The Faith Life of the Party: Part II, The Right
The second part of our examination of religious energies below the surface of the 2008 presidential campaign. Conservative columnist Rod Dreher is an outspoken critic of mainstream Republican economic and environmental ideas and the conduct of the Iraq war, but he voted for George W. Bush twice. We explore the little-known story of religiously influenced impulses within the conservative movement that diverge from the Religious Right.
Rod Dreher is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News and the author of Crunchy Cons.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, the second in a two-party series on politics and religion below the surface of the U.S. presidential race. With conservative columnist Rod Dreher, we explore the little-known story of religious impulses within the conservative movement that diverge from the religious right. We’ll also look at how conservatives and liberals think about religious truth differently.
MR. ROD DREHER: Religious progressives find the search and find seeking to be so important. Religious conservatives put their emphasis on the finding. And as long as John McCain can say, bam, ‘This is what I believe; I’m going to stand firmly here’ — that’s what religious conservatives hear, and they’re satisfied with that.
MS. TIPPETT: Also in this hour, why Sarah Palin has reignited the culture wars, becoming, Rod Dreher says, a kind of cultural Rorschach test.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett.
This hour, we continue our examination of religious energies below the surface of the current presidential campaign. Last week, we explored a critical perspective on the left’s evolving relationship to religious people and energies.
With my guest this hour, conservative columnist Rod Dreher, we explore the little-known story of religiously influenced impulses within the conservative movement that diverge from the religious right. Dreher is an outspoken critic of mainstream Republican economic and environmental ideas and the conduct of the Iraq War. But he voted for George W. Bush twice, and he understands and explains why Sarah Palin’s vice presidential candidacy has resurrected the culture wars, becoming, he says, a kind of cultural Rorschach test.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas
Today, “The Faith Life of the Party Part Two: The Right.” Rod Dreher is a columnist and blogger for The Dallas Morning News. He previously wrote for the New York Post and National Review. And in 2006, he published Crunchy Cons, a book with a long subtitle, How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-Range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-Wing Nature Lovers, and their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (or at Least the Republican Party).
Rod Dreher has often focused his journalism on religion on U.S. culture and the intermingling of religion with conservative politics. His Christian faith is traditional, as he puts it, but not Evangelical like an influential bedrock of the Republican base of recent years. Not very religious while he was growing up, Rod Dreher became a devout Roman Catholic out of college in the early 1990s. In 2006, he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy with his wife and young children.
My guest last week, Time magazine’s Amy Sullivan, observed that Jimmy Carter’s overt Christian ethics appealed to a generation of voters in the 1970s dismayed by the moral failing of the Nixon administration. But in the social universe of Rod Dreher’s upbringing, Jimmy Carter became a formative icon of another kind of moral failure. When 52 Americans were held hostage in the American Embassy in Tehran for 444 days, the single rescue mission the Carter administration attempted was a fiasco.
MR. DREHER: I remember well as an adolescent, because I was born in 1967, what happened with the Iranian hostage crisis. And I’d always grown up thinking that, you know, our country is number one, we rule the world. And it was a very childish way of seeing things, but that’s the way I grew up. And then suddenly I saw our country humiliated. Day in and day out on television you saw what was happening in Iran, and it just seemed that Jimmy Carter, a fellow Southerner, had just ruined us, and we needed somebody strong who would stand up to the Iranians and stand up to the world and bring us back to where we, as Americans, should be.
MS. TIPPETT: When Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election, Rod Dreher felt the country was again in strong moral hands. The hostages were released on January 20, 1981, minutes after Reagan’s inauguration.
And in the intervening years, Dreher began to develop his own sense of what it means to be conservative in our time. His book, Crunchy Cons, grew out of a turning point in his thinking: the response he received to an article he wrote for the National Review Online in 2002 titled “Birkenstocked Burkeans.”
MR. DREHER: I’ll tell you how this came up on me. I was a convert to Catholicism back in the early 1990s. When I came back to faith as an adult, I came back through the Catholic Church and through reading Thomas Merton and through reading Walker Percy and Søren Kierkegaard, who, of course, wasn’t a Catholic. But all these things brought me back to an adult understanding of the faith, and I became a Catholic. And not only did I become a Catholic, I became a very committed Catholic. And my Catholic identity was much more important to me than my identity as a Republican or a conservative. And what I began to see after I got married — I married in 1997, and we moved to New York City. I was working for the New York Post. My wife, Julie, and I were living there and making a home there. We had our first child, a boy, and began rearranging our lives, you know, just doing what came naturally to us as practicing Catholics.
But I began to see how the way we saw the world as parents and as Catholics really differed in some pretty significant ways from Republican Party orthodoxy. And it finally hit me one day; it was such an interesting epiphany. I was working at National Review magazine — this was back in 2002 — and I told my editor there, ‘Look, I have to go home early today to go pick up a shipment of organic vegetables from the CSA,’ the community-supported agriculture co-op to which we belonged. And she looked at me and says, ‘Ugh, that’s so lefty.’ And I thought, ‘Well, gosh, you know, what’s so lefty about vegetables?’
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. DREHER: But then I went and got on the subway and I’m riding back home to Brooklyn from Manhattan and I’m looking down at my shoes and I’m wearing Birkenstock sandals. So I started thinking on that subway ride home about all the ways that my wife and I were living, not in spite of being conservative, but because of the kind of conservatives we were, that put us off the Republican Party reservation. We loved little old shops and small things, not big exurban big-box stores, things like that. We had learned how to cook for ourselves, and we suddenly had gotten interested in food that was grown by farmers in a traditional way because we thought it was a really conservative thing to support small family farms and farming cooperatives.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. DREHER: And I just started thinking more and making lists, and about the people I listened to the most and the people I respected the most as Christians and conservatives were people who also had a real adversarial or at least countercultural stance toward consumerism, which is embraced wholeheartedly by many in the Republican Party. So what I ended up doing was writing a little short essay for National Review Onlineoutlining this sensibility.
MS. TIPPETT: So in a way what you — it seems like you had some kind of allergic reactions, which it’s very easy to see, I mean, those kinds of stereotypes, superficial stereotypes or judgments about certain kinds of people or liberals. You’d internalized those but then when you published this article, you got an incredible reaction from Republicans who said, ‘I’m like that too,’ right?
MR. DREHER: Oh, absolutely. It was so gratifying, but also shocking. I mean, we had this one guy who wrote and said, “I’m a Buddhist Republican and I just want to invite George W. Bush over to sit over a bowl of daal and talk policy with me.”
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. DREHER: Really, you heard from these people all over the country that aren’t supposed to exist. I had these crunchy conservatives, as I call them, you know, “crunchy” being the slang word for kind of granola-eating outdoorsy types. I had people writing from all over the country saying, you know, ‘This is me. I don’t fit in with the Republican Party even though I’m a conservative, but the Democrats won’t have me because either I’m pro-life or for — usually pro-life was the big issue that separated them.
MS. TIPPETT: Really?
MR. DREHER: Mm-hmm. So I ended up writing a book about these people because there was such passion there. And people would read my essay and say, ‘That’s me. That’s exactly who I am. Thank you for articulating it.’
MS. TIPPETT: Rod Dreher. Here’s a reading from the book he wrote out of that article, Crunchy Cons:
“You don’t have to be a religious believer in the formal sense to be a crunchy conservative, but you do have to believe that accumulating wealth and power is not the point of life. Now if you took a poll, 99 out of 100 conservatives would deny that they subscribed to that vulgar credo, but that’s not how they live — even if they profess to be religious.”
“Though Julie and I didn’t understand what was happening at the time, we were learning by instinct, by the practice of our faith and through raising our son to see life sacramentally. That is, we were becoming the sort of people who viewed the physical aspects of our lives — the food that we ate, the place that we lived, and the world in which we moved — as being inseparable from spiritual reality. It sounds lofty and precious, but all this really means is we began to take seriously the connection between the physical and the spiritual worlds and how the good life depends on harmonizing the soul and the body. Conservatives are suspicious of that kind of talk because it sounds New Age-y, but the basic idea is as old as Western civilization. Crunchy conservatism draws on the religious, philosophical, and literary heritage of conservative thought and practice to cobble together a practical common sense and fruitful way to live.”
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MS. TIPPETT: There have been pat generalizations the last few election cycles. One of them was to equate Evangelical Christianity with the religiosity of the Republican Party. But I wonder. You’ve been Republican, a conservative columnist and writer, and also deeply religious, but not religious as an Evangelical Christian. And I wonder what kind of experience has that been for you. I mean, has the religiosity of the last eight years been a good fit for you or has that also been challenging?
MR. DREHER: You know, that’s a great question and a difficult one to answer, because I am not wholly comfortable with Evangelical religiosity. I live here in Dallas in the heart of the Bible Belt, and Evangelical religion is the main public religion here. I have plenty of friends who are Evangelicals and I’m actually happy to live in an Evangelical culture, but it’s something that I don’t, deep down, understand. But in the end, the Evangelicals and I — I’m Eastern Orthodox now— the Evangelicals and I agree on the main public issues that unite conservatives on the social front: abortion, for example, gay marriage, for another. And I am comfortable with standing shoulder to shoulder with them on those issues. Where I really depart, though, is the sense that you have among a lot of Evangelicals, this sense of mission for the United States, that the United States has what David Reef has called “an American theology,” the idea that we have a special mission in the world and our mission is to serve as God’s instrument to bring liberal democracy and all the things that we cherish in this country to the whole world.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. DREHER: I think that sort of thing has really led the church — I’m speaking of the Christian church broadly, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant — has led us into a place of nationalism where we don’t stop and realize that we are under God’s judgment as well, and we have made some really serious mistakes that way. And the “worship” of our nation and its special purposes is something that I’ve become really allergic to, and I think it’s a big blind spot on the religious right.
MS. TIPPETT: And I wonder if it is specifically the theology of Evangelical Christianity or just the fact that Evangelical Christianity, which of course is a broad spectrum, is so entwined with American culture, that civil theology, that’s just part of our history.
MR. DREHER: It’s deep within our own history. I mean, it’s — David Reef again has pointed out in a recent essay on world Affairs that the thing that people now call the neo-con foreign policy is actually American foreign policy, and it goes back generations. And this idea, the shining city on a hill, as you know, goes back to the very founding. And I think it is a real American temptation to see America as a sort of secularized Israel, speaking in a biblical sense, and that we are that special nation set apart from all other nations to fulfill God’s providence. And that is a very, very common theme you hear in political discussions among Evangelicals on the right. But I think if anything, the last eight years and our experience in Iraq should have taught us Americans not to be so full of hubris, and that the idea that we know better than the rest of the world is just madness and folly. Unfortunately, it’s a bipartisan folly.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, when I was speaking with Amy Sullivan, she talked about something she has observed, that there is a double standard in American culture when it comes to assessing the religiosity of Democrats and Republicans, and she feels that this is something that journalists have bought into and perpetuated. And I want to ask you about this, if you experience this to be true. And this is how she described it, that, you know, you have someone like Barack Obama who is Christian and very comfortable and articulate about that. But, she says, there is just this incredible parsing of everything he says and just a huge question mark: Can he be really religious? Is this authentic? Whereas, the religiosity of a John McCain or a Sarah Palin is taken more at face value. Do you think that’s true?
MR. DREHER: Yeah. I think that there are a couple things there. I mean, John McCain reminds me of my father. He’s the same age as my father, and my father can’t talk about religion. I mean, he’s a churchgoing man but he’s more stoic than Christian in —
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. It’s a generational thing, I think.
MR. DREHER: Oh, I think absolutely so. I mean, my folks love Sarah Palin because they think she’s tough, but her religion has nothing to do with it; it’s the fact that she’s a country girl.
But on Amy’s point about the double standard with the Democrats and religion, that double standard comes, I think, from the culture war going on within churches. I mean, on the conservative side, you know — I spent many years as a Catholic — and you have conservative Catholics who would prefer the term orthodox Catholics, because they believe what Rome teaches to be true. You know, they look at progressive Catholics and think, ‘You’re really faking it. You know, you don’t really believe what the Catholic Church says is true.’
MS. TIPPETT: Now, that’s interesting. So these divisions that are much closer to home for people in their churches, in their communities, get transposed onto the way that they’re thinking about the presidential candidates.
MR. DREHER: Oh, absolutely. And there’s your divide between American religious sides where you have the conservatives, or the traditionalists, who believe that there is such a thing as objective moral truth; it’s transcendent, it’s knowable through the Bible or through your church on the one side; and the progressives who believe that religious truth is something that can be reinterpreted to suit the demands of the particular situation in society. And that’s a very deep and fundamental division, and I think that it speaks to the authenticity of someone who claims to be religious. I don’t think anybody has any business trying to judge Barack Obama’s relationship with God, but I think it’s certainly fair to say, ‘Well, how do you see God? How do you see religious truth?’
MS. TIPPETT: Journalist Rod Dreher.
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MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, in the second part of a series, we’re exploring the conservative end of religious energies below the surface of the current presidential campaign. Last week, we delved into the liberal end, with Time magazine’s Amy Sullivan. You can hear that interview on our Web site, speakingoffaith.org.
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MS. TIPPETT: The distinction Rod Dreher makes between conservative and liberal approaches to religious truth was displayed by Barack Obama and John McCain in their back-to-back interviews by Rick Warren at his Saddleback Church in August. Where Obama gave a complex answer on what his Christianity means to him, McCain gave a concise answer, followed by a story from his time at a Vietnamese prison. And when asked by Rick Warren when human rights begin in a baby, Obama’s initial words became a widely quoted sound bite. He said, “Whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity is above my pay grade.” But Obama then went on to give a multipart reflection on the moral dimensions of the abortion question. Here is Rick Warren’s entire parallel exchange on abortion with John McCain.
PASTOR RICK WARREN: Let’s deal with abortion. I, as a pastor, have to deal with this all the time, every different angle, every different pain, all the decisions and all of that. Forty million abortions since Roe v. Wade. Some people, people who believe that life begins at conception would say that’s a holocaust for many people. What point is a baby entitled to human rights?
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: At the moment of conception. I have a 25-year pro-life record in the Congress, in the Senate, and as president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies. That’s my commitment. That’s my commitment to you.
MS. TIPPETT: Again, Rod Dreher.
MR. DREHER: Religious progressives find the search and find seeking to be so important. Religious conservatives put their emphasis on the finding. And as long as John McCain can say, bam, ‘This is what I believe; I’m going to stand firmly here’ — that’s what religious conservatives hear, and they’re satisfied with that.
MS. TIPPETT: And what you’re talking about there is a difference in sensibility on both sides of this cultural political divide, and that’s what also can allow us, all of us, whoever we are in the spectrum, to hear the same answer and not hear the same thing at all.
MR. DREHER: This is true. This is really true.
MS. TIPPETT: I want to come back to that in a minute. I want to stick with abortion. I guess I’m just — I’m trying to figure out for myself, and not just in the context of this political campaign, why this is the issue where conversation completely stops. And it almost looks like — it’s very hard to imagine how both sides can get out of this rut.
MR. DREHER: Well, you’re right. I mean, I’ve known friends who’ve been involved in a common ground movement to try to build bridges between pro-lifers and pro-choicers, and it’s very, very hard because in the end, you have two irreconcilable positions here. Either life begins at conception and human personhood in terms of legal rights and moral rights begins then or it doesn’t. And if you really do believe it begins at conception, then, I mean, you wouldn’t say that I believe that — if you’re in the 19th century you wouldn’t say, ‘I believe black people are humans but if you don’t believe that, well, you know, I’m not going to force my belief on you in the South.’ No. It is an absolute position.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. So that, for you, is an analogy that helps.
MR. DREHER: It does help me understand it, because, I mean, you know the three-fifths compromise where they tried to say, well, you know, Africans are three-fifths of a person. And it just doesn’t make sense. I think that there are some things on the right that we can’t fully reconcile with our pro-life position, but in the end, when I think — and this is the thing that just breaks my heart about Obama, because I actually like him and think he’s a good figure for public life — he in the end believes that there is nothing that should get in the way of a woman’s right to abort her unborn child. And I find that to be a very radical position.
MS. TIPPETT: I do believe he has been very clear, and he may have said it at Saddleback, that he believes in abortion with limits.
MR. DREHER: You know, the truth is — you’ve seen the polling as well as I have — Americans views on abortion haven’t really changed one way or the other since Roe v. Wade. I think Roe should be overturned and send it back to the states, but if that happens, the very next day most of the states in the U.S. will legalize abortion to a certain degree.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, there are pro-life Democrats who actually had a much more pronounced voice at this last Democratic Convention than they had before and there are pro-choice Republicans. You were at the Republican Convention. There was a very impassioned discussion and lots of positions represented at the Democratic Convention. Was that true of the Republican Convention as well?
MR. DREHER: You know, I wasn’t at the Republican Convention for the whole time, but as someone who’s been involved with Republicans for a long time, I’ve always known pro-choice Republicans. You know, I work in the media, and on the occasion when you find a Republican who works in the media he or she is usually pro-choice and a Republican for economic reasons. So there has been much more of a big tent on the Republican side, certainly in the last 10 years, about abortion than there has been on the Democratic side.
MS. TIPPETT: And so there’s interesting polling about young Evangelicals, and I think we know, those of us who have been following this for the last few years, know that there’s much greater diversity of issue and of what are defined as moral values. And, in fact, young Evangelicals are embracing a lot of issues that you might put in your crunchy con categories, right?
MR. DREHER: It’s true.
MS. TIPPETT: And yet, at the same time, I mean, I’ve seen some polling that young Evangelicals will say poverty is a moral issue and war is a moral issue and the environment is a moral issue, but they are actually more conservatively pro-life than their parents when it comes to abortion. I’m just wondering; how do you explain that? How does that make sense to you?
MR. DREHER: Well, it makes perfect sense to me as someone who comes from a Catholic background, because Catholics tend to think more comprehensively about the way we apply the truths of our faith to public matters. I mean, go back and read in the 1950s some of the things that Russell Kirk and other traditionalist conservative —
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. You talk about him a lot.
MR. DREHER: Yeah. What they were writing. And the traditionalists see religion and morality as being the central cause that conservatives ought to take up. They were often opposed and had very strong fights with the Libertarian conservatives back in the ’40s and ’50s who believed that the chief issue was the state and rolling back the power of the state. What they eventually did in the ’60s was come up with something called fusionism, which is they realized, hey, we have more in common in fighting against the dominant liberalism of the day than we do that separates us so let’s put our differences aside and let’s roll on. And that’s how we ultimately got Ronald Reagan and the conservatism of the last generation.
Well, now that the Cold War is over that unifying opposition to the Soviet Union and liberalism in power has managed to wither away. Well, now you’re seeing these differences come out, and I’m really excited to see among my generation — I’m 41 years old — my generation and younger a more open mind among religious folks. I got an e-mail from my National Review article from a seminarian — I think he was at Fuller — who said, ‘You know, I’m so glad to see what you’re writing. We had Jim Wallis out here to speak to us not long ago, and we loved everything he was saying about the environment and about poverty and social justice.’
MS. TIPPETT: Jim Wallis is a progressive Evangelical. Politically progressive.
MR. DREHER: Yeah, progressive Evangelical. And he said, ‘But Jim said at the very end, “And that’s why you all ought to be Democrat,” and we were like, “No, no, no. We can’t be Democrats. We’re pro-life. We’re for traditional marriage and so on.”‘ And so there is nothing in the Republican Party right now that speaks to this emerging consciousness of people who are traditionally conservative but they don’t feel like the social responsibility and moral issues begin and end with abortion and gay marriage. And I’m really excited to see how — you know, whatever happens in November, John McCain is probably the greenest Republican candidate we’ve had in a long time. I wish he were greener. But things are changing. And if you look over in Britain at David Cameron, what he’s done to reinvigorate the Tory Party by being more green and by moving more toward a sense of society and reconstituting civil society as an animating idea among conservatives. We’re going to see that here one way or the other.
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MS. TIPPETT: You came to a place of soul-searching about policies which have been enacted by a Republican administration in Iraq. And I also wonder if you have been part of, either at the Republican Convention or in general, is there a nuanced discussion about war, about this issue of torture, among conservatives that maybe is not being reported in the news.
MR. DREHER: The discussion’s happening primarily on blogs, on conservative blogs like Mark Shea. He’s a Catholic blogger, prominent Catholic blogger, who has been plugging away against torture for the longest time and the responsibility of traditional Christians to oppose it. You’re seeing it on magazines like The American Conservative, which is the alternative conservative magazine, which has been strongly opposed to Bush foreign policy. It’s happening, but it’s not in the Republican mainstream yet. That’s why it just broke my heart and made me angry to hear things coming out of the Republican Convention putting down the idea that we should be concerned about torture, we should be concerned about the Constitutional rights of detainees. That is fundamentally dangerous, I believe, to the conservative movement and to conservatives and to Constitutional government. I think that the silence of conservative Christians on the torture issue has been a true scandal, and I have to accuse myself on this too. I’ve not done a lot of writing about it. You have people, cultural liberals like Andrew Sullivan, who has done fantastic work.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, the National Association of Evangelicals has also been talking about torture the last couple of years.
MR. DREHER: But it’s not in the mainstream. I mean, the Catholic bishops have talked about it too.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, I see what you’re saying.
MR. DREHER: But it’s not mainstream on the right. And that will be remembered in history, I believe, as a real stain on our conscious. And I wish that conservative Christians would be more open about it, because it is absolutely indefensible, absolutely indefensible.
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MS. TIPPETT: At speakingoffaith.org, download my complete unedited interview with Rod Dreher as well as this program for free. Also listen to the first program in this series with journalist Amy Sullivan. She has unique and thought-provoking perspective on the liberal end of evolving religious energies in U.S. political life. Find both programs and their unedited interviews through our Web site, podcast, and e-mail newsletter.
In my conversations with Rod Dreher and Amy Sullivan, we discussed the polarizing subject of abortion. It’s a topic Speaking of Faith would like to take on, with your help, in a fresh way. Help us reframe how you and others might engage this subject in ways not yet imagined. Find a link to Share Your Story on our home page, speakingoffaith.org.
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MS. TIPPETT: After a short break, more of Rod Dreher, including his observations on Sarah Palin and the culture wars, and the different future he is working for where political opposites can be opponents but not enemies.
I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
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MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas.
I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “The Faith Life of the Party, Part Two: The Right.” This is the second in our two-part exploration of evolving religious energies below the surface of the current presidential campaign. Last week, I spoke with journalist, political liberal, and Evangelical Christian Amy Sullivan.
This week, I’m with conservative commentator Rod Dreher of The Dallas Morning News. Dreher is formerly Catholic and now Eastern Orthodox. Christianity is a focal point of life with his wife and three young children, one of whom she homeschools. Rod Dreher reiterates what many observers and insiders in Republican politics expressed in the weeks leading to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul: John McCain’s primary victory did not energize the religious base of that party.
This changed abruptly when Sarah Palin was introduced as McCain’s running mate. Much has been reported about Palin’s churches and videos of what she has said in those churches. But like John McCain, she rarely speaks directly about her faith, and she has not spoken about it at length on the campaign trail. Palin has been embraced as deeply religious largely on the basis of her stands on certain values issues and the pro-family values she seems to embody. Here, for example, is the way Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention immediately praised McCain’s choice of Palin on his weekly radio talk show.
PASTOR RICHARD LAND: She’s right down the line rock solid. She’s pro-life. She’s pro-capital punishment. She is pro-adoption. She’s pro-traditional marriage. I mean, listen, John McCain hit a grand slam when he picked her.
FEMALE CALLER: Absolutely.
MS. TIPPETT: Again, Rod Dreher.
MR. DREHER: I really was excited about Sarah Palin at first. And, you know, I have to make a distinction between Sarah Palin the cultural Rorschach test and Sarah Palin the politician.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. Say some more about that.
MR. DREHER: Well, yeah, because, I mean, being at the convention in St. Paul after she was announced that Friday, then we came to St. Paul. Suddenly, so many in the media that I was listening to there at the convention and reading on the blogs were talking about her in a way that felt like a nasty attack on her identity as a small-town person, as a conservative, and as a woman. And I responded so angrily to that, because these are the sort of people I grew up with. I mean, I look at Sarah Palin and I see my sister.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. So that’s how she’s the cultural Rorschach test.
MR. DREHER: Well, absolutely. And as a conservative and a religious conservative who’s worked in the media all my life — I’ve worked in Washington, Miami, New York, and now here in Dallas — I know how Christians of her sort are looked down on — conservatives are looked down on. I mean, it’s a sneer.
I have a Christian friend who works for one of the networks and at the top of their news division. She is literally afraid to let her colleagues know that she is a Christian, an Evangelical Christian, because she’s afraid she’ll lose her job. And I thought she was putting me on but she’s not. I know that this is how a certain number of the elite media think about people like Sarah Palin. So when this reaction was dumped on her and she was just slaughtered on the blogs, I fought back. It was a primitive response and it’s one that, you know, now that we’ve gotten some distance from there I’m trying to back off of it and realize that, you know, she’s not terribly impressive as a natural politician. But I was ready to fight this culture war, Krista, because I just felt it as such a sneer and such a put down that Evangelicals and traditional conservatives and Christians like me have been putting up with and do put up with every single day.
MS. TIPPETT: So there was interesting kind of test case of how journalists really still struggle to analyze the religiosity of candidates or talk about it when Sarah Palin was interviewed by Charles Gibson. For example, her prayer for the soldiers.
MR. DREHER: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: She was talking to a church group.
MR. DREHER: Right. I think that living here as I do in Dallas, I’m much more accustomed to the way Evangelicals talk about these things and the way they pray, in a way that I have to sort of be a cultural anthropologist when I talk to friends back east who just don’t understand these things. Even though I’m not Evangelical, it’s just normal to me. It would be absolutely normal for me to hear her before her congregation, you know, asking God’s blessing on the troops. And I think this is the sort of thing that people in the mainstream media who often aren’t religious and don’t understand how religion works, it’s weird to them. You know, a Jewish friend of mine in New York said, ‘You know, in our Jewish tradition we have prayers asking God’s blessing on everything.’ And, in fact, Barack Obama, when he went to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the prayer he left in the Wailing Wall, which was shamefully stolen by somebody and revealed, he asked that God would make him an instrument of the divine will. And I think that’s perfectly normal. I don’t think that Charlie Gibson really got that nuance when he heard her speak. When he heard her speak, he heard theocracy.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, it really is an example of how just an emphasis on one word or, I mean, its nuance. He quoted her as saying, “Our national leaders are sending you as soldiers on a task that is from God.” And what she said is, “Our national leaders are sending you as soldiers out on a task that is from God. That’s what we have to make sure we’re praying for.” And it’s that next sentence that at least can be interpreted to change the sensibility of what she said.
MR. DREHER: Sure. I think many people in the national media are just waiting for her to reveal that she’s really this troglodyte.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. DREHER: You know, this shotgun-toting Christian troglodyte. And that’s why people like me, even though I have deep reservations about her qualifications for this job, when it’s a culture war thing I will defend her, because it just calls to mind all the times that I myself have had these fights in newsrooms on the East Coast and among social gatherings on the East Coast when I’ve been waylaid by people who cannot believe I can believe such horrible, horrible things. And there’s nothing more parochial than a Manhattan liberal, let me tell me, and I come from a small town in the Deep South.
MS. TIPPETT: I wonder if what you’re describing — your sense of having been sidelined, especially this attempt that you have made, I mean, you are doing this, of integrating your devout religious sensibility with the whole of your life including your political conservatism. You know, there was a funny sense that one had watching the Republican Convention. It was very easy to forget that this is the party that had been in power for eight years. You know, there was a real underdog feeling to it. I wonder if part of that is a reflection of some of these dynamics of religion and politics and the culture wars in which even Republicans who have been elected into office and morally conservative people, people who are conservative on these social moral issues, still don’t feel like they are taken seriously in the culture as a whole even after eight years in the White House.
MR. DREHER: Well, because they’re patronized by the Republican Party in many ways.
MS. TIPPETT: By the Republican Party?
MR. DREHER: Oh, sure. Sure. I mean, you know, the Republicans talk a good talk but when it comes down it what they’re mostly interested in are defense issues and business issues. It’s so frustrating to me to see how easily people like me, religious conservatives, fall into line. But I have to say, I’m accusing myself here, because just the other day when Palin is attacked so viciously by the cultural left, you know, I fell right back into line.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. DREHER: I’m like, you know, forget all my qualms; I’m going to defend her. And it reminded me, Krista, of a story I tell in my book about being in a pub in my neighborhood in Dallas and working on something, and I overheard four people who were middle-aged people, clearly liberal by what they were talking about, saying how they would love it if somebody would drive a truck bomb into Prestonwood Baptist Church, which is a big mega-church here in Dallas. I got so upset by that because, you know, as someone who came through 9/11, I said these people don’t have any idea what they’re really saying. But the idea that they could laugh about something like that just set me off and I thought, this is exactly how it happens. This is how the people who are in power in the Republican Party and the Democratic Party manipulate us, by manipulating our anger.
MS. TIPPETT: Conservative columnist Rod Dreher.
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MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, the second of a two-part series, “The Faith Life of the Party.” With Amy Sullivan of Time magazine last week and Rod Dreher of The Dallas Morning News this week, we’ve been probing critical, refreshing, and thought-provoking insights into religion below the surface of the current presidential campaign.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, something that’s interesting that I feel there are echoes of on both sides of this election is a gap between the candidate and the party, you know, the particular candidates — and maybe not so much Sarah Palin but John McCain — especially when it comes to these issues of, you know, what it means to be religious and a Democrat or what it means to be religious and a Republican. And on the Democratic side this time, and I was discussing this with Amy Sullivan, you know, Barack Obama in fact is very much out front in a way of the party, the official party, that in some ways there’s still an inclination to contain religion. And this kind of passionate religiosity that has been part of the Republican identity for a long time, it seems like John McCain is not quite in sync with that. I don’t know.
MR. DREHER: No, he’s not in sync with it.
MS. TIPPETT: But there’s a lot going on — on both sides — among religious Republicans and religious Democrats, and I don’t know what that means or how that plays itself out.
MR. DREHER: You know, for me, I realized not long ago that I’m more interested in being religious and being culturally engaged than I am in being politically engaged. I remember a couple of years ago being at a dinner here in Dallas. A publishing house, a conservative publishing house, had its 10th anniversary dinner, and they had some of their authors there talking in a panel discussion after dinner to talk about the future of conservatism. Phyllis Schlafly was on the panel — Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-feminist activist. She’s been around forever.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. DREHER: You know, she was there, and one of the audience members asked, “What sort of prospects do we have going forward as conservatives?” She pounded the table and said, “We’ve got to keep fighting the public schools and we’ve got to keep fighting the judiciary.” And I thought, you know, I can agree with some of that, but that’s not where it’s at. She’s fighting the same battles she’s always fought. Toward the end of the discussion, Tom Hibbs, who’s dean of the Honors College at Baylor University and a Catholic philosopher — a Catholic at Baylor if you can imagine.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. DREHER: He said, “You know, I think that we’ve really gotten this wrong as conservatives. I think that we have been so engaged in politics in putting all our hopes for cultural change in politics that we’ve completely ignored the value of culture and building up cultural institutions.” You know, the more I think about that, Krista, the more I realize he’s right. The poet Shelley really was right to say that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and if we on the right would be more engaged in culture and think that culture is more than just whatever ersatz mock-up of pop music that the Evangelicals can come up with or culture is more than just saying no to whatever the pop culture throws up there, if we can actually get engaged in creative things and creative endeavors in a very deep level and loving art for the sake of art, then maybe we might get somewhere in this culture. But I can’t see that electing Republicans over and over again has managed to conserve anything.
MS. TIPPETT: And are you part of or aware of burgeoning networks and conversations, I mean other crunchy cons where you do see those kinds of voices and that kind of imagination emerging?
MR. DREHER: Oh, yeah. The Internet has been fantastic for that sort of thing for helping us find each other. But, you know, the Internet is only a virtual community. I found here in Dallas, though, more and more I’m meeting people from different churches, different faith traditions, who say, ‘This is us. We’re conservative, but we’re not really Republican, and we want to find some way to live in community together.’ We’re already doing things like helping each other build chicken coops in our backyard, learning how to garden here in the city, and trying to find ways to integrate our families closer together so we can find out what it’s like to live in community. Because it’s impossible to do feeling so isolated. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think that we are asking the right questions. And as time goes on, more and more people on the right are going to have to face these questions themselves and will do.
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MS. TIPPETT: One thing that observers seemed to see at the Republican Convention was this almost just astonishing â€” what looked like a surface of just unanimity. And yet a lot of the things that we have to deal with as a culture and in politics and in religion are very, very complicated. One thing I hear you saying is that you’re obviously distinguishing yourself from the conservative mainstream, but you are conservative and what you’re about is also having an imagination and vision for the future of conservatism. I think I’m hearing you say that if journalists and cultural observers could be more attention to nuance and diversity, it would be easier for you and people like you to present that more diverse face of conservatism. Is that correct?
MR. DREHER: I think that if journalists had a greater appreciation for how religion worked and worked it more into their coverage we would see that there’s a lot more nuance and diversity in American religious thought and practice than you would think from just watching the mainstream media or just being a passing observer of the religious scene.
I think that what’s so frustrating and, again, I accuse myself of this too, it’s so hard to focus on what unites us as opposed to what divides us because what divides us are some really important issues.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. DREHER: If I were pro-choice, I would feel very strongly about it and I would find it very difficult to compromise.
I remember, Krista, being in Brooklyn, being in New York on September 11th. You know, we stood there side by side, conservative, liberal, gay, straight, black, white, whatever. We were one. And it was just a phenomenal feeling. I felt these are my neighbors, these are my brothers and sisters. And when Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson came out with their statement that all the lesbians, the liberals, they caused this, I was outraged. I wrote a column about it. Now, we knew that time couldn’t last, but I would like to get back to that kind of country, insofar as we can, where I acknowledge the things that divide us, but I want to celebrate the things that unite us most of all.
That’s why people like Amy Sullivan and I, she and I are friends and I really respect her. We disagree on most things.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Yeah.
MR. DREHER: But I love spending time with her and I’d rather spend time with her than with someone who actually agrees with me, but cannot see the humanity in his opponent. You know, we’re opponents; we’re not enemies.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. Say a little bit more if you can about part of what you’re doing right now is carving out a robust conservative identity, but what would make it easier for you and for all of us to focus more on what unites us? What else comes to mind for you?
MR. DREHER: Well, I think it has to be in completely non-ideological ways. Here in Dallas, you find people, liberal and conservative, who rub shoulders with each other at the Farmer’s Market. I write in my book about these farm families out in rural east Texas who raise livestock organically â€” and they have big families; one family has 12 kids, one has eight kids â€” because they believe that’s what God wants them to do. These people are Christian fundamentalists, straight up. But liberals get to know them, because liberals are interested in eating clean meat and meat that’s humanely raised, which I think is a very conservative thing to do, by the way. But you get to know these families. You get to know, hey, these are fundamentalists, but they don’t have horns. And we conservatives get to know liberals around a shared love of agrarian values and of good food and of good farming practices. I think when you do little things like that, that don’t have any overt ideological import to them or weight to them, it’s really hard to see your neighbor who disagrees with you on this or that issue as being less than human
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MS. TIPPETT: Rod Dreher is columnist for The Dallas Morning News and the author of Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-Range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-Wing Nature Lovers, and their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (or at Least the Republican Party).
You can download an MP3 of this program as well as my companion conversation with Amy Sullivan about the Democratic Party’s complex and evolving relationship with faith on our Web site, speakingoffaith.org. Also download my complete unedited interviews with both Rod Dreher and Amy Sullivan for free.
We’re continuing to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the deliberations, research, and production that go into this program. Visit our staff blog, SOF Observed, to read our recent posts on this U.S. election year. Find links to all this and much more at speakingoffaith.org.
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MS. TIPPETT: The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Rob McGinley Myers, with assistance from Amara Hark-Weber. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I’m Krista Tippett.