Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne said despite conservatives’ frequent use of religious rhetoric, religion’s role in politics transcends partisan boundaries.
“I think the left is uneasy when the right uses religious rhetoric, even though the civil rights and anti-slavery movements had religious roots,” Dionne said.
Dionne spoke in the densely packed Anderson D Room in the Michigan Union yesterday about the often contradictory role religion plays on both sides of the political spectrum and how this conflict fosters ambivalence for individuals.
Even though various liberal movements were born out of religion, Dionne noted the irony of how conservatives still criticize those on the left for their lack of spirituality.
“The Right pretends everything left of the center is hostile to religion and religious people,” he said.
Dionne said that though opponents have frequently criticized the Bush administration’s use of religious rhetoric, many other presidents — including former President Bill Clinton — have also incorporated biblical imagery into speeches.
“Bush is not the first president to invoke God and the scripture, and he is certainly not the last,” Dionne said.
Dionne said he also objected to the notion that the United States is a polarized nation composed only of loyal Democrats and Republicans. Instead, he described Americans as “a deeply moderate people” who float around the center of the political spectrum.
Dionne also noted the sharp contrast between how John F. Kennedy and U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) dealt with religion in their political careers. Kennedy tried to downplay his Roman Catholicism, while Lieberman has professed his faith in Judaism publicly — even jokingly calling himself “Holy Joe.”
Dionne used the term “flexidoxy” to describe Americans who have strong religious beliefs yet want to change certain religious strictures such as those concerning birth control and abortion.
He ended his hour-long speech with unlikely advice to politicians: He said the Frank Capra movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” provides the means to tap into the American psyche.
“It tells politicians everything they need to know about the average Americans, and watching it is a lot cheaper than focus groups,” he said.
Dionne said the movie illustrated that most Americans are egalitarian but still striving for upward mobility.
Rebecca Blank, dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Foreign Policy, said she invited Dionne because his insight into religion was especially pertinent in the current political climate.
“The role of religion has been visible since the last election and especially in the last week,” she said. “E.J. Dionne seemed a natural person to discuss the role of religion in politics, since he speaks to people along all divides.”
University students had mixed reactions to Dionne’s ideas.
Engineering freshman Rob Hoschner said he enjoyed parts of Dionne’s lecture but disagreed with others.
Hoschner said that as a conservative, he agrees with Dionne that religion can sometimes play a positive role in politics.
“But I didn’t get the impression that he thought politicians’ beliefs could or should be deeply inspired by religion,” he said. “He was more guarded on whether politicians should make that decision or not.”
Joyce Koo, who is a fourth year student in the joint Public Policy and Law School program, thought Dionne’s speech was incredibly informative as well as balanced.
“I thought it was interesting. I felt it could be part of a booklet to talk about both sides of how religion affects politics,” she said.