Religion, politics not unwelcome at Dionne’s dinner table


E.J. Dionne

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

E.J. Dionne opens his book Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right with an anecdote about Jesus’ political party.

In this story, a son asks his “straight Democrat” mother if she would change her ways if Jesus came back and voted Republican. “Aw, hush, why should he
change his party after all these years?” she replies.

This woman’s opinion is not uncommon, but many Americans have come to believe that all religious voters also vote Republican. The point Dionne will make in his Interfaith Lecture is that the principles behind religion should set the standards by which people live. His lecture will be at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.

“Religious people should always be wary of the ways in which political power is wielded and … mindful of how their own traditions have been used for narrow political purposes, and how some religious figures have manipulated faith to aggrandize their own power,” Dionne said in his book.

Dionne said that even he cannot explain his views on many topics, like poverty, without referring back to what he learned about Christianity and Judaism.

Although “religious right” has become an everyday phrase, Dionne said he jokes that he is a liberal because he is a Christian, not despite the fact that he is. He also said he grew up in a household where religion and politics were discussed together and where religion was attractive and relatable.

“I always joked that I grew up in a household that violated the rule that you never talk about religion or politics at the dinner table. We always talked about religion and politics at the dinner table,” Dionne said.

He said his parents were religious in an open way and taught him by example. Now, he said he sees faith as something that inspires people to do good things.

“My neighbor was an Orthodox Jew, and she and my mother would regularly sit down and kind of compare notes on their view of God,” Dionne said. “So sort of the idea that religion was automatically closed-minded, which a lot of people have, was not the way I experienced it.”

As a result, Dionne said, the questions surrounding politics and religion have fascinated him, and most of his work is related to them. In addition to Souled Out, Dionne has written three other books and writes a twice-weekly political column for The Washington Post. He also is a professor at Georgetown University and a commentator for NPR.

His interest in politics allows Dionne to take a unique historical perspective on the meaning of the week’s theme, “The Role of Religion in Engaging Citizens for the Common Good.”

“I think we live in a world where a lot of people wonder if there is such a thing as the common good, that we are very divided politically and people are suspicious of anything that doesn’t really talk about individual freedom,” Dionne said.

However, there is a lot of evidence to the contrary, he said. In the Declaration of Independence, for example, the tax grievance never included the words “private” or “sector” but instead spoke of the public good, Dionne said in a recent column.

“(The signers) knew that it takes public action — including effective and responsive government — to secure ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’” the column read.

There is also religious evidence that the common good should be the goal. For example, many religions call followers to believe that the community should be valued over the whole, and that only a strong community can best defend the freedom of individuals, Dionne said.

“Particularly the prophetic books of the old testament … and the social parts of Jesus’ teaching, the Sermon on the Mount notably, are all about the good, and I think that we misunderstand Christianity if we think it is only about individual salvation,” Dionne said. “So much of what Jesus talked about was about our imperative to change the way we live in this world.”

Dionne will discuss this, as well as the country’s need for openness and how it applies to religion.

“I want to talk about how, if you look at both the Old and New testaments, there is a constant call to be open to people who are called aliens or strangers,” Dionne said. “I want to talk about what a world without strangers would look like.”