In book and talk, columnist Dionne says ‘era of religious right is over’

E.J. Dionne
E.J. Dionne

In his new book, cleverly titled “Souled Out,” and in an appearance last week at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, liberal columnist E.J. Dionne declared that “the era of the religious right is over.”

“It is a great sellout of religion,” Dionne said, for the right to reduce Christianity to a few conservative political positions. He recalled a debate in which he challenged Ralph Reed, formerly of the Christian Coalition: “You must explain to me where in the New Testament Jesus calls for a cut in the capital gains tax.”

Dionne, a serious Catholic by faith and a liberal by ideology, didn’t try very hard to conceal his glee while consigning the heyday of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as political power brokers to history’s dustbin.

By “souled out,” Dionne said, he meant that Americans have “grown tired of a religious style of politics that was dogmatic, partisan and reflected a spirit too certain of itself and far too insistent of the depravity of its political adversaries.”

Dionne seemed like a sweet and funny guy preaching to the choir that included such Minnesota liberal icons as Walter Mondale and Don Fraser. But he had some difficulty hiding a sense of triumphalism himself, which may be in the category of turnabout being fair play.

As one who (incessantly and annoyingly) preaches the importance of civil, substantive discourse across the ideological divide, my favorite Dionnian sentence of the afternoon was one that called for religious liberals and conservatives to share their beliefs with open minds and open hearts. The sentence went: “We must all accept the need to both give and receive help on the road to truth.”

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 04/29/2008 - 12:11 pm.

    I’m not so sure that I would be ready to go around singing “Ding, dong, the religious right is dead” quite yet.

    The influence of the religious right may be waning in some corners, but they still have some very powerful allies in very high places. The part that makes me a bit nervous is who or what steps in to fill that void if and when it becomes vacant.

  2. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 04/29/2008 - 02:36 pm.

    Hooray for civil discourse. But what was Reed’s response? If Dionne only reported his zinger without giving Reed’s side, then he is not a particularly good advocate for bridging the ideological divide.

    Ralph Reed has, in the past, compared the Republican party to a three-legged stool, with economic and foreign policy conservatives balancing out the religious conservative leg. It sounds like Dionne is getting his legs mixed up.

    Now, if Dionne related an honest discussion between ideological opposites (himself and Reed), then Eric Black has done Dionne a disservice by making him sound snarky at the very moment he is calling for understanding.

    Which is it?

  3. Submitted by Marshall Glynn on 04/30/2008 - 09:26 am.

    I have to agree with John Olson, if indeed the religious right is leaving, who will take its place? When religion is removed, what is it replaced with? Either another similar religious ideology, or one void of god. In the case of Hitler, traditional religion (or faith in a divine god), was replaced by Nazism where people put their faith not in a higher power, but in the government. This is the ultimate meshing of church and state.
    To Dionne’s comment about the right being dogmatic, partisan and too certain of itself. They have every right to be that way, they are not there to make friends with liberals, or to work with them. No, they were elected by rightists to fight the left at the basis of what they believe, not agree with them. We shouldn’t expect rightists to agree with someone who has a completely opposite world view, nor should we expect leftists to cross the isle and work with the right. Thats not what their constituencies elected them to do. And furthermore, if indeed a politician does cross the isle to work with the opposing side, he is probably just doing it to score cheap political points in an election year. Can anyone say McCain Feingold?

  4. Submitted by John E Iacono on 04/30/2008 - 07:17 pm.

    Ah, well. The dogmatic left declares the dogmatic “religious right” dead.

    In real life, most people vote influenced by a number of factors, although it is a favorite political myth that anyone on the “other” side (whichever side it is) is an ignorant, unthinking dolt who is being led by the nose by some radical of the right or left.

    As I see it, there has been no significant change in a country with 35% diehard left and 35% diehard right who both fight for the remaining 30% who move with the political winds.

    We’ll have to see how the wind blows this year.

  5. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 05/05/2008 - 04:19 pm.

    The departure of the religious right from political influence does not necessarily mark the departure of God or religion from the value system people use when making political (voting) decisions.

    For many people, they want their elected officials to show compassion for the hungry, the naked, the sick, and those in prison when establishing public policy and allocating resources.

    Elected officials with an agenda to make the rich richer do not match the value system of the moral voter that has experienced the Great Awakening.

  6. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/11/2008 - 09:33 pm.

    Let’s get our terminology straight here. By “right” and “left” do you mean in a behavioral sense or a political-economic sense? I think that a lot of confusion results from a failure to distinguish these two modes.

    A person can be behaviorally left-wing (for example, no restrictions on sexual behavior or drug use) and politically/economically right-wing (absolute freedom for business), as the Libertarian Party is.

    A person can be behaviorally right-wing (strict sexual morality) and politically/economically left-wing (pro-union, anti-war) as many Roman Catholics are.

    When you say that someone is “left-wing” or “right-wing,” you’re telling me nothing unless you specify whether they are left or right concerning personal behavior or concerning the way society is organized.

    Evangelicals and fundamentalists have always advocated strict standards of personal behavior. Nothing new there.

    What made the Falwell/Robertson types so pernicious was their playing upon the typical American’s ignorance to claim that right-wing *political/economic* ideology was the only “Christian” way to view the world. In their ideology, to be Christian meant to be pro-war, anti-environmental, and for starving the public sector while giving tax cuts to the already wealthy–in other words, to adhere to the economic and political platform of the Republican Party.

    In this country, people are free to hold any political ideology they want, but wedding Republican ideology to conservative Christianity had three harmful effects: 1) It made people afraid to question Republican ideology for fear that it would make them “un-Christian,” 2) It led to an almost cult-like adoration of George W. Bush, and 3) It completely distorted the message of Jesus, who spoke of “loving one’s enemies,” who condemned those who prized money above righteousness, and who spoke of stewardship over the gifts that God has given us.

    I’m glad that more and more evangelicals are learning the lesson summarized in the bumpersticker: “God is not a Republican—or a Democrat.”

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