Michael Cromartie and E. J. Dionne
Religion on the Campaign Trail
Michael Cromartie is Vice President at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and he directs both the Evangelicals in Civic Life and Religion & the Media programs.
E.J. Dionne is a commentator for NPR and a columnist for The Washington Post. He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and university professor in the Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University. His books include Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith in Politics after the Religious Right and Why The Right Went Wrong.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: This is Speaking of Faith, conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Religion on the Campaign Trail”. Religious pronouncements seem to have become mandatory for the Democratic candidates in Election 2004, yet it’s been easy to dismiss the resulting sound bites that are widely repeated, such as Howard Dean’s proclamation of his favorite book of The New Testament, the Old Testament Book of Job. This hour, we’ll take a larger view of what this election has to say about the role of religion in politics.
JOHN KERRY: Many of us turn to God in our private moments and also when we go to church or mosques or synagogues, but we recognize that the beauty of America respects the divisions.
WESLEY CLARK: And we’ve got one party in America, the Republican Party, that if you listen to them, why, you’d think that they had a direct pipeline to the Lord God Almighty. But if you look at — at religion and every religion I’ve ever been part of, they have one thing in common, that if you’re more fortunate in life, you should reach out and help other people.
HOWARD DEAN: In the Northeast, we do not talk openly about religion. I’ve spent a lot of time in the South, I have a lot of friends from the South, and the South people do integrate religion openly, easily into their life, both black Southerners and white Southerners. I understand that I’m going to — if I’m going to campaign and prep for the presidency of the United States, I have to be comfortable and the — know that other Americans are comfortable and not just for my own region, for everywhere else.
JOE LIEBERMAN: Religion matters to people. It part of me. That — it informs but doesn’t determine things that I do in politics. That’s what it does for most Americans.
MS. TIPPETT: First, some perspective. American politicians and presidents of every strife have used religious words. For example, as Carl Cannon points out in The National Journal this month, Woodrow Wilson spoke of praying on bended knee. Franklin D. Roosevelt once instructed a speech writer to make sure to include `the God stuff.’ And every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has addressed the National Prayer Breakfast annually. Here are a couple of Democratic campaign ads from the past.
MAN IN AN ADLAI STEVENSON CAMPAIGN AD: A very great American, Thomas Jefferson, once said something like this, `The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time. That’s why we’re a nation today.’ I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking about this lately. Maybe you have, too. And I’ve decided that the man who believes the way I do is Adlai Stevenson, and he’s had the courage to say so. Yes, sir, I’ve decided that on December 4th, I’m voting for the man who said, `The same God made us all.’ I’m voting for Adlai Stevenson.
WOMAN IN A STEVENSON AD: (Singing) Adlai, love you madly. And what you did for your own great state you’re going to do for the rest of the 48.
MAN IN A JIMMY CARTER AD: Though he carefully observes our historic separation of church and state, Jimmy Carter is a deeply and clearly religious man. He takes the time to pray privately and with Roslyn each day. Under the endless pressure of the presidency, this man knows that one thing remains constant, his faith. President Carter.
MS. TIPPETT: So what is new on the 2004 campaign trail? Public opinion always influences American politicians, and this time they’re responding to a number of polls documenting a significant swing to the right among the most religiously active Americans. Later in this hour, we’ll speak with Michael Cromartie of The Center for Ethics and Public Policy for fresh insight into the politics of Evangelical Christians who represent the largest group of most religiously active Americans. But first, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. He is well known as a liberal political analyst on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” but he’s also author of What Does God Have To Do With The American Experiment. And he has a special passion for probing the workings of religion in our society.
E.J. DIONNE: Certain generalizations are useful even if they’re incomplete. People lump together Evangelicals and Pentecostals…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. DIONNE: …and fundamentalists.
MS. TIPPETT: Fundamentalists.
DR. DIONNE: And they are very different groups. Now, as a practical matter, in any given campaign, all of these groups may largely be voting the same way. But if you’re talking in religious terms, there are great differences among them that are very important to them as it were fundamental to their view of the world.
MS. TIPPETT: E.J. Dionne has been a founding moderator of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington, DC. In this capacity, he’s been involved in the creation and evaluation of a Pew Research Center poll widely quoted on the current campaign trail. Conducted last summer, this poll found a sharp partisan divide between the most and the least religiously active Americans. Of people who attend church more than once a week, 63 percent said they vote Republican. Of people who seldom or never attend, 62 percent said they vote Democratic. This was the widest margin Pew had documented in 16 years of polling. I asked E.J. Dionne why do these results surprise him? And what else he saw there.
DR. DIONNE: The thing that strikes me in this survey and in others is that we have a tendency to say that the people in the country who are very, very religious tend to be overwhelmingly Republican…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. DIONNE: …by about 2-to-1, if you’ve gone to religious services more than once a week. And people who are very secular, people who never attend religious services, are very Democratic by about 2-to-1. So we use those numbers to say there’s this huge religious divide. But guess what? A lot of — a majority of Americans fall into the middle categories, people who attend religious services once a week or, perhaps, a couple of times a month. Those groups are much more closely split. Again, the more religious are slightly more Republican, but there is — what I think the survey shows is there are a lot of people in the country who are quite religious who do not fall neatly into a conservative camp. It’s a much — there’s much more of an argument going on within religious America over politics than you would think if you just looked at those two numbers on the ends of the spectrum.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, and we’re not hearing about that middle. Tell me about what you do know, though, and what interests you and what you think might be important about that middle group who don’t fall into that divide that’s being cited here, very religious and not religious at all.
DR. DIONNE: The middle group is sort of I think sometimes uses their religious convictions to inform their political convictions and sometimes they don’t. We’ve asked questions in the Pew surveys about a lot of issues of whether people’s views were influenced by their religious convictions or what they read in the news or the views of friends. You find some very interesting things. Not surprisingly, people’s views on abortion or gay rights, especially among opponents of abortion rights and gay rights, they tend to say that religion greatly influences their view. People on the other side don’t. On the death penalty, the liberal/conservative thing is exactly the other way around.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. DIONNE: People who are opposed to the death penalty are much more likely to cite their religious convictions than people who favor the death penalty. So I think in the middle group, you have a lot of people who, you know, selectively — and I say that’s not a critical comment — sort of make their own intelligent choices about when they think their religious convictions are central and when they should not be. The other thing is religious people, I think, are often torn because I think religious people tend to have the concern for community and they tend to be critical of, if you will, a radical kind of individualism. This can push people left or right on social — certain kinds of social or moral issues. It might make people a little more conservative, say, on abortion. But on issues of social justice, it might make them a little more liberal because they say things such as `We’re all in this together. We have obligations to each other.’
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. DIONNE: I think the Republicans have been much less reluctant to talk explicitly about moral issues on their side of the fence in terms of abortion and personal behavior. I think it’s only recently the Democrats have been willing to say, `Wait a minute, poverty is a moral issue.’ And that’s something, for example, John Edwards is saying out on the campaign trail. Senator John Edwards: And I want to take just a minute to talk about something that I’ve not heard enough discussion about in this campaign, which is the issue of poverty; 35 million Americans living in poverty. This is one of the great moral issues of today. We, as Democrats, have a moral responsibility to do something.
DR. DIONNE: I think also one of the things we don’t pay enough attention to when we talk about this are African Americans, because African Americans are — you know, there’s a tendency to say, `Ah, very religious people are Republican.’ Well, that’s true of white Americans. It’s not at all true of African Americans.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
DR. DIONNE: And what’s fascinating about that is that a lot of measures of religious belief and moral beliefs and white Evangelicals and African Americans actually have a lot in common. So on Sunday they may say many of the same things, but on the Tuesday after the Sunday when they go vote, they couldn’t be more different as groups. African Americans are one of the strongest parts of the Democratic base, white Evangelicals are among the strongest part of the Republican base.
MS. TIPPETT: They draw different partisan conclusions from whatever they’re getting out of…
DR. DIONNE: It’s that…
MS. TIPPETT: …(unintelligible).
DR. DIONNE: …and it’s history. It’s — they draw different partisan conclusions, but it’s also the history of segregation and civil rights. And remember, a lot of the people we’re talking about, by no means all, but a lot of the people we’re talking about on both sides, white Evangelicals and African Americans are in the South. And so the polarization that had very little to do with religion as such had to do with civil rights plays out on Election Day. I think that’s one of the mysteries that we should pay more attention to is that a lot of white Evangelicals who vote for conservative and Republican candidates for religious reasons, but they also vote conservative and Republican for other reasons. And we sometimes just lay it all off on religion when there are a lot of other things going on.
MS. TIPPETT: I also would say that something I’ve been suspicious of is the way people have taken that statistic that came out of the Pew poll, the people who aren’t churchgoing, as being tantamount with people who are not religious.
DR. DIONNE: I agree with that. There are people who are spiritual who would not attend religious services on a particular day every week. I — but there is definitely a growing group of genuinely secular people in the country. One of the — Andy Kohut at the Pew Research Center sees a group he has labeled seculars as one of the fastest growing groups in the country. They’re still a minority of the country, but they have people who have made a personal choice and have requested and have become either — well, largely agnostic or atheist. And, you know, when he looks at those folks, he’s not just looking at one question about attending religious services, he’s looking at whole series of questions about belief in God, belief in after-life, belief in a series of propositions generally associated with being…
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
DR. DIONNE: …with being religious. A lot of them explicitly say, `I have no religion’ when they answer these questionnaires.
MS. TIPPETT: Still, it’s the way we’re talking about morality being raised among the Democrats now is in terms of social justice and communities. You know, I still think some of those people who say they’re not religious might be working in soup kitchens.
DR. DIONNE: Oh, I — there’s no question about it. I mean, the — this is an old debate. There are — to be secular does not mean to be immoral.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
DR. DIONNE: I think all of us know people who are secular who are extremely moral people, who are very ethical people who do value communities. It’s possible to talk about some of these values which do resonate very deeply within religious tradition, certainly in the case of helping the poor. It’s a central theme of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. But those themes do not necessarily turn off people who may have not connection…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. DIONNE: …to a religious tradition.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, something else that intrigued me, another statistic that’s in this Pew poll is that 58 percent of those polled said that their religious beliefs seldom if ever affect their voting decisions.
DR. DIONNE: Well, I think one of the things you find there is a great difference between older people and younger people. I have a feeling that some of this has to do with the fact that older people went through the 1960 campaign when John F. Kennedy campaigned for president and an awful lot of Americans wanted to say then that whether they were for Nixon or Kennedy, religion has nothing to do with our choice. They saw attacks on Kennedy for being Catholic, and some of these attacks were simply a form of bigotry. And so older people, I think, are more inclined to see religion entering politics as bigotry, with some exceptions, obviously. I think younger people who did not live that history are somewhat less likely to say that.
MS. TIPPETT: E.J. Dionne. Here is then Senator John F. Kennedy campaigning for the presidency in 1959.
JOHN F. KENNEDY: The question is whether I think that if I were elected president, I would be divided between two loyalties, my church and my state. Let me just say that I would not. I have sworn to uphold the Constitution. In the 14 years I’ve been in Congress, in the years I was in the service, the Constitution provides in the First Amendment that Congress shall make no laws abridging the freedom of religion. I must say I believe in it. I think it’s the only way that this country can go ahead. Many countries do not believe in it. Many countries have unity between church and state. Ours is completely opposed to it. And I say that whether I’m elected president, or whether I continue as a senator, or whether I’m a citizen.
MS. TIPPETT: My guest, E.J. Dionne, spent several days in Iowa covering the run-up to the Iowa caucus. Coming out of that, he wrote a column in the Washington Post describing what he called “a new willingness to talk about faith, almost the new moral majority this time forged by Democrats.” Listening to stump speeches of dink Gephardt, John Edwards, Howard Dean and John Kerry, he heard what he calls the “M” word, morality, being used by all of them to talk about public policy. Dionne says the leading Democratic candidates sounded much more substantive on moral issues than sound bites have suggested.
DR. DIONNE: People have good reason to be suspicious of reporters, and so I should say up-front I did not expect to write that piece when I went to Iowa.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
DR. DIONNE: It was not what I went there to do. And all I did was go and follow all of the leading Democratic candidates and heard them give speeches. And it struck me that they had this theme in common and that it resonated very much with the crowds they were talking to. You know, I went to see dink Gephardt on a Friday night in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and he had this refrain, almost a preacher’s refrain at the end of the speech, `We are tied to one another.’ That sounds almost like St. Paul.
MS. TIPPETT: He said that health coverage is not about economics, it’s a moral issue?
DR. DIONNE: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: He said that…
DR. DIONNE: And then the sentence…
MS. TIPPETT: …it is immoral for people not to be covered by health insurance. And he closed by saying, `We’re all tied together.’
DR. DIONNE: That’s what I wanted.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
DR. DIONNE: And then I went to a Howard Dean rally, and Howard Dean talked about `We are all in this together,’ and said `The biggest problem facing the country is a problem of the loss of community.’ John Kerry at a rally the same day said that `We don’t have a budget problem, we have a values problem in the country.’ And then John Edwards explicitly used the word `moral’ in relationship to poverty. I think this is very important because I think Democrats have tended to be very uneasy about using that M word, and I think they’re less so now.
MS. TIPPETT: Morality?
DR. DIONNE: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, you’re right. People are suspicious of generalists, and I have to say that it’s really been almost a caricature, the image that we’ve gotten of Democrats using religious ideas. And this picture you’re painting has a lot more depth to it.
DR. DIONNE: Well, sometimes people can be clumsy about it. I think poor Howard Dean ran into a little trouble when he put the Book of Job in the wrong…
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
DR. DIONNE: …testament. And, you know, that can be used in a clumsy way. But I think that, first, there are a religious people who are moderates and liberals, and that’s in all of the data, and we just don’t pay much attention to that. And I’m talking about whites, as well as African Americans. Secondly, there are issues that grow out of religious convictions that can also be expressed in a secular way. You don’t have to be a Christian to think that there is a point here. And so…
MS. TIPPETT: That community is a value of — alongside individualism.
DR. DIONNE: Right, and that that’s a very old American argument.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. DIONNE: I mean, I think in some ways we’ve been debating that as a country for our entire history. And at different moments in our history, we lean one way or another usually to correct whatever the last mistake was.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, and also I think, as you say, it doesn’t sound sectarian. It’s a profound Christian value, but it’s also a value in every other religious tradition I can think of.
DR. DIONNE: And also, you know, if you want to be sociological about it, people who go to church or synagogue or mosque or some other worship group are already making a statement about their own attitudes toward community. They are choosing to join with others in the worship, and that usually means they’re joining with others in all kinds of other activities, whether it’s running soup kitchens or shelters for battered women or things for their children. So these are people who are communitarian whether they’ve ever heard of that word or not.
MS. TIPPETT: And so you’re saying that Democrats may, in fact, be speaking also to secular Americans in a new way.
DR. DIONNE: The reason I focused on the word `moral’…
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
DR. DIONNE: …is because, for a long time in our politics whenever some — a politician used the word moral, you kind of assumed that what was coming next was something about sex or permissiveness or cultural decline. And so it suddenly hits you in the face, `Wait a minute, this word can be used in an entirely different way.’ Certainly, liberals and progressives were not at all reluctant to use the word `moral’ when it came to talking about civil rights. And I was talking to Congressman Clyburn from South Carolina, and what we were talking about is some of this moral language might appeal simultaneously to African Americans who are very — on the whole are very religious, but also to lower-income whites who may have voted Republican for various reasons, but would resonate to this call for community and mutuality. Because we tend to talk about this split between red states and blue states, almost entirely in terms of, you know, the personal behavior issues, whether it’s, say, abortion or gay rights.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. DIONNE: But there’s a different split between the parties about individualism and community which sometimes cross-cuts against the behavior — or personal behavior individualism.
MS. TIPPETT: Political commentator E.J. Dionne. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith. Today, “Religion on the Campaign Trail”. In the early 20th century, some of the most religiously active Americans, progressive Christians, were motivated by what they called the social gospel. E.J. Dionne observes that in our time a wedge has been driven between the twin Christian impulses of personal morality and social justice. He says that the balance between individual and community values is an ongoing tension in American life and one to watch in this election.
DR. DIONNE: I think this is a problem for both political parties. And I think this does cross-cut the parties, and it creates a tension on both sides. I think what you’re hearing from Democrats now is some sense that they need to sort of have a bit of a communitarian correction even if they’re going to hold to their fairly individualistic views on these other questions.
MS. TIPPETT: So I was going to ask you before I saw this piece you wrote coming out of Iowa why there’s not a religious left. I mean, I know conservatives don’t want to speak about the religious right any more either, but that is a concept in our common life. Do you think there’s something like a religious left trying to define itself now?
DR. DIONNE: I think there is a religious left. I also think there are a lot of religious moderates. I think in the broad sense you want to take a look at progressive religious people, take a look at Call To Renewal, which is an…
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
DR. DIONNE: …organization organized by Jim Wallace, dedicated to the proposition that if you are a Christian — most of the people there explicitly Christian but they’re — they have allies in other faiths, then you have an obligation to the poor and you have an obligation to push for social policy that benefits the poor. And I think these churches, these individuals who are involved in this are a very important piece of the religious landscape. They do exist. I think the problem with religious progressives is that some of them spend so much time arguing against the Christian right that they were reluctant to speak any religious voice when they joined the public debate. I think that that’s changing, especially on the issues related to poverty. There are also a lot of people out there who are conflicted on these things. I mean, take the Catholic Church is strongly anti-abortion, it’s also strongly against the death penalty, and its arm in Washington lobbies very heavily for greater assistance to the poor. They were one of the strongest…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. DIONNE: …opponents of the welfare bill.
MS. TIPPETT: So they don’t fit in our neat categories?
DR. DIONNE: Exactly. And there are a lot of people who don’t fit into neat categories, and there are a lot of religious people who are conflicted on some of these issues, who are — say on the issue of abortion, are tugged by arguments made both by right-to-lifers and part-choicers.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
DR. DIONNE: And what you see — and some of the polls suggest that there are a lot of these issues where a lot of people both religious and nonreligious would prefer not to be forced to think about them. Poll As You Go, the editorial page editor at The Wall Street Journal, who’s a conservative, once said that `whichever side brings up the issue of gay rights usually loses.’ And by that he meant that people react against those who bring it up because they are opposed to gays, and people don’t really like that. And then — but yet people don’t really want to be forced yet into thinking about an issue like gay marriage. And I think there is a lot of this ambivalence that exists within parts of religious America, but also, obviously, in parts of nonreligious America, or less-religious America. You know, we tend to talk about this in kind of big gross terms, because that’s how people make political calculations. It’s not irrational. So if you want to say, `Most white Evangelicals are Republican and vote Republican,’ well, that’s a true statement, and it does affect the way politics works. But that’s only the beginning of the story. There’s a lot of ambiguity once beneath the surface once you make a statement like that.
MS. TIPPETT: E.J. Dionne is a Washington Post columnist, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-moderator of The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, more conversation with him. Also, a look at the political values of Evangelical Christians, a group of religiously active Americans who Democrats on the campaign trail are courting. We’ll speak with Michael Cromartie of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us.
Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Each week we take on a different theme, asking writers, thinkers and activists how religion shapes American life. This hour we’re putting religion on the 2004 campaign trail into perspective. My guest, E.J. Dionne, is an observer of both politics and religion in our country. He believes that the use of religious ideas in the current presidential campaign is part of a larger trend that has been building for some time. He calls it “a regeneration of the role of religion in American public life, a third stage in America’s long history of balancing religious tolerance with religious liberty.” In the first stage, he says, at the beginning of the American experiment, American culture was infused with the values and ideas of the Protestant Christian majority. In the second stage, in the last century, the dominant culture became more diverse, tolerant and secularized, and religious expression was driven to the sidelines.
DR. DIONNE: Now I think we’re in a third stage because Americans — a large number of Americans are saying `Right, we honor and are happy with the advances in religious liberty that we made over all these years,’ but a lot of people are beginning to worry about `Are we marginalizing religious voices all together?’ Now…
MS. TIPPETT: Right, but the second stage was a culture in which almost seemed not neutral but hostile to religious ideas and…(unintelligible).
DR. DIONNE: Well, certainly a lot of religious people saw it that way.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Yeah.
DR. DIONNE: Now, granted, the — you know, the counterarguments of this is any country that can have a court case over whether you say a prayer before a football game is still a country that’s pretty religious, although perhaps you could say that shows how important football is in our culture. But I think that a lot of religious voices said, `Right, we want religious freedom. We’re not looking for a religion.’ In the case of the US, Christianity dominate the country. But we do think it’s legitimate to bring religious concerns to the public debate. It’s not wrong to have some of your political conclusions flow from your religious convictions. And that doesn’t just happen on the right. With abortion, it happened among liberals on civil rights. And I think that it’s better to be more explicit when your political convictions do, in some way, connect your religious convictions.
MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, you’ve also written — and I think it’s important that you, as a Democrat, have written this — that `public religion, political religion is inevitable. That if religion moves anything, of course, it’s going to find expression in someone’s public life.’
DR. DIONNE: Right. Well, I mean, for example, we all would agree that religion has something to say about lying or cheating or stealing, where by definition, that means religion has something to say about economics right off the top. And then the question becomes how do you interpret its relationship to economics? And I think, in that case, there’s a lot to be said about what are the public obligations toward the poor? And religious people might well divide on those questions. Some would say private charity is the only obligation, and people should engage in more of it. Others would say that building a fairer society, which includes public action and government action, is what flows from this. But let’s have that debate out in the open and not be afraid to have it.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. I wonder how you think 9/11 affected what you’ve called this renegotiation of religion in American public life? What was the influence of that?
DR. DIONNE: Well, you know, we did a lot of survey work at the time at the Pew Forum Institute, the Pew Research Center, and what we found is it wasn’t that 9/11 took a lot of people who were not religious and made them religious, it was that religious people were going to services a lot more after 9/11…
MS. TIPPETT: Oh.
DR. DIONNE: …than they had before…
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
DR. DIONNE: …because they were turning — you know, they were obviously turning to God for guidance. They were turning to each other for a sense of community. And they were in a prayerful and reflective mood. I think 9/11 definitely made religious people think more and contemplate more about their faith. It didn’t necessarily convert a whole chunk of the country from less religious to more religious. So some of that went on, but I think it was much more its effect on religious people.
MS. TIPPETT: But do you think after 9/11 some kind of religious vocabulary did enter the public realm? You know, I’m thinking even of the word `evil,’ right? And do you think that 9/11 gave permission for religious language in a new way?
DR. DIONNE: See, on the contrary, I think 9/11 made religious language that we took for granted more problematic. I wrote a column a couple years back where I took a long speech by a president I didn’t name which invoked religion and a sense of togetherness and said, `You don’t like it when the president talks that way.’ And then I said, `Welcome to Bill Clinton’s rhetoric.’
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. DIONNE: It was a Bill Clinton speech. It wasn’t a George Bush speech. It was John Kennedy who said that freedom comes from the hand of God. And so I think that Bush’s religious rhetoric — and as you know, I say this as no supporter of the president — but I — that Bush’s religious rhetoric is less out of the mainstream than it’s made to seem, but it’s more challenged now because we know that a president of the United States in fighting a war against terrorism which claims its roots in Islam has to be very careful in the way he talks about this. And I think the notion of evil — I guess my own view is if blowing up a building and killing 3,000 people at random — I mean, if September 11th isn’t evil, I’m not quite sure how you’d define evil.
MS. TIPPETT: The whole picture here of how Americans walk this line of religion in public life sounds pretty schizophrenic, but maybe it’s just appropriately complex.
DR. DIONNE: One of my favorite findings from our surveys is in the same survey we asked the same people two questions. One question, and I’m paraphrasing here, was, you know, `I’d prefer to have a president who is religious, who has religious belief.’ Seventy percent of Americans say yes to that. Then we asked another question, basically `Do you approve or disapprove of someone who talks about how religious he or she is?’ Fifty percent didn’t like that. So you could have a big overlap between these two groups. And, of course, we asked the question, `Well, if somebody doesn’t tell you how religious they are, how would you know if they are religious?’ But I think it did reflect the kind of intelligent ambivalence within a large segment of the public, which is there is in the United States a general respect for religion and a respect for religious people. At the same time, there is a concern for the rights of religious minorities. There is a sense that religion can be misused for political purposes. And, obviously, there’s an unease about politicians who brag about anything, especially about how religious they are. So people can carry these ideas in their heads at the same time, and it doesn’t really mean they’re contradicting each other. They are two sensible impulses that lie side by side.
MS. TIPPETT: Personally, as well as somebody who’s followed this professionally for a while, I mean, do you think that the current way — this renegotiation of religion in public life is developing is positive?
DR. DIONNE: For the long haul, I definitely feel hopeful about it. I’ve always said that if it’s illegitimate for somebody to bring their religious convictions to bear on what they believe about politics, then I’m illegitimate. Because I know that my own views about poverty are shaped by the fact that I’m a Catholic and a Christian, and I think what I think because of that. So that I can’t rule Ralph Reed out of politics because if I did that, I’d rule myself out of politics. On the other hand, I think there is a kind of polarization that took place in the Bush administration. I think the example is the failure to enact legislation to create a faith-based initiative that — if you go back to the 2000 campaign, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman and George Bush all spoke broadly in the same way about how to figure out constitutional ways to help the good people in all these religious institutions who are trying to lift up the poor. During the Bush administration, this fight became very ideological and very partisan, and it became much harder to negotiate what is a very difficult set of constitutional issues. And so I think that some of these questions, we’re going to have to kick down the road until after this period of — when this period of polarization abates a little bit, and it’s easier for people to talk across partisan lines. Right now, it is very difficult. But in the long run, yes, I think that we don’t want to lose the gains in religious liberty we had, but we do want to defend the other half of that First Amendment. The First Amendment says there can’t be an established church, which most of us believe, and that there should be free exercise of religion. And I think the trick always is to figure out how to keep those two pieces of the First Amendment in proper balance.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think what’s interesting, again, about your writing coming out of the Iowa caucus is that, perhaps, rather than just sounding on the defensive, Democrats are becoming more articulate contributors to this national discussion we’re having.
DR. DIONNE: Right. I think if people come to politics utterly petrified of talking about morality, or talking about right and wrong, they’re going to have a very hard time talking about some of the central political issues, including the issues of war and peace and issues of social justice, as well as issues of personal morality. Morality applies across a very broad sphere, and I think it’s better when politics is honest about it. You don’t want a bunch of scolds out there telling everyone that they’re wrong and evil all the time, but politicians don’t usually do that because they know that won’t get them any votes.
MS. TIPPETT: E.J. Dionne’s books include Why Americans Hate Politics, and What’s God Got To Do With The American Experiment? I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith. Today, “Religion on the Campaign Trail.”
In an election year, focus on polls. Entire groups of Americans are confined to statistics. One key group of religious Americans being considered as a block in this election are white Evangelical Christians. But my next guest, Michael Cromartie, says that popular stereotypes of who Evangelicals are and what they care about have long outlived their usefulness. He is vice president of the Center for Ethics and Public Policy in Washington, DC, and an Evangelical Episcopalian. He reframes the conservative focus on personal morality as a human concern for life issues.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: I think the life issues are what cause many people formerly of a moderate to liberal persuasion politically to think soberly about the bioethical questions, about the abortion debate, to cause them to say, `You know, I’m not sure that my own party, meaning the Democratic Party, is taking seriously the seriousness of the issue.’ And I also think the moral cultural questions in our society and the shift that profoundly occurred after the 1960s in sexual morass and the effect it had on the family and on morality have caused people also to say that they’ve become more culturally conservative. When you become more culturally conservative, it doesn’t mean you become more economically conservative, but it does mean that you begin to wonder how much the political community can affect cultural values.
MS. TIPPETT: Is it your understanding that people who are religiously conservative, also in other non-Christian traditions, are also part of this more conservative political move?
MR. CROMARTIE: I think that’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. CROMARTIE: Only because if you look at what Orthodox Jews or conservative Jews or conservative Catholics think about moral cultural questions, they are more conservative, and, as a result, they have a tendency to lean to the right of center…
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. CROMARTIE: …on political questions.
MS. TIPPETT: When Christian conservatives seemed to become more visible in politics, I don’t know whether — when we would date this. Twenty years ago, maybe, in the ’80s.
MR. CROMARTIE: 1979…
MS. TIPPETT: 1979.
MR. CROMARTIE: …with the founding of the moral majority.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. That was it?
MR. CROMARTIE: Seventy-eight, ’79.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. And for a while Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson were household names. And I actually still think they’re household names long after they had the kind of prominence that they had before. But tell me, are they still leaders and role models when people talk about this block of religiously conservative people in American life? Are those the role models people are looking towards still?
MR. CROMARTIE: I don’t think so.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. CROMARTIE: And I’ve often said to other members in the press that the only person that takes Pat Robertson seriously these days is Tim Russert. And what I mean by that is that he calls Pat Robertson to have him on “Meet the Press.” But Robertson — I — all the Evangelical leaders and people I talk to, it — they don’t take him seriously anymore.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. CROMARTIE: It’s only about once every three weeks he says something that’s so outrageous and so outlandish that even people who would normally be sympathetic to him say, `What’s happened to Pat?’ Well, a lot has happened to Pat and a lot of people they don’t go to him for any information as to concerning how they ought to vote or think. And I think it’s kind of unfair to religious conservatives when people in the press call on Pat Robertson to speak for them. And it’s unfair to religious conservatives when people call on Jerry Falwell to speak for them. What happens is that those people step forward and…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. CROMARTIE: …and try to speak for those people. And I know a lot of people out there who are offended by that, who are religiously conservative Evangelicals.
MS. TIPPETT: What about Franklin Graham who’s a more current figure? Is he a controversial figure within — among conservative Christians?
MR. CROMARTIE: He’s not among conservative Christians, but as you know, he’s a controversial figure in public life. And, again, he’s not a spokesperson for the whole movement. But Franklin Graham is important because, obviously, he’s the son of Billy Graham, and he’s been getting a lot of attention, as you know, for his comments on Islam. But a lot of Evangelicals don’t even agree with what he said about Islam. So these are hard questions to settle by, as you said earlier, just looking at sound bites.
MS. TIPPETT: And I wonder as an Evangelical yourself, tell me, as you watch general media coverage of this election and in general, you know, what do you wish Americans would be hearing about who Evangelical Americans are?
MR. CROMARTIE: Well, there was a very important book written by a sociologist named Christian Smith at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill titled “Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Believe.” And in that book, Professor Smith surveyed over 2500 Evangelicals across the country and looked at what they think about pluralism and tolerance and other social issues. And the way I like to summarize the results of his book is that he found that Evangelicals — the Evangelical populous is a lot nicer than their leaders.
MS. TIPPETT: A lot nicer?
MR. CROMARTIE: A lot nicer than their leaders.
MS. TIPPETT: Meaning what?
MR. CROMARTIE: What he meant by that — what I mean by that is simply is that they’re far more tolerant. They understand that we live in a pluralistic society, and they just want their views to be taken seriously in that society. In other words, when you compare what their leaders say and what they believe, they’re almost two different worlds. And that’s a very important book. And I guess what I would say in response to your question is that I’d like for the media to — they don’t have to do sympathetic pieces on Evangelicals, but I think once you get to know these folks and the work they’re doing among the poor around the world, in prison ministries and caring for the homeless and supporting world hunger organizations around the world and being concerned about persecution of religious believers around the world, you find out that these folks are, you know, kind, decent, compassionate people who you wouldn’t mind having as neighbors.
MS. TIPPETT: Let’s talk about how you think about the way President Bush uses religious language and religious thinking as a politician. I mean, how substantively do you feel President Bush’s faith informs his actions as president?
MR. CROMARTIE: Well, there’s two questions there. One is that how well does he do it? And the second one is how well has it informed his policies? The answer to the first is simply that I think he does it quite remarkably well. I mean, remember, when he talks about his own personal commitments, he has a certain personal way of sharing, and when he talks to the American public, he speaks in generic ways, like he refers to providence or `the creator’ or `God.’ He doesn’t become sectarian. I know they worked very hard at this. I mean, I know some of the White House speech writers, and they’re very concerned not to be sectarian in their approach because the president knows and they all know that he’s the president of the whole nation and not of just the — let’s say, the Seven Baptist Convention. And so it’s very important for politicians to learn how to speak in a public grammar, if you will, that makes all people feel included and not excluded. And so I think he’s navigating that with some dexterity. You know, there are people critical of the president for — some conservative Christians — saying, you know, he’s really speaking the language of civil religion. But the language of civil religion is the language of the civil public. And I don’t think they want him to speak in sectarian terms.
MS. TIPPETT: Michael Cromartie. Here is President George W. Bush speaking to a group of leading group of Muslims in November 2002.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: George Washington said that America gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. This was our policy at our nation’s founding, this is our policy today. America rejects all forms of religious intolerance. America grieves with all the victims of religious bigotry. And America opposes all who commit evil in God’s name.
MS. TIPPETT: President George W. Bush. Statistics widely discussed on this campaign trial document a swing to the right among the most religiously active Americans, many of whom are Evangelical. Some suggest this is because President George W. Bush is himself a conservative Christian, but my guest Michael Cromartie describes an Evangelical political landscape with more texture than generalizations can convey. For example, there is an Evangelical left, Evangelicals who have a primary concern for social justice. But Michael Cromartie says that even they, like many Americans, may be politically conservative because they have become more culturally conservative and that is a reaction to the moral complexity of our times.
MR. CROMARTIE: I think the whole same-sex marriage issue is going to cause a lot of people who are more even on the Evangelical left to move right of center because they’re concerned about the future of marriage and its definition. So…
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. CROMARTIE: …all I’m suggesting is that if you feel logically orthodox and you’re sort of culturally conservative, you can obviously be politically liberal, economically liberal, but the moral, cultural and family questions do keep coming to the floor these days, and people are re-evaluating what they think the political process ought to say about these matters.
MS. TIPPETT: So is your feeling that people’s concern for those kinds of issues, for matter of sexual morality, will trump maybe some discomfort that they have with the Republican economic agenda or even feelings about military action in other parts of the world?
MR. CROMARTIE: Well, I — you know, I can’t speak for them. But I mean, let me just say that one of the definitions of a neoconservative is a progressive with two teen-age daughters. What I mean by that — when you’re trying to raise kids in this culture of all manner of violence and let’s just say moral relativism all around, you become a little bit concerned about, `Well, what can our political process do to sort at least abate some of these problems?’ Now, by the way, I just want to say that it is not the case that politicians can do a whole lot about all of this…
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. CROMARTIE: …except in the most symbolic ways. I know it’s — I just want to say that sometimes religious conservatives have an overinflated view of the — of what politics can do to reshape a culture. It’s what the theologian Ron Homeaba said, `Politics is the art of finding approximate solutions to basically insoluble problems.’ Approximate solutions, not Utopian solutions, not `Everything is now fixed,’ but it’s a steady work. Work in-between — what Augustine called `between the city of God and the city of man,’ in-between the intersection of those two cities working for a certain amount of justice, a certain amount of order, but it will never be Utopian.
MS. TIPPETT: Personally speaking, as you look at the way religion is being introduced from many different sides into the presidential election — I mean, for you personally is this — does this represent progress? Is this a good thing?
MR. CROMARTIE: I think it’s a good thing for our public life if we can find some politicians who can actually articulate what they really personally believe and say it in ways that are both inclusive and winsome to a public that they ought not to be afraid of their personal faith. It’s always a good thing if people begin to talk about ultimate values and…(unintelligible)…reference points and where we get these values and how we decide what’s right and wrong and good and evil. I think it’s a wonderful that if we say that all the new testaments emphasize a great deal about all of our need to be compassionate and caring and loving toward our neighbor, that we have a real rigorous and honest debate about what that might mean for public policy, that’s a healthy thing.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. CROMARTIE: I think it’s a healthy thing if people talk about the fact that if there is a creator and we’re all made in the image of the creator, that has implications about the way we treat each other and the way we treat our neighbors and by the way we treat other people around the globe.
MS. TIPPETT: I wonder if you have any observations about how Democratic candidates are integrating religious talk into their messages.
MR. CROMARTIE: I think that as — after New Hampshire and the candidates move south this will come up more and more.
MS. TIPPETT: You do?
MR. CROMARTIE: Especially in the South. Why? I think your colleagues in the press will be asking a lot of questions in the South about these issues. Let’s put it this way, what if during the debates in South Carolina and other places, they have discussion about the candidates, `Well, if you’re such a pious person, would you tell us about the `just war’ theory and how it does or does not cause us to think this war’s just?’ That would be substantive. But it is hard, isn’t it, to try to make these discussion more substantive when everybody is speaking in sound bites when they’re on the campaign trail.
MS. TIPPETT: Michael Cromartie is vice president of the Center for Ethics and Public Policy in Washington, DC, and the editor of many books, including Piety and Politicsand more recently, A Public Faith: Evangelicals and Civic Engagement. Earlier in this hour, you heard E.J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution and The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
In a widely quoted New York Times editorial this month, columnist Nicolas Kristof declared that, quote, “America is driven today by a God-gulf of distrust, dividing churchgoing Republicans from relatively secular Democrats. Expect Republicans to wage religious warfare by trotting out God as the new elephant in the race, and some Democrats to respond with hypocrisy by affecting deep religious convictions,” unquote. It remains to be seen whether Kristof’s prediction comes true as the election draws closer. Certainly, the earliest stages of the Democratic primary have seen religious hype. But both E.J. Dionne and Michael Cromartie proposed a more substantive expectation that I had been able to gleam from those press reports. They suggest that while opinion polls may describe a `God goal,’ what is happening in the hearts and minds of the American electorate is far more interesting and more hopeful. We may be finding a new balance for religious expression in our public life, while at the same time defining moral concerns that both religious and nonreligious Americans can discuss together.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on religion this election year. Please send us your reflections to our website at speakingoffaith.org. While you’re there, you’ll find links to articles and books mentioned in today’s program, as well as other resources. You’ll be able to listen to this program again and our previous programs. You can also send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can call Minnesota Public Radio at 1 (800) 228-7123. This program was produced by Kate Moos and Brian Newhouse. Our technical director is Mitch Hanley. Web producer, Trent Gilliss. Assistance producer Judy Stone Nunneley. The managing producer of Speaking of Faith is Marge Ostroushko. Executive producer is Bill Buzenberg. And I’m Krista Tippett. Please join us again next week.