Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right

Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right

by E. J. Dionne Jr.


Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


The religious and political winds are changing. Tens of millions of religious Americans are reclaiming faith from those who would abuse it for narrow, partisan, and ideological purposes. And more and more secular Americans are discovering common ground with believers on the great issues of social justice, peace, and the environment. In Souled Out, award-winning journalist and commentator E. J. Dionne explains why the era of the Religious Right—and the crude exploitation of faith for political advantage—is over.

Based on years of research and writing, Souled Out shows that the end of the Religious Right doesn't signal the decline of evangelical Christianity but rather its disentanglement from a political machine that sold it out to a narrow electoral agenda of such causes as opposition to gay marriage and abortion. With insightful portraits of leading contemporary religious figures from Rick Warren and Richard Cizik to John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Dionne shows that our great religions have always preached a broad message of hope for more just human arrangements and refused to be mere props for the powers that be. Dionne also argues that the new atheist writers should be seen as a gift to believers, a demand that they live up to their proclaimed values and embrace scientific and philosophical inquiry in a spirit of "intellectual solidarity."

Written in the tradition of Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, Souled Out will help change how we think and talk about religion and politics in the post-Bush era.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691143293
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 11/01/2009
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 1,028,092
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, a regular political analyst on National Public Radio, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University. His books include the best-selling Why Americans Hate Politics (Simon & Schuster), which won the Los Angeles Times book prize and was nominated for the National Book Award.

Read an Excerpt


By E. J. Dionne Jr. Princeton University Press Copyright © 2008 E. J. Dionne Jr.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13458-1

Chapter One Is Religion Conservative or Progressive? (Or Both?)

Consider Democrat Tim Kaine's successful campaign for governor of Virginia in 2005. Kaine was not shy about speaking openly of his religious faith and his work as a Christian missionary in Latin America. He was actually a Catholic volunteer, but his political consultants miraculously replaced the word "Catholic" with the word "Christian" in the ads they ran on Christian radio stations heard mainly by evangelical Protestants.

And so when the time came for his Republican opponent Jerry Kilgore's entirely predictable attack on the Democrat's opposition to the death penalty, Kaine's consultants quickly went on the air with advertisements that said he would enforce the state's death penalty laws but, more interestingly, explained why he opposed capital punishment. "My faith teaches life is sacred," Kaine said. "I personally oppose the death penalty."

Now here's the interesting thing. The Kaine campaign had, through focus groups, carefully tested how various responses to various attacks would play with voters. David Eichenbaum, a Kaine adviser, explained that the groups were shown, as Eichenbaum put it, "the worst attacks against Tim that they would use to make him into a big bad liberal." The groups were then shown footage of Kaine "talking about the importance to him of his religious values and convictions." The result? "Almost to a person," Eichenbaum reported, "they would say that he must be a moderate or a conservative, and that he couldn't be a liberal."

That is: if Kaine was religious, he could not possibly be a liberal. Now there is a sobering finding for liberals, and especially for liberals with strong ties to faith.

Yet there was a time, not long ago, when conservatives were desperate to keep religion out of politics and saw their liberal enemies as politicizing God's message. "Preachers," one critic declared, "are not called upon to be politicians but to be soul-winners." As it happens, this is not a secular liberal denying faith's legitimate influence on politics. The words were Jerry Falwell's, in 1965. His scorn was directed at the church-based civil rights movement in the South. Falwell knew that without the black church, there would have been no civil rights movement. It bothered conservatives such as Falwell that the civil rights preachers were so judgmental, so eager to associate their cause with God's. "If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong!" a young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. declared in December 1955 at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. "If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer and never came down to earth!" It was not a view of the Savior congenial to southern segregationists.

The greatest victory of the religious Right was not its success in turning out the vote of religious conservatives. The Christian Right damaged liberalism most by calling forth a liberal reaction against religion's public role. Too many liberals have been complicit in the conservatives' redefinition of "moral values" as always involving sex, and "religious activism" as always referring to the work of Pat Robertson and his friends. Confronted with a new religious Right from the 1970s on, many liberals were tempted to be at least as critical of religion as they were of the Right.

Consider where the scriptures lead. The Christian Gospel certainly does not seem to endorse the status quo when we learn from it that "He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty!" Such are not the biblical quotations that typically appeared in Karl Rove's direct mail pieces.

Isaiah has spoken to reformers through the ages. It was appropriate that the publisher of a collection of letters from the antislavery agitator William Lloyd Garrison chose as its title Let the Oppressed Go Free, which reflects Garrison's debt to Isaiah. In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy was drawn to the same passage when he spoke of the shared obligations of the United States and the Soviet Union, adversaries in the Cold War, to "undo the heavy burdens" on the poor and the oppressed.

Dr. King drew on Amos to declare that "we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Amos, by the way, is the increasingly hot book among Democratic speechwriters.

Jesus himself demands that we feed the hungry and clothe the naked and tells us we will be judged by how we treat "the least among us." No wonder the historian Michael Kazin has written that the American Left "has never advanced without a moral awakening entangled with notions about what the Lord would have us do."

Now liberals can be as guilty as conservatives of engaging in proof-texting, finding whatever passages in scripture best suit their purposes. It is increasingly popular among Democrats in Congress who oppose cuts in programs for the poor to cite scripture against conservative Republicans. Personally, I like the idea of challenging religious conservatives in this way, but there can be something terribly contrived and opportunistic about using scriptural passages as if they were phrases that had passed under the scrutiny of focus groups. And finding politically congenial passages from the Old Testament prophets and the sayings of Jesus of Nazareth can deflect attention from their core religious purposes. If a political message can be distilled from Jesus's preaching, as Tod Lindberg has argued, his message was ultimately about salvation and redemption, not politics.

Religious liberals should also acknowledge that conservatives have not invented the history of opposition between various forms of liberalism and religion. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberal anticlericalism veered toward outright opposition to faith itself. This tendency is very much alive among the neo-atheists. Liberalism has always included a strong strain of secularism, a proper wariness about the abuses of religious authority, and a particular fear of the Catholic Church. "Rationalism" was seen as the enemy of "obscurantism," "reason" the antithesis of "faith." "Neither Pope nor King" was a popular liberal slogan. The separation of church and state was a noteworthy liberal victory for freedom of conscience-even if it is forgotten that disestablishment was a cause pursued with passion by devout believers loyal to denominations that found themselves in the minority in the United States and elsewhere. The neo-atheist writers have provided vigorous restatements of the old arguments against faith, God, and religion. They, like their religious foes, are operating within a tradition.

Nor can there be any doubt that established religious institutions, particularly the beleaguered mid-nineteenth-century papacy, saw liberalism as an enemy. In his superb essay on "the failed encounter" between the nineteenth-century Catholic Church and liberalism, Peter Steinfels reminds us of the ferocity of the antiliberal polemics that issued from some of the papacy's defenders. (Incidentally, in a useful note for our times, Steinfels points out that some of the fiercest attacks were not on atheists or secularists, but on liberal Catholics.) In 1866 Louis Veuillot published L'Illusion liberale, the Liberal Illusion, in which he attacked "godless, soulless anti-Christian liberalism" for relegating religion and morality to "the privacy of conscience." In order to defend Christian society, the state should do the bidding of the pope, Vieuillot insisted. "Force in the hands of the Church is the force of right," he wrote, "and we have no desire that right should remain without force."

Steinfels tells us about a pamphlet published in Spain in 1886 with the unequivocal title El Liberalismo Es Pecado, Liberalism Is Sin, written by Don Felix Sarda y Salvany. The essay was so ferocious that even the Vatican's Holy Office condemned it, while also rebuking its detractors. Liberalism, Don Felix declared, is "a greater sin than blasphemy, theft, adultery, homicide, or any other violation of the law of God." It is "the evil of all evils," "the offspring of Satan and the enemy of mankind." He condemned the "odious and repulsive attempt to unite Liberalism with Catholicism." The Catholic liberal, he said, is "both a traitor and a fool," a pagan at heart, a pawn of the devil, "less excusable than those Liberals who have never been within the pale of the Church." Was it sufficient for loyal Catholics simply to dodge the liberal's blows? "Not at all," he wrote, "the first thing necessary is to demolish the combatant himself." Imagine a figure who could make Dobson or Robertson, Limbaugh or O'Reilly, look like Paul Wellstone or Hubert Humphrey or even Sam Harris.

But one need not be an ultramontane extremist to see that liberalism and religion can make a bad fit, or that conservative sentiments and impulses can fit quite well with religious faith. In a classic critique of religious liberalism, H. Richard Niebuhr argued that liberal Protestantism seemed to posit that "a God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross." Is it any wonder that many in search of a demanding faith turn toward conservative religion?

Consider what most religious believers and conservatives have in common. There is, first, that word "tradition." It is an essential word for most conservatives and for most believers. It is in the nature of liberals and the Left to revolt against tradition. In his 1953 book The Conservative Mind-a work central to the postwar conservative revival-Russell Kirk listed a series of "canons" of conservatism that were quite congenial to people of faith. They included a "belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience." He argued that "custom, convention and old prescription are checks upon man's anarchic impulse and upon the innovators' lust for power." And in a line that may well have had an impact on the Vatican, Kirk warned that "hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration rather than a torch of progress." Large numbers of religious people instinctively believe many or most of these things.

If religious people believe in tradition, many also believe in authority, either of religious leaders or of scripture-or both. My sister, who is a captain in the navy reserves and has spent over a quarter century connected with the military, has said that the military may be disproportionately Catholic and southern because Catholics and southerners are able to deal instinctively with authority and hierarchy. Conservatives are, on the whole, the party of authority, and liberals are, with equal pride, anti-authoritarian. Liberalism arose in part as a revolt against the authority of the church, of scripture, of the divine right of kings. Liberals, again instinctively, worry that authority is often the enemy of reason, liberty, and self-direction.

Kirk also notes that conservatism has "an affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems." His phrase teaches us a great deal about why conservatives, especially religious conservatives, disagree with liberals, especially secular liberals, on such matters as abortion and stem-cell research.

One sentence from a manifesto on cultural conservatism released in 1987 by the Free Congress Foundation captures the ways in which these strands of religious conviction and conservative sentiment came together in our politics. "Cultural conservatism," the manifesto declared, "is the belief that there is a necessary, unbreakable and causal relationship between western, Judeo-Christian values, definitions of right and wrong, ways of thinking and ways of living-the parameters of western cultures-and the secular success of western societies."

Nothing any liberal says will alter these fundamental affinities between religion and conservatism. And yet some of us insist that they are not the only affinities, that in American history, at least, there is a parallel tendency in which religion's reverence for tradition is challenged by (and sometimes leads to) religion's insistence upon justice and its rebukes to the status quo. Large parts of the tradition work against traditionalism. This is in keeping with Jaroslav Pelikan's insightful observation that where tradition is the living religion of the dead, traditionalism is the dead religion of the living.


There is another important fact about religion and liberalism in the United States: precisely because we Americans did not experience the religious wars as Europe did, American liberalism was always more tempered in its attitude toward faith than the European variety. It is why the rise of the neo-atheists comes as something of a surprise in the American context. By and large, religious Americans returned liberalism's favor, embracing the regime of liberty and pluralism. The conflict between liberalism and religion over the last three decades is thus a break from U.S. history, an anachronistic replay of Europe's nineteenth-century battles that Peter Steinfels described.

American liberalism cannot be understood apart from an understanding of its religious sources. No less a rationalist than John Dewey, nurtured in a New England Congregationalism from which he drifted, could call the great fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan "the backbone of philanthropic social interest, of social reform through political action, of pacifism, of popular education." Today, Bryan is best known for his passionate opposition to Darwin and evolution. But it was Bryan, says Michael Kazin, his definitive biographer, who "transformed his party from a bulwark of conservatism ... into a bastion of anticorporate Progressivism." Bryan preached "a simple pragmatic Gospel: only mobilized citizens, imbued with Christian morality, could save the nation from 'predatory' interests and the individuals who did their bidding." Garry Wills has noted that Bryan could point with pride to the success of the many causes he had championed "in their embattled earlier stages." The catalogue is impressive: women's suffrage, the federal income tax, railroad regulation, currency reform, state initiative and referendum, a Department of Labor, campaign fund disclosure, and opposition to capital punishment.

Bryan's progressivism was not eccentric among believers. The Social Gospel arose in the early twentieth century from the reflections of religious social workers and activists confronting the contradiction between the promises of God's kingdom and the conditions in the slums. Advocates of the Social Gospel were among those who cheered Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 when he declared, "We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord." The Lord, in this instance, was presumed to be on the side of TR's Progressive party.

The progressive spirit was alive within Catholicism no less than within Protestantism. The Catholic Bishops' 1919 Program of Social Reconstruction was a primary source of New Deal ideas-I explore this in more detail later-and laid the basis for the close cooperation between the Church and the trade-union movement in the 1930s and 1940s. The link between religion and social reform was not artificial; it was the natural outgrowth of religion's skepticism of materialism and its search for what was called in the civil rights years a "beloved community." The religiously inspired could not help but question the impact of industrialization on family life-and on the morals of those packed into impoverished urban neighborhoods. What's striking is that the American religious reformers did not, on the whole, lapse into nostalgia for rural life. They were occasionally utopian, but most were realistic and, as Bryan's record shows, creative in the reforms they proposed.

If religious reformers nurtured liberalism's communitarian wing, American liberalism also strengthened the advocates of toleration and pluralism within the religious community. The great reforms in the Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council were championed by American bishops, inspired by John Courtney Murray. The American theologian helped overturn that earlier orthodoxy declaring liberalism "a sin." Murray deserves part of the credit for Pope John XXIII's achievement. American liberalism may thus have helped ease Europe's conflicts between believers and secularists. That makes all the more peculiar our recent turn toward European-style polarization between religion and liberal values.


Excerpted from Souled Out by E. J. Dionne Jr. Copyright © 2008 by E. J. Dionne Jr.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Is God's Work Our Work? Faith, Doubt, and Radical Amazement 1

Chapter 1: Is Religion Conservative or Progressive? (Or Both?) 25

Chapter 2: Why the Culture War Is the Wrong War: Religion, Values, and American Politics 45

Chapter 3: What Are the "Values" Issues? Economics, Social Justice, and the Struggle over Morality 71

Chapter 4: Selling Religion Short: When Ideology Is Not Enough 92

Chapter 5: John Paul, Benedict, and the Catholic Future 126

Chapter 6: What Happened to the Seamless Garment? The Agony of Liberal Catholicism 151

Chapter 7: Solidarity, Liberty, and Religion's True Calling 183

Notes 205

Acknowledgments 227

Index 235

What People are Saying About This

Cokie Roberts

E. J. Dionne is this country's single most knowledgeable writer on religion and politics. Approaching this subject so central to the American experiment as a person of faith as well as a seasoned political reporter, Dionne brings an understanding and knowledge to the topic unique in the current debate.
Cokie Roberts, political analyst for ABC News and National Public Radio

Richard Wightman Fox

E. J. Dionne has a unique voice and special authority as a liberal spokesman on religion and politics in America. Here, he models how to lower the temperature of the public discussion about religion and politics so that real advances in understanding can take place. This book will further cement Dionne's standing as the leading voice in the mounting campaign to revive a broad-based, religiously liberal politics—something that we haven't seen since the days of Martin Luther King Jr.
Richard Wightman Fox, author of "Jesus in America"

Jim Wallis

E. J. Dionne is my favorite columnist. He is one of America's most insightful social commentators and a persistent articulator of the powerful but neglected vision of the common good that calls both Left and Right to moral accountability. Souled Out is a crucial contribution to the new American discourse on faith and politics.
Jim Wallis, author of "God's Politics" and president of Sojourners

Andrew Greeley

For much of the last decade the notion has been abroad in the land that religion is a conservative influence in American politics. E. J. Dionne, a liberal and a Catholic and one of the wisest of American journalists, challenges this myth. As the country emerges from a dreadful era, Dionne provides a perspective from which to recover the wisdom that religion, like everything else in America, is politically pluralistic.
Andrew Greeley, author of "The Catholic Revolution"

Susannah Heschel

E. J. Dionne gives us a thoughtful and nuanced exploration of Christianity's contributions to American politics. Critical of the exclusionary politics of both the Left and the Right, he calls for a new bond between religious conservatives and progressives rooted in our shared moral values and inspired by the wonder and awe that give birth to faith.
Susannah Heschel, author of "Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus"

From the Publisher

"For much of the last decade the notion has been abroad in the land that religion is a conservative influence in American politics. E. J. Dionne, a liberal and a Catholic and one of the wisest of American journalists, challenges this myth. As the country emerges from a dreadful era, Dionne provides a perspective from which to recover the wisdom that religion, like everything else in America, is politically pluralistic."—Andrew Greeley, author of The Catholic Revolution

Robert Wuthnow

Any book by E. J. Dionne is a treat, and one about religion is especially to be savored. This is not simply the work of an astute political commentator but of a person of faith who writes gracefully and often prophetically. He has an enviable flair for moving the reader along almost effortlessly and yet making clear and compelling arguments. There are fresh insights here in abundance.
Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University

Customer Reviews