Sinfulness, Hopefulness, and the Possibility of Politics
By The Editors | November 2, 2016
On October 8, On Being host Krista Tippett moderated a conversation between The New York Times’ David Brooks and The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne. Held on the eve of the second presidential debate, they discussed the role of religion in public life, and where they see the intersections of theology, sin, and politics. As Tippett told the audience in closing, “I think that the mantle of public theology actually can fall on journalists, and we’ve seen that demonstrated.”
The conversation was convened by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, which publishes this journal, as part of its series “Danforth Dialogues: Envisioning the Future of Religion and Politics in America.” It was held on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, which hosted the town hall presidential debate the next day. A video of the conversation is available on the center’s website. The corresponding episode of On Being is now online. The conversation below has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Krista Tippett, host: We inhabit a strange, tumultuous political moment. Today, with David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, we step back from what happened yesterday or in the last 20 minutes. We take public theology as a lens on the larger moral dynamics we will all be reckoning with as citizens, whatever happens on November 8. Brooks and Dionne are renowned as journalists, authors, and commentators for The New York Times and The Washington Post respectively — and they’re known together as liberal vs. conservative sparring partners on public media. It’s a treat to draw them out reflectively and in depth.
Tippett: The three of us were actually together the last time at Georgetown at the Berkeley Center in 2009. Was it right after the inauguration? I think it was maybe February. I meant to look that up. So this was the aftermath of two terms of a president who had held conservative evangelical Christianity as a primary aspect of his political identity. It was the beginning of the first term of a president, Barack Obama, who had declared that his favorite philosopher was the public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. What a difference seven years makes.
And as the three of us discussed all those years ago, the religious enterprise at its deepest is about what binds us together. And theology is as much a sophisticated conversation across time and generations, a sophisticated analysis of the human condition as much as it is a conversation about God. And each of you, in your own way, and I would say increasingly in these years since 2009, has become one of our most searching American thinkers who very often routinely brings theology—and by that I mean religious questions, religious wisdom, voices of religious wisdom, if not necessarily religious teachings—into your reflection on political realities.
And you’ve each, in your writings, described this as a kind of evolution. So I wondered if we could start by each of you just saying something about that evolution and what it has emerged to as you’ve responded to political life, our American political culture. E.J., you were raised by a conservative father to be a conservative, and my understanding is that you really returned to taking Catholic tradition seriously as you discovered the social teachings of Catholic tradition.
E.J. Dionne: I always say that I became a liberal because I’m Catholic. And in my book Why the Right Went Wrong, I talk about my dad. And we had a running dialogue. My dad died when I was 16, and we spent our time arguing and loving to argue. He gave me a subscription to The New Republic when I was 13 to strengthen my side of the argument.
Dionne: I asked him, and he thought it would be good for me. So I was really blessed to have a dad who thought it was good that his kid argued with him. And he ended up training me for what I did for a living.
Two things happened to me to begin to change my politics. One is—I actually was 12 or 13 and started looking at what the Great Society was doing, and I said, “These guys are actually trying to solve a series of problems that the society has. Why aren’t we solving them? Why aren’t we conservatives doing that?” So I became the most boring thing a teenager can be; I became a liberal Republican. And then over time, I decided that didn’t work anymore, but I thought there was an obligation.
LBJ had identified a series of problems that really did need to be solved, and so that was the first step. And the second step was we are joined as well by Benedictines because I went to a Benedictine high school. And in a religion class, we could pick any book we wanted to read for that class and write a report on it, and I chose Martin Luther King’s Strength to Love, that great collection of his sermons. And that book began a real transformation in me. I saw things I hadn’t seen before. And so that was the beginning of my journey.
Then when I was in college, I too was influenced by Dorothy Day, the Berrigan brothers, and a whole tradition that was actually much more radical than I was. I’ve always been uncomfortable when some of my fellow liberals talked about completely separating religion from politics. The late Jean Elshtain said, “Separation of church and state is one thing. Separation of religion and politics is something else.” And for me, they were inseparable in the way I thought. I once debated Ralph Reed, and I said, “I will always defend Ralph’s right to base his political conclusions on his religious conclusions, but I do want to ask him where Jesus endorses a cut in the capital gains tax because I just couldn’t find it in my Scripture.”
David Brooks: Galatians. Galatians 23.
Tippett: I think it’s in Philippians.
Dionne: You could do the Parable of the Talents. I’ve thought about that. But we will leave it at that.
Tippett: [laughs] And David, you are Jewish, and you were raised Jewish. You’ve lately taken to quoting Saint Augustine with great fervor. And you’ve spoken and written about really loving reading theology as you were writing The Road to Character. Talk about that.
Brooks: Yeah. At first, I didn’t know E.J. went through a youthful liberal Republican phase. It’s pathetic in your 50s. In your 20s, it’s just tragic.
Dionne: That’s the second-worst thing David ever said about me. The worst thing David ever said about me is that I was the only person he ever met whose eyes light up at the words “panel discussion.”
Dionne: That’s mean.
Brooks: I guess the reason I went into—when you write a column, one of the things you learn is to be narcissistic, and you learn to explore your stuff in public. So I think, since we met, I’ve become much more religiously inclined. And that’s, I think, for three things.
First, for an awareness of one’s moral mediocrity. For example, you meet these people who radiate an inner light. And I was in Frederick, Maryland, I don’t know how many years ago, and I ran into these ladies. There were probably 30 of them, aged 50 to 80, who teach immigrants English and then how to read it. And I walk into the room, and they just radiate patience and goodness, Dorothy Day directness, just that calmness. They didn’t know me from Adam, but they made me feel funnier and smarter and special, and they just had that—they radiated that light. I remember thinking, “I’ve achieved way more career success than I ever thought I would, but I don’t have that.”
Second, would be the experience of grace. And the story I tell about that—these are just exemplar stories, but I have a million of them. I was driving home from the NewsHour about 10 years ago, and I pull into my driveway, and it’s 7:30 at night, but it’s summer, so it’s still light out. My kids, who are then 12, 9, and 4, were in the backyard kicking a supermarket ball up in the air. And they were running across the yard, chasing down this ball, tumbling all over each other, laughing, giggling, sort of shouting with joy. And I pull up into the driveway, and I see into the backyard. I get confronted with this tableau of perfect family happiness. And the sun is coming through the trees, my lawn for some reason looks perfect…
Brooks: … and so I just sit there staring at it through the windshield. And it’s one of those moments where reality sort of spills outside its boundaries, and time and life are sort of suspended, and you become aware of a happiness that you don’t deserve, which is grace. When that happens, your soul swells up a little, and you want to be worthy of that happiness. And it’s just a moment when the soul is swelling.
So that was another step. And then lately—one experience is love, deep love. And the nice thing—Christian Wiman, who is a poet I’ve quoted in your presence before says, “Love is always on the move. It’s never content to just love one thing.” So you want to love the person, you want to love—but then your flesh sort of gets opened up, exposing soft flesh below, and you realize your riches are not in yourself, and that sort of desire and even awareness of a fusion at that deep level sort of changes your view.
So when you go through these experiences, theology begins to make sense because it speaks spiritually, emotionally, and morally. So it’s not like I read it because I’m suddenly—well, it’s not an academic enterprise; it’s the way to see the world. And so it’s become an explanatory tool as much as anything else.
Tippett: That’s so beautiful, and it makes me not want to talk about the election, which is what I had planned to do next.
[laughter and applause]
Tippett: It’s notable, I think, that religion has played a very small overt role in this election relative to the last 30 or 40 years. And also in this campaign, like with Obama, and especially the last campaign, reversing this trend of decades, the candidate most articulate about her religious formation is the Democrat. E.J., you wrote this book, Souled Out—that is S-O-U-L-E-D—Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. But I don’t think the post-Religious Right era has turned out the way you or many people actually thought it would.
Dionne: I think it’s an interesting problem for Democrats because Democrats have a far more complicated coalition problem than Republicans do, that the Democrats include the most religious people in the country and the most unreligious people in the country. That is to say African-Americans are, by most of the polling measures, the most religious people in the country, but a very large share of the Democratic constituency is very consciously secular and not engaged in religious institutions. Holding that coalition together across these religious divides—the Democratic party is also more Muslim, more Hindu—it’s a very broad religious coalition.
So some Democrats want candidates to speak the way Clinton did, say, at the National Baptist Convention, where she was very explicit about her faith journey and how directly it related to her own politics. Her experience also involved Martin Luther King. She actually saw him in person, and it moved her and she was brought there by her Methodist minister, and then you have Donald Trump whose religious experience seemed limited, although there is this interesting reporting people have done that Norman Vincent Peale is actually the main influence on Donald Trump religiously.
Tippett: You talked about things like a new reformation that you thought would follow. Religious moderates—this new reformation will privilege religious moderation over religious conservatism. You also talked about how many Americans, and not just atheists, at many points in these last 20, 30 years would have been very happy for religious voices to shut up and clear out the public square. I guess my point is I think to a great extent they have. I mean, they are not a force in political life the way they were before. But are we in a better place for that? Again, what is religion in the public square in this post-Religious Right era? What are its contours?
Brooks: We’re in a worse place for it. I think a lot of us are nostalgic for an era when you had Reinhold Niebuhr, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Paul Tillich, an era where there were public theologians gathering a mass audience, appearing on the cover of Time magazine, and that wasn’t necessarily because they brought their denominational knowledge, but because they spoke fluidly about the spirit, the emotions, and they brought a moral conversation.
I happen to think we are now in a culture that’s over-politicized and under-moralized. And so E.J. and I go on TV shows, and we talk about every slight wiggle in whatever the candidates are doing that happened that week, but there is so little conversation about the virtues of suffering, what sin is, what the word “redemption” means. These are words that have fallen out of the common vocabulary and been replaced among my students with simply a utilitarian vocabulary.
So I do think one of the reasons I long for a more active religious voice in the public square—and I have a set of formulas, where we need to become more communitarian in a society that has become too individual. We need to become more moralistic in a society that’s too utilitarian. And we need to be more emotional in a society that is too cognitive. And religion speaks those three languages very well.
Dionne: I think one of the contrasts that I think about that relates to what David said is when you think about the Civil Rights Christianity that rose in the ‘50s and ‘60s—it was underground before that, but it was a Civil Rights Christianity, very much supported by Niebuhr, and by Heschel, even though he was Jewish but was a great friend of Dr. King’s. And there was a spirit in that form of Christianity that was, on the one hand, militant and demanding of justice. But on the other hand, the preaching of Martin Luther King was very much about conversion and redemption. And King actually believed you could convert adversaries. And we have very little of a sense that conversion is possible now in our political conversation. And conversion is a two-way street. People have to change themselves as they engage with each other.
Tippett: Right. So by “conversion” you mean that willingness to be changed by each other.
Dionne: Yes. There’s the old religious formation, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” I think we should fear Trump but understand that, while some of his constituency—and Hillary Clinton got a lot of grief for this—racial backlash plays a real role in the Trump vote. That’s just true. That’s been true in politics for a long time. But the discontents that people who are on the progressive side ought to be dealing with—the guy in the factory who discovers the factory isn’t there anymore and his income is cut in half.
I think after this election is over, which is—I agree with you—where we can usefully take this, I do think we need a conversation across these lines. I’d love to see Hillary Clinton, if she won, spending the first few weeks going to the parts of the country she lost, going to Appalachia, going to the smaller mill towns and saying, “There is a problem here. You have a legitimate grievance. We need, as a society, to lift everybody up, and we’re not doing that.” That’s the kind of conversion approach that King had. But I think this religious mainstream that David just talked about is much weaker in our public conversation altogether.
Brooks: If I could be—I mean, the old ‘50s mainline Protestant is not coming back. Sorry.
Brooks: But I’ve sort of been quietly delighted by the events of the campaign as it affects, frankly, the future of the Christians’ presence in the American public because the people who endorse Donald Trump on the Republican side and on the evangelical side did so obviously because he embodies the Christian virtues of humility, grace, charity.
Brooks: No. They did so because “evangelical” had become a noun, an identity group, and he thought he was the power player for their identity group. But the people who did so tended to be older and part of the fading evangelical establishment. And if you look at people under 40, our young rising leaders like Russell Moore, they were all appalled from the beginning. And the polls now suggest millennials are becoming disaffected from religion, and I get that. But as I go around, especially to cities, I see just an exploding religion that, believe me, is deeply religious but the opposite of Trumpism.
Say, pick New York City. There is a burgeoning supply of these churches, these Trinity Grace churches that are all around the city. There are Q3 churches, which I went to one in Williamsburg in Brooklyn a few months ago, and every beautiful hipster in New York seemed to be at that church. If you wanted to be where the cool crowd was, that church was it. And the Redeemer plants that are spreading.
Tippett: And I think probably most of them are still checking the “None” box on the Pew poll as unaffiliated, but this is their experience.
Dionne: And those, by the way, were the folks I was describing in the book. That was part of the point because the book did draw this very sharp line that David is drawing between the over-a-certain-age and younger evangelicals and others who are coming to religion, including some of the “Nones” who are—some have rejected religion altogether. Some have simply rejected organized religion as they came to understand it but are still fascinated by religious questions.
Tippett: Why would we be surprised that people who came of age in those years of toxic religiosity would grow up allergic to religious stridency and wary of declaring themselves—declaring that as their identity?
Brooks: But I even think some of these people—I go to these churches, and they’re all, like, 3. They’re, like, right out of the womb, and so they grew up in an age of secularism. They’ve got nothing to rebel against.
Tippett: Right. They have no baggage.
Brooks: They’ve got no baggage, no bad associations. Now what’s interesting to me is they go for a faith which is super charismatic, Hillsong, arms in the air—I’ve never done that in my life.
Brooks: But religiously, reasonably rigorous in theology and in the study of Scripture and also incredibly affirming. So it’s not Jonathan Edwards; it’s—I don’t know—somebody else.
Tippett: OK, let’s talk about sin. This is a word you have both used. I find it remarkable. So let’s go there. David, you’ve been talking about, as you quote Saint Augustine around the country, Saint Augustine’s notion of “disordered loves.” That’s a definition of sin, and also—but how that is also a way to diagnose us and the political state of our soul.
Brooks: Yes, somebody—it might have been C.S. Lewis said, “Sin—” or maybe Chesterton—“Original sin is the only concept with scientifically variable proof.” That we are…
Tippett: I think Niebuhr said…
Dionne: I’d attribute it to Niebuhr, and he got it from somebody else.
Tippett: Well, didn’t Niebuhr say, “You just have to read today’s newspaper to know there’s something to it?”
Brooks: Yeah, or look in the mirror.
Dionne: “Original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian church.” Yeah, it’s one of my favorite lines.
Brooks: And so the question is—and for me, the challenge was how to express it in a secular audience. I’m a secular writer. I don’t write for religious audiences. I write for The New York Times. How secular can you get? My joke—I can’t help inserting my joke of being a conservative columnist at The New York Times is like being Chief Rabbi at Mecca.
Brooks: Not totally fair, but it’s a joke. So I wrote this book, and Augustine was central to it, and I think the awareness of sin is central to Niebuhr—that we are more sinful than we think even when we think we’re taking the purest action, and we have to be aware of that sinfulness. But how do you talk about sin in modern America? And I had gone on the Charlie Rose show, my closest encounter to heaven until recently—no, I’m kidding—and I had talked about my book before it came out, and I had talked about the word “sin.”
And I got an email from an editor in New York at a different publishing house, and he said, “I love the way you were talking about your book, but I didn’t like the way you used that word ‘sin.’ It’s a downer. Use the word ‘insensitive’ instead.” And so I forwarded his email to my editor at Random House—it was sort of a test of him—and he said, “Well, that’s why you’re writing the book, to redeem sin.” But then how do you talk about it?
You really can’t talk about “original sin.” People will just push you away. And so I go to Augustine’s concept of “disordered loves,” which is we all love a lot of things, and we all know some loves are higher than others. Our love of truth should be higher than our love of money, but because of some screw-up in our nature, we get our loves out of order all the time. So if a friend blabs to you a secret and you tell it at a dinner party, you’re putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship, and that’s a sin. And I think, in this world, which doesn’t like to peer darkly into brokenness, it’s easier to swallow the concept of two positive things that are out of order. And that’s a way you can introduce the concept of sin. But a lot of what we have to do now is reintroduce these concepts in a way that people won’t immediately think you’re preaching at them.
Tippett: Right, right. Or it’s a downer. And E.J., you wrote this: “I believe a serious embrace of Christianity inevitably leads one into politics, since sin is social as well as individual.”
Dionne: It’s been one of the classic arguments between more progressive and more conservative Christians about where is the emphasis on social sin versus individual sin? And one area, for example, where that often comes out is in our discussion of family life. Because, on the one hand, if you care about family values, you’ve got to care about social justice. Because one of the reasons the family is under such pressure is the way in which the economy is a battering ram at times against the family, particularly among folks who have lost jobs that once supported families.
So you cannot look at family breakup without looking at the economic factors. On the other hand—and this is really the theme of Bob Putnam’s Our Kids—we also know that, as a practical matter, most of the time, two parents are better than one, and that kids who grow up in sort of stable, intact families are likely to do better. Conservatives want to talk about one-half of that truth. Progressives want to focus on the other half of that truth. And yet, they are really part of one truth that we need to discuss.
Tippett: To discuss more holistically.
Dionne: More holistically and where each side needs to accept an insight. But I do think that we need to acknowledge the role of individual and social responsibility and that the two have almost always gone together, and we often, in politics, drive them apart.
Tippett: E.J., one of the things you’ve pointed out is that—you write a lot about the joy of the progressive worldview, but a weakness is, as Niebuhr understood, a lack of awareness of human frailty. And I want to come to something—David, you’ve been writing about the lack of aspirational thinking in political culture right now, and I actually wonder if there is some connection.
David—I just want to read—this is a column you wrote on September 30: “There is no uplift in this race. There is an entire absence in both campaigns of any effort to appeal to the higher angels of our nature. There is an assumption in both campaigns that we are self-seeking creatures rather than also loving, serving, hoping, dreaming, cooperating creatures. There is a presumption in both candidates that the lowest motivations are the most real. At some point, there will have to be a new vocabulary and a restored anthropology emphasizing love, friendship, faithfulness, solidarity, and neighborliness that pushes people toward connection rather than distrust.” And then you said, “Millennials want to be active in this rebinding, but inspiration certainly isn’t coming from the aging Boomers now on stage.”
Brooks: Always bashing the Boomers.
Dionne: That’s an excellent description of the Trump campaign. I actually want to have that conversation.
Brooks: A partisan note rears its ugly head.
Dionne: David, I really do think that’s a false equivalence. That while you are right about the overall tenor of this campaign, I really do think that it does—the critique weighs far more heavily on the Trump side of the campaign and that you can argue that Clinton has failed to make this positive side of her campaign penetrate more. But I would assert that that has a lot more to do with the nature of the choice and that some of that is still there.
Tippett: But I wonder if what this is about, actually, to try to pull away from the election, is again, the narrative we privilege, right? I mean, there is a lot of aspirational thinking and aspirational action out there, but I think it is true that, on the whole, our political story is very dark, and it’s not calling citizens to rise to their best selves or at least what we’re emphasizing in the way—we journalists, what we’re emphasizing in the way we report.
Brooks: I will always agree with E.J. that the Trump campaign is even worse than the Clinton campaign. That’s a general rule. But a lot of our failures are failures because we have an inadequate ideal. And that’s true in college life. That’s true in adult life. We just don’t have in our head what’s possible, and we all—I’ve read this phrase recently—we all walk in shoes too small for us. And I do think what’s been lost in this country is the American ideal and the possibility of politics. Europeans came to these shores, and they saw forests that stretched on to infinity. They saw flocks of geese so big it took them 45 minutes to take off. They were overawed by the abundance, and they had two thoughts: that God’s plan for humanity could be completed here on this continent, and two, they could get really rich in the process.
Ever since, there has been this moral materialism has been driving Americans. And King had both an awareness of the deep sinfulness and a deep hopefulness about the arc of justice. And what’s been lost, I think, is teaching that American story in the mainstream, and then, I think, celebrating the rituals that bind us together. And here, I’ll get a little controversial. I do think there are so few things that bind us together, but the American creed is one of them and the rituals of Americanness are one of them. And I grew up really in an immigrant household, and our dream was making it in America, which meant getting out of Brooklyn and Queens or the Bronx. And that dream was the powering dream, as it has been for a lot of people.
And when you begin to kneel during the national anthem, you’re weakening, I think, or insulting not the current reality which we all want to insult, but the possibility that we’ll end up in the same place. And I think you’re also insulting the inherent radicalism of the country, that the Declaration, even the national anthem, certainly the Constitution, are not status quo reactionary documents from an old establishment. They’re radical, and radicals have always used them as the strongest hammer for change.
Not caring about politics is first, the luxury of those who live in a healthy society because those who live in a corrupt society and a violent society don’t have the luxury of not caring about politics. The people I know who have served in government, for them, that’s the most intense moment of their life because the decisions are the most consequential. I have a close friend who is in the Obama Administration now, and she says, “Every day sucks. The overall experience is tremendously rewarding.” I think, somehow, we have to revive the idealism of political service.
Dionne: And politics in a democratic republic is about solving problems and resolving disputes peacefully, usually through argument and negotiation. We don’t even know how to argue anymore. Bill Buckley, when he had his Firing Line show, engaged in real argument. He brought on really smart liberals whom he really engaged with. We don’t have that kind of argument right now, so I think we have to ennoble the word “argument,” and we also have to ennoble the word “politics.”
Tippett: I opened up my Twitter feed—and I really do not read every tweet that comes through—but I happened to see yours, I don’t know, a couple weeks ago. It said, “Reading Habakkuk in church,”—quoting from the Bible—“‘There is strife and clamorous discord. The rash one has no integrity.’” Clamorous discord as something in contrast to argument.
Brooks: E.J., you’re live-tweeting the Eucharist.
Tippett: He’s live-tweeting.
Dionne: In fact, a friend of mine tweeted back, “You’re tweeting in church,” and I said, “No, I did that from the parking lot.”
Dionne: “I waited until after Mass before I sent that tweet.”
Tippett: All right, we’re running out of time, and I’m in radio, so I believe in the clock. I think to your point, E.J., a minute ago, it’s not that everything is equal, but there is something about the way we’re all now in react mode, and there’s also something completely disordered about the way—and I think you would both agree—the way we cover things that skews, that is not good for us. It’s not good for common life. We’re not going to solve that this week.
But the truth is that behind what comes out as clamorous discord and rashness and anger and sometimes what looks like danger, there is a lot of what’s actually happening among people in the country. And you said you would like to see Hillary Clinton out listening to those people, but I think it’s not just about listening for policy options, right? I mean, I think something that Donald Trump has done is that he has let pain be in the room. So I mean, let’s talk about, thinking as we move out of this discussion into this world we’re going to inhabit, what that work is. David, you wrote, as many journalists did, including just about every columnist in The New York Times, about waking up to this pain that you hadn’t taken it seriously as you realized you should have.
Brooks: So I wrote 6 million columns explaining why Donald Trump would not get the Republican nomination and decided that he’ll be taking the oath of office, riding down Pennsylvania Avenue, and I’ll be writing, “Don’t worry. This will not happen.” And so then I’ve spent the last seven months trying to figure out how I got that so wrong, and I will say that it’s not been a depressing trip. There’s a lot of pain I can talk about, but I’m going to end on an up note, because everywhere I went, there were healers.
In Houston, there’s a little triangle where Latinos live within these three highways, and a woman from the northeast, young woman, realized there were no afterschool programs. So she moved in there, and she created an afterschool program with hundreds of kids. And I found those people everywhere. In New Mexico at a Navajo reservation, a couple that had moved down from Minneapolis started a drug treatment program for 60-year-old ex-cons, not glamorous work. They had 17 bucks in their bank account the day we visited. In D.C., I have two friends named Kathy and David, and they had a kid who went to a public school, and that kid had a friend who had no real home. His dad had split, mom had drug and health problems. So they said to the kid, “Come over. Stay with us. You can live with us. Eat if you need. Go to school.” And then that kid had a friend in the same circumstance, and that kid had a friend.
If you go to them—their house—and I do every Thursday and hopefully on Mondays—there’s 10, 15, 25 kids there 18 to 22 just getting some food. Last week, a young woman came and said she was 21. This was the first time she’d been around a dinner table since she was 11. And I took my daughter once, and she said, “This is the warmest home I’ve ever been in.” They call Kathy and David Mom and Dad, and there’s just a warmth and embrace. What we give them—we, as adults, give them the gift of being their audience. So there’s a kid named Ed who would read from his flip phone poetry he’d written. There’s a woman named Kasari who would sing like a New Orleans jazz singer. And you just receive them, and they define themselves in front of you.
And what they gave to us was a complete intolerance for social distance. So when I meet most of you, I shake hands, and there’s a little distance there because we don’t really know each other. But the first time I walked into their house, I reached my hand out to one of the kids, and he said, “We don’t shake hands here. We hug.” And so—big hugs and you’re just physically draped around each other. We were in a forum, and I quoted this guy, Bill Milliken, who happened to be in the audience last time Krista and I were together, and he’s been working on youth issues for 50 years. And he said, “I’m often asked in 50 years of doing this, what programs work to turn around lives?” And he said, “I’ve done this 50 years. I’ve never seen a program turn around a life. I see relationships turn around lives, and I see love turn around lives.”
And so setting up those contexts is what’s being done at a local level, and the problem for journalists—and this is why religion has become a way of seeing the world for me—a lot of things are more clear and more explicable if you begin with the presence that each of us has a God-given human soul, all of which are equal. And suddenly, you begin to see the soul in each person, and how that soul was created, and how it was formed, and what it longs for. And when you see that, you see on a much more personalist level. Emerson said, “Souls are not saved in bundles.”
Some of the big arcs and spheres of politics seem a little less relevant, and the individual relationships seem a lot more important, and you begin to adopt a more personalist and I think a more realistic lens. So Donald Trump has given me a reason to live this year, to oppose him, but I confess I’ve lost a lot of interest in politics because it doesn’t seem to me the primary reality anymore.
Dionne: I just want to say on that last note that I have never—I can’t think of anyone who loves politics more than I do, and I have never seen a campaign that I wanted to end so much, so quickly as this one. I have never felt that way in my entire life, and I’ve thought about why. I want to underscore something David said which is the notion that each person is endowed with dignity by God is one of the most powerful and radical ideas that we have available to us. If I made a hat that looked like the Donald Trump hat, it would be, “Make America Empathetic Again.”
Dionne: I think that, again, what I referred to earlier, I would like the empathy to run both ways. It is fair to criticize parts of the Trump movement for racism, for a feeling about immigrants that is absolutely unacceptable, attitudes toward immigrants that is absolutely unacceptable. There are traces of anti-Semitism in some of that movement. We should call all those out. And we would ask people on that side to have empathy for the young kid who was shot on the street who was unarmed, who is African-American.
Dionne: To have empathy for a child who has come here as an immigrant kid who wants to advance in our society. But what we owe in return is the empathy for people on the other side. There shouldn’t be groups that it is fashionable to be empathetic toward and unfashionable to be empathetic toward. And one of the things that strikes me the most, and one of the great losses of politics in this campaign is if you look at the forces that have hurt people in the inner city, the deindustrialization, the loss of jobs that were providing mobility routes for African Americans, they’re exactly the same problems of deindustrialization that have affected white working-class people, and we desperately need a conversation that brings two groups that are at odds together.
So I want to close in two ways. One is just with two of my favorite thoughts about politics. One is a line from Mike Sandel that I sort of think of all the time, the philosopher Mike Sandel who said, “When politics goes well, we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone.” That is the proper view of politics. And another one from a writer called Glenn Tinder talked about our need to create “the attentive society,” which is a society in which all of us acknowledge the need both to give and to receive help on the road to truth.
Tippett: E.J., I want to come back to end this with a question that you raised in Souled Out, or a challenge that, in the post-Religious Right era, “we need to develop a more capacious imagination about the proper role of religion in political life,” and I would just add, public life. And I actually want to read some words of Senator John Danforth, possibly an answer he might give if he were up here with us.
“If there was a Christian agenda for politics, what should it be? I, for one, cannot be certain. Then one might ask, ‘What does faith bring to politics if not an agenda?’ For me, it brings a struggle to do God’s will that always falls short of the goal. It leavens the competing self interests of politics with the yeast of the Love Commandment, but it seldom fulfills the Love Commandment. It makes us better participants in politics, but not the custodians of God’s politics.”
So just to close, I’d like to ask you both—and maybe E.J. you first, since you posed that question—tell us, give us some of the contours of that more “capacious imagination” for you about how this might come to work.
Dionne: There are a few things I’d like to see happen, some of which are happening, and David alluded to some of them. All the great religious traditions emphasize our obligations to the least among us, to the marginal, to the left out. Are there ways of talking across stark political lines about what we can do together about this? People here might be amused to know that 20 years ago, I think, David and I were asked to write about compassionate conservatism for The Washington Post. I defended compassionate conservatism, and David criticized it.
Dionne: And I think there was a loss. The compassionate conservatives fail for a variety of reasons, but there were some insights there that ought to be able to open a new conversation again. And if Hillary Clinton wins, actually, it’s intriguing because she is actually very interested in the role of religious institutions in building civil society and solving problems. So I’d like a conversation about poverty. I’ve alluded to a conversation about family life. And it’s not a judgmental conversation; it’s just a realistic conversation about what we owe children in our society at this moment, an understanding that the America that was, as Will Herberg said in the ‘50s, “Protestant, Catholic, Jew,” is now Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, and a whole lot of other things.
Tippett: Secular humanist.
Dionne: Yes, and secular humanists and atheists. And we need a different kind of religious conversation, and that’s fair. Lastly, I wish that religion could play a role in bringing us together. There used to be a time when people who disagreed went to the same churches or congregations. They had an instinctive trust in each other. They could argue from respect, and they didn’t assume bad faith. Is there any way in which religious institutions could try to play that role again? I came from a very argumentative extended family, and we always argued about politics, and we never doubted that we loved each other. You cannot do that very much in our politics now outside the family, and I think our religious institutions might struggle to be venues for that. And I’m not talking about bringing people together artificially. The hardest thing to reach is authentic disagreement but not disagreement among people who then leave and hate each other forever but disagreement among people who respect each other and know they have to live with each other the next morning.
Brooks: I was once writing in a newspaper column. I was griping about how hard it was to get people to be good by my lectures to them in my classroom, and I got an email from a guy named Dave Jolly who is a veterinarian in Oregon. He said, “What a wise person says is the least of that which he gives. What gets communicated is the small gestures and the whole totality of their being, that is to say the small gestures of kindness, of grace, of honesty, of hard truth-telling.” And then he says, “Never forget the message is the person.” And those words rang in—because we deal in the words all the time, but those sentences, “What a wise person says is the least of that which he gives,” and, “The message is the person,” struck me as profoundly true.
E.J. knows intra-Catholic Church politics better than I do, but with Pope Francis, to me, “The message is the person.” We know a guy. I think you know Monsignor Ray East in D.C., just a joyous person who looks for the Good News in people and just treats each day and each problem with a sense of graciousness and joy. I know a rabbi named Meir Soloveichik on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the same spirit, and it seems to me what religion guides us towards is not necessarily policies but certain ways of being just by valuing them. And you don’t need religion to be a good person. Believe me, I know a lot of religious people who are complete schmucks.
Brooks: But I do think it puts its emphasis on humility, radical self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness, awareness of the deep equality of all human beings because each of us are broken in similar ways. Grace, the receiving and giving of unmerited love, these are just things that are talked about. So from a politics of the future, what I would hope for is not necessarily certain policies or theological discussion but just ways of being. The people we remember then stick in our heads. I go to the modern Orthodox churches—synagogues, we call them…
Dionne: Telltale sign from David.
Brooks: And I just see young people who are theologically super rigorous and warm to each other. And then I go to the churches I mentioned in Brooklyn and Williamsburg, the super hipster churches, and there’s just a native warmth. And you just are drawn to that like flowers to the sun. And so all I want out of religion is just a little more human decency inspired by a devotion to God. I do think that’s imminently possible and imminently happening.
Tippett: Well, I do think we don’t have Niebuhrs anymore, and we don’t have Heschels, but I think that the mantle of public theology actually can fall on journalists, and we’ve seen that demonstrated. It’s very interesting. So thank you, David Brooks. Thank you, E.J. Dionne. And thank you so much to the Danforth Center for bringing us all together.
Tippett: Special thanks to Marie Griffith, Leslie Davis, Debra Kennard, Jeff Allen, A.J. Bockelman, and all the fantastic staff at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.
Staff: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Mann, Selena Carlson, Brendan Stermer, and Ross Feehan.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times as well as a weekly commentator on PBS Newshour and NPR. His books include The Social Animal and most recently, The Road to Character.
E.J. Dionne also comments for NPR and is a columnist for The Washington Post, 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 and Politics After the Religious Right and most recently, Why the Right Went Wrong.
Krista Tippett is the host of the Peabody Award-winning On Being radio show and podcast, and author of the recent New York Times-bestselling Becoming Wise about nurturing moral imagination in individual and common life.
Writers tell us stories about where they discovered religion and politics in their states.
An Atheist Finds (Some) Reasons to Believe in Her Old Church.
A setting to debate the issues of the day.