Q & A with E. J. Dionne Jr.

An interview with E. J. Dionne Jr., author of Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right

What prompted you to write this book?
My hope is that Souled Out might contribute to broadening the conversation about religion and politics. The book is aimed at both believers and nonbelievers. It makes the case to religious people that faith calls us to social as well as individual responsibility, and that politics is not primarily a realm of cultural combat in which only abortion and gay marriage matter. The book also addresses secular people, arguing that they should not relegate people of faith to some outer darkness of supposed ignorance. At the heart of my argument is the view that religious faith, far from being inevitably on the side of the status quo, should on principle hold this world to higher standards. We do not need, and should not want, to end religion's public role. We do need a more capacious understanding of what that role is.

Can you explain what the book's title means?
The title of this book can be read in two ways. It speaks to our country's exhaustion with a religious style in politics that has been excessively dogmatic, partisan, and ideological. It is a style reflecting a spirit far too certain of itself, and far too insistent on the depravity of its political adversaries. A great many people--including a great many religious people, and conservatives as well as liberals--have had enough.The book's title also speaks to the fact that this reducing of religion to politics or to a narrow set of public issues amounts to a great sellout of our traditions. It is a sellout of religion to insist that it has much to teach us about abortion or gay marriage but little useful to say about social justice, Iraq, the organization of our work lives, or our approach to providing for the old, the sick, and the desperate.

How has your own religious background shaped this book?
I became a liberal because I am a Christian. That's a surprising thing to say these days, but both the Old Testament and the New include powerful calls to lift up the poor and to consider the needs and rights of the excluded, the suffering, and the marginalized. These scriptures also send a powerful message on behalf of freedom and the dignity of every individual. Catholic social thought, which influenced me a great deal, can be seen as one of the inspirations behind the New Deal and later efforts at social reform.

Is the political influence of the Religious Right over?
The era of the Religious Right is over. Its collapse is part of a larger decline of a style of ideological conservatism that reached high points in 1980 and 1994 but suffered a series of decisive setbacks during George W. Bush's second term. But the end of the Religious Right does not signal a decline in evangelical Christianity. This historic change will require liberals and conservatives alike to abandon their sometimes narrow views of who evangelicals are and what they believe.