the most striking and disappointing things is that it seems at times that no group is nastier to people who disagree with them than religious people.

It is almost exactly the opposite of what we would like to think. And it's a sad thing, but it was a wonderful confession, in a way—not personally, but a confession of a problem that we face. I think I would like people to come away with some very strong sense of the history of religion in our country and some sense of respect for the diversity of religion in our country, not only between traditions, but within traditions—differences between Orthodox and Reform Jews, or differences between more conservative or progressive Catholics and Protestants, the theological differences across denominations.

And I guess for people who are religious, I think that they should be unapologetic about applying the insights of their tradition to public questions while, at the same time, respecting their obligation in a pluralist country characterized by religious freedom, their obligation to make public arguments that are accessible to and respectful of those who do not in any way share their religious presuppositions. I guess in a way it's a paradoxical idea, which is people should not be fearful or ashamed that their religious commitments affect their politics, but they should be respectful of those who don't share their commitments.

And then the other thing is that I hope students come away with some enthusiasm for the subject itself, that this is something worth thinking about outside the context of this class, and that they hold onto an interest in this subject long after they take the class. I guess that is the aspiration of any professor on any subject—certainly mine!

—by Bo Clay, HDS correspondent