A Broader Religious Vision

Book cover
Souled Outby by E. J. Dionne Jr.Princeton Univ. Press. 256p $24.95

E. J. Dionne brings special credentials to this book on the role of religion in American politics. As a former New York Times correspondent to the Vatican, current political analyst for The Washington Post and professor at Georgetown University, he knows the present with the keen sense of a beat reporter and the past with the perspective of the scholarly historian. He seems to have read and digested every book written on the subject, as 20 pages of footnotes amply attest. The result is an astute and important review of the intersection of faith and public policy.

How has religion intersected with American political life? Dionne discerns three phases. The first and longest, lasting from the founding of the nation well into the 20th century, was defined by “religious liberty and tolerance.” For complex reasons, in the 1960s the guiding principle was subtly altered by Supreme Court rulings interpreting the First Amendment’s prohibition of religious “establishment.” The earlier choice for religious “liberty,” which allowed prayer in the public schools, was set aside in the interest of a judicially constructed “wall of separation between church and state.” The third and present phase moves beyond tolerance and separation to exclusion of religion from public debate. Dionne expresses the current mood in this sentence of his concluding chapter: “Many Americans, and not just atheists, would like religious voices to shut up and clear out of the public square.”


Why has religion in politics become suspect to so many—believers included? One answer is suggested by the title of Dionne’s book, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. When critics inveigh against religious intrusion in politics it is usually “the religious right” that is the presumed danger. The religious right is criticized for its fundamentalist readings of the Bible and narrow moralism. These biblical literalists demand teaching Genesis over Darwin in the schools and invoking public sanctions against private “sins,” like homosexuality. The intrusion of these religious views into politics has often driven policy during the administration of George W. Bush.

There is something out of place about the current reading of the religious right. “Right” is really a political term that fails to capture the role of religion in our political discourse within American history and even within fundamentalism itself. Putting on his historian’s hat, Dionne reminds us that that staunch fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan, lampooned for his defense of Genesis in the Scopes trial, championed in his long political career the federal income tax, railroad regulation, the Department of Labor, campaign fund disclosure and the abolition of capital punishment. None of the above are favorite causes of Focus on the Family or the Bush administration. If, for all his biblical fundamentalism, Bryan was socially progressive, so it is in the present day with such religious and politically conservative figures as Rick Warren, pastor of the 20,000-member mega-church in Orange County, Calif. Warren insists that beyond a firm stand against abortion, “we have to care about poverty, we have to care about disease, we have to care about illiteracy.... There are...far more [issues] than just the few that evangelicals have been most known to care for. I care about those.”

If evangelical religion is too complex historically and in its present representation to be categorized as politically conservative, so it is with other parts of the American religious spectrum. Black churches are in many ways “evangelical,” but no one would think that Martin Luther King Jr. was a political conservative.

Dionne, a Catholic whose social progressivism was initiated by Sister Genevieve’s views on racial justice in his sixth-grade class, has a special interest in the role of Catholics in the public square. Like evangelicals, Catholics are a mixed bag, running in politics from Ted Kennedy to Pat Buchanan. Dionne quotes Steve Wagner, a “shrewd Republican consultant”: “Catholics may be the most maddening electoral group in American politics, the demographic bloc that drives pollsters, pundits and politicians...to distraction.”

Dionne examines the voting patterns of Catholics in presidential elections going back to Eisenhower and shows they fail to hold a fixed position on the political compass. The 1972 contest between Nixon and McGovern is one striking example of how and why the Catholic vote is hardly monolithic. McGovern carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. In Massachusetts it was the old-line working class Catholic vote that tipped the scales. In New York, where Catholics exist within a more heterogeneous cultural mix than in the Bay State, the Catholic vote went strongly for Nixon. Age, ethnicity and regional differences profoundly color the Catholic vote.

Dionne is a self-described liberal Catholic, and much of Souled Out deals with the contest within the Catholic community about the role of faith in politics. In the election of 2004, the Catholic position in politics tended to be defined by threats of certain bishops to forbid communion to John Kerry, a Catholic, because he was “pro-abortion.” At the parish level, a pamphlet listing “five non-negotiable issues” that should determine Catholic votes was widely distributed by a shadowy organization in California. The non-negotiables were the usual “values” issues: abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, stem cell research and euthanasia. Dionne is strongly opposed to the overt threats of officials—using the Communion rail as a political platform—but he is even more distressed by the perception fostered by the “non-negotiables” that these are the overriding issues for Catholic voters. More important in his eyes and, he argues, within a long tradition of Catholic social thought, are issues of economic justice and peace.

On the focal issue of abortion, Dionne argues that protection of fetal life can be better advanced by means other than the criminalization of abortion. The prevalence of abortion is not solely attributable to “moral and cultural breakdown.” Thus he supports the approach of the 23 pro-life and pro-choice Democrats who in 2006 introduced the “Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act.” In addition to promoting contraception and parental responsibility, the proposal recognizes the clear relation between poverty and abortion rates. There are 44 abortions per 1,000 for women who live below the federal poverty level; only 10 per 1,000 for women at three times the poverty level.

Of special interest to Catholics will be the chapter entitled “John Paul, Benedict, and the Catholic Future.” Dionne begins by recalling an incident in 1986 when he was covering the Vatican. He found himself impressed by a speech of John Paul II defending the existence of angels. What a surprise for the good rational readers of The New York Times to confront angels “as they drank their morning cups of coffee.” Dionne’s enthusiasm for angels stems not only from a self-confessed love of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which a dutch-uncle angel named Clarence reveals goodness to a despairing George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), he also appreciated the pope’s defense of a spiritual dimension of human existence.

Having confessed his Catholic credentials and allegiance to the otherworldly mission of the church, Dionne notes that he “often tried to cover the Vatican as if I were still covering the New York State Legislature.” (Talk about politics!) The result of this dual vision, high spirituality and low-ball politics, is an unusual overall appraisal of John Paul II:


The odd thing was that the less Catholic I felt, the easier I found it to be sympathetic to John Paul’s...analysis of modernity’s corrosive effects on the Church, the task of proclaiming an uncompromising doctrine with great clarity.... Yet the more I thought of myself as a Catholic—a Catholic of a liberal sort—the more inclined I was to worry about the course John Paul and the Church were taking.


He views John Paul II as “a sign of contradiction.” There is the “liberal” social gospel pope preaching to the outside world, condemning “luxurious egoism,” affirming “the priority of labor over capital,” the champion of outreach who visits a synagogue and who condemns anti-Semitism “at any time and by anyone.” Then there is the other John Paul, preaching to the inner world of the church, condemning theologians, reining in liberation theology, intransigent on priestly celibacy and forbidding even discussion of women’s ordination. Dionne’s summation: “He was the most universal of popes, sensitive to cultural diversity inside the Church, yet he did more to centralize authority in the Vatican than any pope since the [Second Vatican] Council.”

The contradiction of John Paul II emerges in the clash between cultural diversity and restrictive dogmatism. Centralization of authority in the Vatican tends toward what Richard A. McCormick, S.J., called “magisterial maximilism,” in which allegiance to a few narrowly drawn issues becomes the litmus test of orthodoxy. McCormick referred to magisterial dogmatism as “faith in formaldehyde”—precisely not what Vatican II seemed to promise in its openness to dialogue with the world. What happens when magisterial maximalism and litmus-test minimalism enters the political arena? The answer is suggested in the subtitle of the subsequent chapter, “The Agony of Liberal Catholicism.”

John F. Kennedy was roundly applauded when he made it clear that as U.S. president he would not be subject to dictation by ecclesiastical authorities. The ecclesiastical authorities raised no issues with this declaration of political independence. (This was the time of John XXIII and Vatican II.) When the Catholic John Kerry ran in 2004, ecclesiastical authorities had changed in a manner that appeared to demand ecclesiastical approval of political positions. “[C]onservative voices in the hierarchy were dominant, fearless, relentless—in brief, overwhelming” that Kerry’s presumed “pro-choice” stance made him unfit for high office. “[C]onservative leaders left little doubt that they supported the re-election of George W. Bush.” What happened to the “Seamless Garment” (the title of the chapter) that construed life issues from fetal life through problems of poverty on to war and the death penalty? Bishop Sheridan of Colorado Springs spoke for the conservatives when he declared that abortion “trumps all other issues.”

Dionne does not object to bishops staking a moral claim opposing abortion; what he rejects is allowing one issue to override the complexity of the political process. He concludes, “Ideally, the Catholic Church’s role in politics is to cause discomfort, to encourage questions, to challenge narrowly ideological views.... [I]f the Church causes discomfort only to one side in the [political] debate when both sides need repentance, it is not being the Church.”

Souled Out follows this admonition, since it should cause some discomfort across the polarities of Catholic thought: to conservatives who regard liberals as relativist renegades and to liberals who regard conservatives as irredeemably retrograde. The church, politics and life do not submit to simplistic solutions.
















Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
10 years 9 months ago
I'm a Baptist voter. Of course I don't believe much of what the Baptist church teaches and in fact attend mass every Sunday, but I sincerly believe that I'm Baptist voter and will continue to call myself such.
10 years 9 months ago
"How can a Pope, be it John Paul II or Benedict XVI in upholding the moral and ethical teachings of the Catholic Church, be considered contradictory? Perhaps E,J.Dionne could enlighten his readers as to when the Catholic Church supported the various issues which he apparently champions or name the Cardinals who would openly support such issues (Souled Out). Every Catholic who attends Mass speaks to his or her belief in the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church, not an American Church or a European Church or a Third World Church. Not a church whose beliefs are subject to polls of the faithful or whether or not its members follow its teachings. To argue that one is free to follow his own conscience on matters of religion and morals, even to support abortion, birth control, gay marriage, and other issues presumes that one's own conscience is infallible and superior to all others.This leads to the absurd conclusion that there is no truth in moral and religious matters as there would be an infinite number of self-satisfying answers. Mr. Dionne also criticizes Pope John Paul II for reining in liberation theology which was and still is idealized by some theologians, liberal Catholics and obviously Mr. Dionne. Having worked in Central and South America for a number of years I came into contact with several American Catholic priests who were avowed supporters of armed Marxist/Maoist terrorists in their efforts to effect regime change. This is in direct contradiction to a recent America magazine editorial in which armed intervention should be limited as follows, "If a limited armed intervention is needed, it should be a multilateral effort, and its principal purpose must be humanitarian. The scale, duration and intensity of the intervention must be no greater than what is required for the successful delivery and distribution of aid." , after obtaining approval by the UN. Liberation theology advocates and followers are not UN approved, multilateral interventions and do not limit their armed attacks to providing humanitarian aid.
10 years 9 months ago
I would submit to Mr. Dionne as well as Mr. O'Brien that many Catholics who vote for Republicans because of the pro-life issue do so reluctantly. We are indeed concerned about issues of economic justice, the war in Iraq, and the environment and wince at the positions of the GOP on these issues . Yet the same many of us cannot in good conscience vote for those Democrats who have not only allowed abortion on demand to flourish in this country, but have actively opposed even the most modest attempts to place restrictions on abortion (parental notification, Mexico city policy, etc.). There is a reason why poor women are more likely to obtain abortions. Planned Parenthood concentrates their abortion mills in poor, urban centers and thanks to the support of politicians like John Kerry and Edward Kennedy, PP is guaranteed governmental support. One million a year dead since 1973, a generation of brothers and sisters lost, and so many women wounded. To Mr. Dionne: this is an overriding issue and until the Democrats realize this, the Catholic vote is lost.
10 years 9 months ago
An otherwise well done review of this book was marred by the type of comment that has always made me wary of the otherwise fine journalistic and intellectual integrity of "America" "At the parish level, a pamphlet listing “five non-negotiable issues” that should determine Catholic votes was widely distributed by a shadowy organization in California." Why not name the organization, which I presume to be "Catholic Answers," and if this organization is "shadowy", let us know how the reviewer came to such a conclusion. Such off the cuff remarks contradict the intellectual integrity of "America" and shout a bias towards some points of view.


The latest from america

“No sooner had Jesus knocked over the dragon of superstition,” wrote George Bernard Shaw in ”Androcles and the Lion,” “than Paul boldly set it on its legs again in the name of Jesus.” Shaw’s line captures the outsize and frankly uneasy influence that St. Paul had on the early church.

Daniel LuzerMarch 22, 2019
Colm Tóibín may have you reaching for your abandoned copy of "The Importance of Being Earnest" or "Dubliners," even if you have not touched those books since high school.
Emma Winters March 22, 2019
Are conspiracy theorists just trying to maintain their empires and hawk merchandise? Am I a conspiracy theorist about conspiracy theorists?
Brandon SanchezMarch 19, 2019
Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman in ‘The Bells of St. Mary‘s’ (photo: Alamy)
Crosby was the most Catholic superstar the United States has ever seen.
John AndersonMarch 08, 2019