The Common Good
March-April 2000

Our Lady of the 501(c)3

by E.J. Dionne Jr. | March-April 2000

E.J. Dionne talks about God, politics, and the American experiment.

E.J. Dionne—syndicated columnist, practicing Catholic, and think-tank fellow—thinks the uneasiness about wearing religion on your sleeve in journalism and other aspects of American society is healthy. But he makes clear that healthy unease and putting faith in quarantine from public life are two far different things. He describes himself as "a columnist for a secular newspaper who will neither hide nor flaunt his commitments."

That secular newspaper is The Washington Post. Dionne writes sharp and engaging analysis of elections, ideology, and the body politic. He also offers some of the most thoughtful commentary available in the mainstream press on the role of religion in American politics and society. He is the editor of the forthcoming What’s God Got to Do With the American Experiment? (The Brookings Institution Press, 2000), and author of They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era (Simon & Schuster, 1996) and Why Americans Hate Politics (Simon & Schuster, 1991). Dionne is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a public policy research center in Washington, D.C. He was interviewed there in December by Sojourners editor Jim Wallis.

Jim Wallis: Is the use of the language of faith by political candidates appropriate or dangerous, good or bad, for public discourse?

E.J. Dionne: All of the above, depending on the context. In American history there has always been a significant amount of political talk that was also religious talk. The abolitionists were rooted in the Protestant-evangelical movements. The early progressives were rooted in the social gospel movement, to a very significant degree. It is new for our time and it makes a lot of people nervous—for some good reasons.

Gov. Bush’s answer in the December GOP debate in Iowa was very much the language of an evangelical talking about a personal conversion experience. [Bush’s response when asked which "political philosopher" he most admires was "Christ....When you turn your heart and life over to Christ...it changes your heart."] A lot of American people of no faith, or who are Catholic or Jewish, and, I suspect, also some mainline Protestants, found that language distancing. It worried them that someone would use what sounded like specifically sectarian language. I don’t think that’s how Bush meant it, but that’s how they felt it. The other problem was that he was not talking about the influence of Jesus on his social policy. He was talking about Jesus as a personal savior. At one point he said, "If you haven’t had this experience, then you probably don’t understand it." But when you bring religion to the public debate, you have an obligation to all the people who don’t share your religious commitment to make your arguments comprehensible to them in accessible terms.

Wallis: So if a candidate makes such faith statements, it’s appropriate for the press or the voters to ask, "What does that mean?"

Dionne: Right. What does that mean for how the candidate will govern? What conclusions has he drawn from this? You can imagine someone whose theology or religious beliefs you utterly share who you would vote against, because the programs for the public good that he derives from that are not programs that you would support.

Wallis: How does a candidate speak the language of faith in an appropriate way, without becoming sectarian?

Dionne: It’s obviously not easy. Bush, at other moments, has done this quite well when he talked about poverty. Whether you agree with Bush’s program or not, in talking about the importance of paying attention to the least among us, he has used language that lots of different people related to. You can be explicit about your own religious commitment and also very explicit about your commitment to the poor and fighting intolerance. When you bring religion up in a political campaign, you must constantly remind those who don’t share your commitment that this is not about imposing religious tests on people and public policy.

Wallis: You wrote a piece for The Washington Post Magazine about Gov. Bush’s faith and theology. How would you interpret the theologies of Bush and Gore?

Dionne: In that piece I argue that both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton are good Methodists in terms of being true to the tradition. But they’re true to very different traditions within Methodism. Bush’s emphasis is on personal responsibility and personal conversion, the part of Methodism that tries to get people off liquor and to lead more responsible lives. Hillary Clinton speaks from another very vibrant tradition within Methodism, the social tradition. Personal improvement should be linked to social transformation that makes it easier for people to live decent, God-fearing lives. It would be fascinating to see a debate between Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush on how they interpret their Methodist traditions, because I think they would have a lot in common on the one side, and some differences.

Gore went to divinity school, shortly after college. He’s a Southern Baptist; it’s not just a campaign thing that he’s suddenly talking about this. He’s talked about it at various points. Earth in the Balance has a spiritual dimension in it. He seems to combine a small touch of social gospel into a rather straightforward Southern Baptist commitment.

McCain and Bradley have been very reticent to talk about their faith publicly. Bradley has made a very principled point of saying "I don’t think this is what I should do in this campaign." A lot of people, including religious people, respect him for that. On the other hand, his critics say he is denying a part of himself. I don’t think that’s fair. In fact, he’s written about the role of his faith. His position is that if people want to know about this, he’s not hiding it. I think he’s going to end up, in this year when everyone will be talking so much about religion, challenged on this front—in some ways unfairly, because if you look at our recent traditions, his stance, and for the most part, McCain’s stance, is in keeping with what candidates usually do about religion: go to church, talk about it occasionally, but not make it as explicit as the other candidates have.

Wallis: The current intense interest by politicians, academic institutions, and the media in faith-based organizations is amazing. What has happened?

Dionne: The change can be traced back at least a quarter of a century. When Jimmy Carter entered the national political sphere and said that he was a born-again Christian, he was treated almost as an alien from Mars. Yet the tradition he represented is shared by tens of millions of Americans. Carter broke through first, and that’s very important. Second, you have the rise of the Christian Right, the religious conservatives.

Third, you’ve seen conservatives and liberals come to this [interest in FBOs] for different reasons. Conservatives said for years that you must dismantle the state. A lot of serious conservatives, especially religious ones, asked, What are we going to replace it with? They came to the faith-based organizations and noticed a lot going on there. In my experience that conservative group then subdivided into two groups. One is more interested in dismantling the state than in strengthening assistance to the poor. The other group says, We need to show that we genuinely care about the poor, and it’s immoral for us not to try to find some alternative to this welfare state we’re criticizing.

On the liberal or progressive side, a lot of liberals realized that all this hostility to religion—perceived in some cases and real in others—was a terrible idea, untrue to the progressive tradition in America. Witness the civil rights movement, especially. Many voters who had been FDR Democrats started voting for conservative candidates because they thought the liberals were disrespectful of their religious views. Even if you favor a robust role for government in solving the problems of the poor, you know that government alone is not going to solve all these problems.

What brings these various sides together is the view that curbing poverty requires both changing structures and changing hearts. And changing hearts involves not only the heart of the poor person, but the heart of the person who’s not poor. All those forces have come together to create this interest in faith-based organizations. It doesn’t mean that we have a consensus.

Wallis: Candidates used to talk about religion as a shining anecdote, admirable stories of heroic commitment. Now the candidates are all talking about a partnership with religious institutions. I’m not sure they yet know what that means. What kind of partnership is possible?

Dionne: The hardest question we’re going to confront in this faith-based debate is that such evidence as we have suggests that the most successful programs in many areas are also the most religiously demanding programs. So a cost/benefit analysis would tell you to fund them. Yet our First Amendment concerns would tell us that the most dangerous programs to fund, from the religious freedom perspective, are those that are most religiously demanding. It’s a question of which risk do you find worth taking? Is it risky not to support programs that are helping the poorest people in our society, or is it risky that if you do this you are going to cause long-term injury to religious freedom?

An awful lot of these questions are not black and white. Cooperation between the state and the churches goes back a long way in many areas. The obvious example is the case of religious hospitals. Our whole health care system would collapse if the government suddenly decided not to give Medicare and Medicaid to religious hospitals. Another category would be community development agencies. The church itself may not get any of the resources, but it becomes the most effective mobilizer of parts of communities to enable housing to get built and economic activity to expand.

So on the one hand, there are some very hard bottom-line questions here that we’re going to have to confront. On the other hand, a lot of other questions in this field need not have, if you will, the ACLU and the National Association of Evangelicals at each other’s throats.

Wallis: How can religious communities be service providers and still be prophetic?

Dionne: The worst thing that could happen out of this interest in faith-based organizations would be to turn the churches, synagogues, and mosques into interest groups at the public trough. At the end of a big budget fight you discover that some senator or member of Congress has written in a half a million dollars in grants to particular churches in his or her state. People in the gospel mission movement are very skeptical of charitable choice because they don’t want to have to live up to any particular regulation that would be imposed upon them, for fear it would impinge on their liberty to preach the gospel. That is a legitimate worry. You raised the related worry, that churches can lose their prophetic role. Often the churches’ job is not to say you should give more money to us, the religious institution. Their role is to say you should give more justice to the poor and the downtrodden in our society. You don’t want their search for money to get in the way of their search for justice.

Wallis: You’ve said that faith-based organizations have a tremendous opportunity to open up the political dialogue and debate on a whole range of issues. Why?

Dionne: People are willing to sit down with each other when the faith-based issue arises who almost never sit down with each other otherwise. We’ve had plenty of conservatives in those rooms sitting with traditional liberal, lefty activists, and they are willing to engage each other in a way that just doesn’t usually happen. Does that mean that they end up agreeing on everything? No, but they have a different quality of argument. They can at least agree that there are certain problems here involving the poorest people in our society, that we ought to do more than we’re doing, and maybe there are different methods to help people solve their problems.

Even if that doesn’t happen, somebody once said that the hardest thing in the world is to reach authentic disagreement, and getting there means casting aside certain ad hominem kind of arguments. When people talk about this subject they tend to check most of their cheapest arguments at the door. Not always, but it happens often. That’s just good for political debate, especially at a moment in our country where we’re not very happy with the state of debate.

The [church-state] separationists ultimately are asking very important questions when they say there are limits on how deeply the state can be enmeshed with the church. We’re only beginning to get to those questions now, but we will have to argue this out. That won’t be an easy argument. But I’d rather get to that point than where we were 10 years ago, where each side was parodying the others’ views about religion and society.

Wallis: Where do you sit in this argument?

Dionne: The honest answer would be that I’ve not fully made my mind up all the way down the line. I would probably be willing to take a few more risks on the side of helping some of these institutions. We may conclude that there’s a difference between what state or local governments do, and what the federal government does. Another discussion we’re going to have is how much we can solve this problem by creating 501(c)3 organizations. I think there will be a church some day called "Our Lady of the 501(c)3," because churches are so eagerly creating these. There’s a real argument as to whether or not the 501(c)3’s require religious institutions to take too much religion out of their programs. The corporate sector doesn’t have a First Amendment problem. In the case of programs that are very religiously demanding, but very effective, the corporate sector could come in and do a lot of good.

The separation issue aside, there must be some limits on what the government finances. What if a white identity "church" comes to a government agency and shows with very good empirical data that they’ve got the best drug- and teen-pregnancy program in this city? All of us who are sympathetic to the work of faith-based groups have to confront that question.

Wallis: How much of a factor will religion be in this election?

Dionne: The candidates are, for the most part, talking about this in an explicit way. The organized religious conservatives, specifically the Christian Coalition, are less powerful. So religion is playing a very important role in the campaign dialogue, but it might play a marginally smaller role in the actual vote. You may see people not voting their religious identities as much as in recent elections. Yet you will have more explicit public discussion of the faith-based institutions.

Wallis: Does the issue help Democrats more or Republicans? Who does it hurt?

Dionne: A Republican I know, somebody very sympathetic personally to the work of the faith-based groups, said that this is a great issue because it allows Republicans to look compassionate and Democrats to look like they’re not secular enemies of religion. It’s not cynical, just politically realistic, that each side gets something out of this issue.

Wallis: Do you see differences in what the partnership between government and faith-based organizations might be if Bush wins or Gore wins or Bradley wins?

Dionne: Speaking as a journalist, one of the very interesting questions we are going to have to ask is, How will this play out? Because if you are Bush or if you are Gore, you probably want to answer as few of those questions as you possibly can. Each has crafted a position on this issue where they seek to gain as much as they can on either side of this question. Some of these things are easy enough. For example, fiddling with the tax code to provide more opportunities for giving, that is not so complicated—although there is actually a very interesting subquestion there. People tend to give to charities closest to them, and what you really want is to have people in the wealthier neighborhoods contribute to the work that’s going on in the poorer neighborhoods. So even the tax stuff is going to be tricky. In the end they both may, whether they like it or not, end up helping many of the same kinds of groups.

Mark Chavez at Arizona State has done a survey of many of the churches. The more modern or liberal churches want to take advantage of charitable choice, not the conservative churches. I joked once with a conservative friend who worked very hard on charitable choice, "Gee, you’ve created this big program for liberal churches. You’re going to be happy with the result you’re going to get out of it." The more liberal churches were more attuned to getting into government in the first place. That’s certainly true of the African-American church. They were doing the work that needed to be done. A lot of the conservative churches may also be in areas that are somewhat wealthier and don’t necessarily need the social service work that the poorer churches do. I don’t say that critically of the conservative church. That’s a sociological fact.

The prophetic interrogators will probably want to make sure that if it’s Bush who’s doing this, this doesn’t become a political program where the money goes to only the friendliest churches. If Gore is doing this, the prophetic interrogators will want to make sure that this all doesn’t get tied up in bureaucratic knots where people who really don’t like this idea end up administrating it and very little happens. There’ll be good questions to ask either of them if they’re elected.

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