Dionne: Misunderstanding of history makes living in the present difficult


Washington Post columnist and author E.J. Dionne listens to a question from an audience member after his Interfaith Lecture at the Hall of Philosophy Thursday afternoon. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it,” reads Hebrews 13:2.

“I have always loved this,” E.J. Dionne said.

Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post, a NPR commentator and a professor at Georgetown University. He is the author of Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right.

His lecture, “Does Faith Make Us Strangers or Friends?” was divided into three parts. He discussed the role of the common good in history, Christianity’s relationship to democracy and what a world without strangers would look like.

“There are some, including a very smart lecturer who is here this week, who would deny the possibility of a common good,” Dionne said. “I profoundly disagree and would simply ask the question that if there is no such thing as a common good, if it doesn’t matter how we shape society for all of us, then why are any of us here who are successful or fortunate, successful or fortunate? Is it all our own effort?”

Dionne said that a misunderstanding or ignorance of history makes living in the present difficult.

“We don’t know who we are, because we don’t know who we’ve been,” he said.

Americans ignore the complexity of their past when they attempt to identify one signifier that will mark them as “American” instead of appreciating its complexity and diversity, Dionne said.

Though it may be a flawed interpretation, the Tea Party has brought American history back into the national spotlight, Dionne said, and now to combat the claims of the Tea Party, Americans must take a closer look at their past.

Dionne dwelt on the implications of the name of the Tea Party. The original “tea partiers” in 1773 were upset over taxation without representation, Dionne said, not taxes that were too high or that existed at all. And taxes were the 17th complaint that American revolutionaries listed in the Declaration of Independence; although it was a significant complaint, it was not the most pressing.

Rather, the Founders despised the British monarch for denying the common good, Dionne said, and began the document with this complaint.

Dionne referenced Robert Bellah, who co-authored the book Habits of the Heart, which emphasizes two communitarian strands in the history of the United States.

The first strand is biblical, explained Dionne, as he quoted excerpts of John Winthrop’s writings, who advocated for diversity and the common good. Today, partisan philosophies offer different approaches on how to achieve the common good.

“Our biblical inheritance as a nation is bifurcated between a stress on communal action and an emphasis on individual behavior or, perhaps more precisely, between communal action to transform personal norms and communal efforts to transform social and economic structures,” Dionne said.

The second strand is republican — “Little ‘r,’” Dionne said.

“All of us are republicans, or ought to try to be,” he said.

Dionne cited Gordon Wood, who explained that the early republicans in the United States had a highly communal view of liberty.

“It’s about as distant as you can imagine from pure individualism,” he said.

But Dionne also emphasized what he termed “the American balance” between individualism and preserving the common good.

“I would argue that preserving individual rights is itself a communal project,” he said. “My liberty is not safe unless you and the entire community are willing to come to its defense. Liberty will corrode in a society that does not tend to common institutions that bind us together.”

Dionne’s second point focused on Christianity and its relationship to democracy.

He quoted H. Richard Niebuhr: “We tend to become so devoted to Christianity that we do not inquire too diligently into its character. We love democracy so dearly that we do not ask it too many questions about its heredity, its religion, its virtues and its vices. We find beauty in both because we love them, as well as love them because they are beautiful. Defensiveness only increases confusion in this realm.”

Niebuhr was hesitant to revere democracy as divinely ordained, Dionne said.

“No people can live in the world of God who live for themselves, who consult their own desires in making laws,” quoted Dionne.

This implies the existence and necessity of a common good, he said.

“The positive relationship between Christian faith and democracy is more a moral than intellectual one,” Dionne quoted Niebuhr.

Dionne encouraged Chautauquans to reassess the relationship between religion and democracy in historical context.

“We might work together across our divides to think about what a theology of democracy might look like,” he said. “It should be an honest theology of democracy that would be as candid … about the tensions and conflicts within our own tradition.”

Dionne’s third point sought to answer the question, “How do you trust someone whom you don’t know and with whom you are not familiar?”

Both Christian and Jewish Scriptures say we have the ability and the obligation to love strangers, Dionne said, citing passages from the biblical books of Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Matthew, Romans and Hebrews.

“I think a world without strangers would be a better world, because all of us everywhere could feel at home all of the time,” Dionne said. “In a world without strangers, we approach the new people we meet anticipating the joys of friendship, not the anxieties of enmity. That is what I’ve noticed happens on (Chautauqua’s) streets every day. People you have never met in your life approach you and start talking to you about some of the largest questions in the world. I guess I’m saying the world needs to be more like Chautauqua.”

Dionne concluded with a reflection on the use of the epithet “bleeding heart.” He shared the anecdote of a conservative who railed against bleeding-heart liberals and the unintended negative consequences of their government programs. A pastor stood up and declared, “I worship a Savior with a bleeding heart.”

But you don’t need to be religious to have a bleeding heart, he said, and bleeding heart-esque compassion transcends political party lines.

“I am grateful to be among people who try to bring heart and mind together, who have passion for reason and bring reason to their passion,” he said. “It is in bringing these together that we will discover that good in common that we seek.”