restricted access Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith & Politics after the Religious Right (review)
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Leslie Woodcock Tentler A s befits its author, Souled Out is brimful of good sense and cheer. A selfdescribed liberal Catholic and well-known political commentator, Dionne believes that the 2006 election marked a turning point in our recent political history. “The era of the religious Right is over” (4). Indeed, as Dionne sees it, a “new reformation” is at hand—one that “will privilege religious moderation over religious conservatism and, perhaps more importantly, broaden the agenda that religious people bring to politics” (17). Prognostication of this sort is obviously risky. The average voter, notoriously ill-informed, is moved by many things, not all of them rational. Political moods, in consequence, can turn on a dime. The religious Right was alive and well at the close of the 2004 election, or so the commentariat told us. But Dionne makes a persuasive case for his upbeat view of the American future. Any doubts I might harbor are probably rooted in my seemingly congenital pessimism. Despite an opening chapter that is putatively historical, Souled Out is really about the past forty years of American political life. The rightward drift in American politics , evident by the mid-1960s and only temporarily deflected by Watergate, brought us Reagan’s America in the 1980s—something for which the religious Right, newly ascendant, took conspicuous credit. Dionne correctly notes that the rightward drift had many causes, none more potent than fears and resentments based on race. “The movement of white evangelical southerners into Republican ranks was fueled initially by civil rights and a reaction against liberalism on nonreligious grounds, not by religious fervor itself” (56). One could say the same for Catholic voters, despite the genuine—and genuinely religious—distress of many Catholics over legalized abortion . A majority of Catholic voters, after all, supported Richard Nixon in 1972—a historic first for this Democratic-leaning bloc—in an election that took place before the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade. By the 1980s, however, right-wing politics and religion were intimate bed-fellows. Church-going America voted Republican; secular Americans cleaved to the Democrats. That, at least, was the prevailing story, which election results did much to bear out—particularly in 1980, ’84, and ’94. True, there was the Clinton presidency and Al Gore’s popular vote margin in the much-disputed 2000 election. Perhaps it was Osama bin-Laden and not the likes of James Dobson who ensured George Bush’s re-election in 2004. Dionne is inclined to think so, believing that the divisive passions 119 of the 1980s and early ‘90s were already on the wane. But a great many liberals seem to have concluded otherwise. They still regard religion as a retrograde force in the nation’s political life. This dispiriting saga, as Dionne tells it, has been bad for our politics and bad for religion. Politically, it has meant that urgent public questions cannot be addressed with creativity and nuanced intelligence. Conservatives argue, for example, that poverty is the product of personal irresponsibility, while liberals emphasize its structural causes. But poverty, as Dionne points out, is rooted both in disastrous personal choices—dropping out of school, non-marital child-bearing —and structural factors like the decline of the manufacturing sector. Successful anti-poverty programs must speak to both dimensions of the problem—something that’s very hard to do in a polarized political environment. In similar fashion, a highly polarized politics of abortion has deflected attention and political energy away from non-coercive means of reducing their number. “The public debate,” as Dionne points out, “usually ignores the fact that abortion rates are closely tied to income,” with poor women exponentially more likely to opt for abortion than their affluent sisters (109). In terms of religion, the damage has been even greater. Christianity became the captive of partisan interest groups who were especially determined to delegitimize religiously-rooted questions about war and economic justice. Accordingly, Christian orthodoxy was defined, at least for political purposes, as hostility towards abortion, gay marriage, and stem-cell research—precisely the issues that certain Catholic conservatives have labeled “non-negotiable.” But as Dionne points out, “it is a great sellout of religion to insist that...


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