restricted access Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith & Politics after the Religious Right (review)
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Symposium Review E.J. Dionne, Jr., Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith & Politics after the Religious Right (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008). Summary Review William D. Dinges F or breakfast devotees of the editorial page of the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne’s voice is a familiar one. He writes broadly in line with liberal democratic thinking, consistently brings moral and political clarity to issues and, given his academically credentialed background, includes an occasional touch of sociological panache. Nor is Dionne averse to criticizing the excesses of the left in light of the Niebuhrian realism animating his own brand of liberalism. In Souled Out (and in a more recent string of editorials), Dionne focuses on what he discerns as yet another seismic shift in the public role of religion in American life. Over the last four decades, operatives of the religio-political right have abused religion , reduced its concerns to a narrow set of dogmatic issues, and sold out religion for political expediency. The ensuing stridence, partisanship, distortion of cultural symbols , and misguided religious engagement with politics is wearing thin. Since the 2004 election, an increasing number of Christians—especially right-of-center white evangelicals —are having second thoughts about a four decade-long entanglement with the nation’s political right. Those once desperate about keeping religion out of politics, and who skewered liberal enemies for “politicizing” God’s message, now ponder the possibilities of their own sins in this regard. Collaterally, a new breed of evangelical leaders like Rick Warren, Richard Cizik, Joel C. Hunter and others are embracing a new evangelical politics earmarked by a broadened political and moral agenda that includes issues like global warming, environmental degradation, and genocide. This current realignment of religion and culture occurs in an American context in which the separation of church and state has never been burdened with the kind of secular-inspired rigidity associated with “laicité” in France—where separation of the two spheres has essentially meant cleaning all semblances of religion from the public 107 realm. Separation of church and state on this side of the Atlantic has been more nuanced, weaving together, instead, a limit to government claims with a respect for a legitimate role for religion in public life. In Souled Out, Dionne addresses an array of issues surrounding the new evangelical politics. In so doing, he touches on broader issues relating to the nature of religion itself; how religion has historically influenced American values and political culture (especially “progressivism”); how “values” often relate to whose ox is being gored; and on the perennial dangers of the political corruption of religion. Dionne also reflects on the trajectory of his own Roman Catholic tradition, notably the influence of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the emergence of Catholics as a swing vote phenomenon, the waning fortunes of liberal Catholicism, and public perceptions that the institutional Church is de facto taking sides in American politics. In the American context, ironies abound, not the least of which is the fact that conservative Protestants, once historical opponents of the slightest vestige of “Popery,” have increasingly found themselves allied with conservative Catholics—all of which reinforces Robert Wuthnow’s long-standing insight about the postwar “restructuring” of American religion: Where individuals fall on the liberal/conservative spectrum, not institution (denominational) affiliation, often matters most. According to Dionne, the political right achieved a notable measure of success in embracing (and manipulating) the religious right in large part because of two cardinal sins of contemporary liberalism. One was a shift in the passions of the left— beginning in the late 1960s—from issues of economic deprivation to those of gender, sexuality and personal choice. Abortion rights subsequently replaced trade unionism and racial justice as the litmus test of liberalism. The other mistake involved a misguided effort—abated by the mass media, some academics and politicians—to marginalize altogether the role of faith in American public life. Both blunders were decisively exploited by the likes of Rev. Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, and Karl Rove. For its part, the religious right made the mistake of linking religion too closely to one political party, a stratagem almost always poisonous to both religion and politics. According to Dionne...


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