That secular newspaper is The Washington Post. Dionne writes sharp and engaging analysis of elections, ideology, and the body politic. He also offers some of the most thoughtful commentary available in the mainstream press on the role of religion in American politics and society. He is the editor of the forthcoming What's God Got to Do With the American Experiment? (The Brookings Institution Press, 2000), and author of They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era (Simon & Schuster, 1996) and Why Americans Hate Politics (Simon & Schuster, 1991). Dionne is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a public policy research center in Washington, D.C. He was interviewed there in December by Sojourners editor Jim Wallis. Jim Wallis: Is the use of the language of faith by political candidates appropriate or dangerous, good or bad, for public discourse? E.J. Dionne: All of the above, depending on the context. In American history there has always been a significant amount of political talk that was also religious talk. The abolitionists were rooted in the Protestant-evangelical movements. The early progressives were rooted in the social gospel movement, to a very significant degree. It is new for our time and it makes a lot of people nervous-for some good reasons.Gov. Bush's answer in the December GOP debate in Iowa was very much the language of an evangelical talking about a personal conversion experience. [Bush's response when asked which "political philosopher" he most admires was "Christ....When you turn your heart and life over to Christ...it changes your heart."] A lot of American people of no faith, or who are Catholic or Jewish, and, I suspect, also some mainline Protestants, found that language distancing. It worried them that someone would use what sounded like specifically sectarian language. I don't think that's how Bush meant it, but that's how they felt it. The other problem was that he was not talking about the influence of Jesus on his social policy. He was talking about Jesus as a personal savior. At one point he said, "If you haven't had this experience, then you probably don't understand it." But when you bring religion to the public debate, you have an obligation to all the people who don't share your religious commitment to make your arguments comprehensible to them in accessible terms. Wallis: So if a candidate makes such faith statements, it's appropriate for the press or the voters to ask, "What does that mean?" Dionne: Right. What does that mean for how the candidate will govern? What conclusions has he drawn from this? You can imagine someone whose theology or religious beliefs you utterly share who you would vote against, because the programs for the public good that he derives from that are not programs that you would support. Wallis: How does a candidate speak the language of faith in an appropriate way, without becoming sectarian? Dionne: It's obviously not easy. Bush, at other moments, has done this quite well when he talked about poverty. Whether you agree with Bush's program or not, in talking about the importance of paying attention to the least among us, he has used language that lots of different people related to. You can be explicit about your own religious commitment and also very explicit about your commitment to the poor and fighting intolerance. When you bring religion up in a political campaign, you must constantly remind those who don't share your commitment that this is not about imposing religious tests on people and public policy. Wallis: You wrote a piece for The Washington Post Magazine about Gov. Bush's faith and theology. How would you interpret the theologies of Bush and Gore? Dionne: In that piece I argue that both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton are good Methodists in terms of being true to the tradition. But they're true to very different traditions within Methodism. Bush's emphasis is on personal responsibility and personal conversion, the part of Methodism that tries to get people off liquor and to lead more responsible lives. Hillary Clinton speaks from another very vibrant tradition within Methodism, the social tradition. Personal improvement should be linked to social transformation that makes it easier for people to live decent, God-fearing lives. It would be fascinating to see a debate between Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush on how they interpret their Methodist traditions, because I think they would have a lot in common on the one side, and some differences. Gore went to divinity school, shortly after college. He's a Southern Baptist; it's not just a campaign thing that he's suddenly talking about this. He's talked about it at various points. Earth in the Balance has a spiritual dimension in it. He seems to combine a small touch of social gospel into a rather straightforward Southern Baptist commitment. McCain and Bradley have been very reticent to talk about their faith publicly. Bradley has made a very principled point of saying "I don't think this is what I should do in this campaign." A lot of people, including religious people, respect him for that. On the other hand, his critics say he is denying a part of himself. I don't think that's fair. In fact, he's written about the role of his faith. His position is that if people want to know about this, he's not hiding it. I think he's going to end up, in this year when everyone will be talking so much about religion, challenged on this front-in some ways unfairly, because if you look at our recent traditions, his stance, and for the most part, McCain's stance, is in keeping with what candidates usually do about religion: go to church, talk about it occasionally, but not make it as explicit as the other candidates have. Wallis: The current intense interest by politicians, academic institutions, and the media in faith-based organizations is amazing. What has happened? Dionne: The change can be traced back at least a quarter of a century. When Jimmy Carter entered the national political sphere and said that he was a born-again Christian, he was treated almost as an alien from Mars. Yet the tradition he represented is shared by tens of millions of Americans. Carter broke through first, and that's very important. Second, you have the rise of the Christian Right, the religious conservatives. Third, you've seen conservatives and liberals come to this [interest in FBOs] for different reasons. Conservatives said for years that you must dismantle the state. A lot of serious conservatives, especially religious ones, asked, What are we going to replace it with? They came to the faith-based organizations and noticed a lot going on there. In my experience that conservative group then subdivided into two groups. One is more interested in dismantling the state than in strengthening assistance to the poor. The other group says, We need to show that we genuinely care about the poor, and it's immoral for us not to try to find some alternative to this welfare state we're criticizing. On the liberal or progressive side, a lot of liberals realized that all this hostility to religion-perceived in some cases and real in others-was a terrible idea, untrue to the progressive tradition in America. Witness the civil rights movement, especially. Many voters who had been FDR Democrats started voting for conservative candidates because they thought the liberals were disrespectful of their religious views. Even if you favor a robust role for government in solving the problems of the poor, you know that government alone is not going to solve all these problems. What brings these various sides together is the view that curbing poverty requires both changing structures and changing hearts. And changing hearts involves not only the heart of the poor person, but the heart of the person who's not poor. All those forces have come together to create this interest in faith-based organizations. It doesn't mean that we have a consensus.
Dionne: The candidates are, for the most part, talking about this in an explicit way. The organized religious conservatives, specifically the Christian Coalition, are less powerful. So religion is playing a very important role in the campaign dialogue, but it might play a marginally smaller role in the actual vote. You may see people not voting their religious identities as much as in recent elections. Yet you will have more explicit public discussion of the faith-based institutions.
The prophetic interrogators will probably want to make sure that if it's Bush who's doing this, this doesn't become a political program where the money goes to only the friendliest churches. If Gore is doing this, the prophetic interrogators will want to make sure that this all doesn't get tied up in bureaucratic knots where people who really don't like this idea end up administrating it and very little happens. There'll be good questions to ask either of them if they're elected.