In Review

A Newly Raucous Arena

A review of recent books on contemporary politics and religion.

By Todd Shy

A “compassion forum” hosted by CNN in April 2008 was remarkable on a number of levels. The guests being interviewed were the two Democratic candidates for president, and the questions were bluntly personal and theological. Co-moderator Jon Meacham asked Hillary Clinton why she thought a loving God allowed innocent people to suffer. Barack Obama was asked if he believed God intervened in human history. These are not questions likely to come up in the president’s morning briefings.

More notable, though, was the thoughtfulness of the candidates’ responses. In passing, and, alas, too late in the session, Clinton pressed the range of the discussion: “We haven’t talked much about the challenge that faith gives us,” she said. When his turn came, Obama showed the professorial side that makes him seem at times more Woodrow Wilson than John Kennedy. He repeated his belief that religion belongs in the public square, but only in language that reasons in broad, universal terms: “And it is important for us not to try to kill the debate by saying, ‘Well, God tells me I’m right, and so I’m not going to listen to you.’ Rather, we’ve got to translate whatever it is that we believe into a language that allows for argument, allows for debate, and also allows that we may be wrong.” A conference table rather than a wall separating church and state. This was the party of Jefferson speaking.

The whole event ran the risk of seeming gimmicky, as if the candidates were athletes working out for the religion scouts. Campbell Brown’s send-off of Senator Clinton was awkward and apologetic. It has been a different kind of evening, the CNN anchor conceded: “You’ve been a good sport.” But afterward, a former speechwriter for President Bush, Michael Gerson, saw in the forum two important trends that have been tracked and analyzed in a number of recent books and that may help describe the 2008 election: one, the Democratic Party has become much more comfortable talking about religion; and, two, evangelicals have broadened the range of their political concerns and might no longer be quite as reliably Republican. John McCain’s absence from the forum was conspicuous, scheduling conflict or no. In an area assumed to be a core Republican strength—religion—the Democrats were the ones playing offense.


Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right, by E. J. Dionne (Princeton University Press)

The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap, by Amy Sullivan (Scribner)

Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America’s Ideals (And Why They Deserve to Fail If They Don’t), by Michael J. Gerson (HarperOne)

God in the White House: A History. How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, by Randall Balmer (HarperOne)

Inventing Human Rights: A History, by Lynn Hunt (W. W. Norton)

The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, by Mark Lilla (Knopf)

The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America, by Jim Wallis (HarperOne)

Hilary Clinton sitting on a stage with two moderators

Screen capture of Hilary Clinton and moderators at the Compassion Forum.

This political-religious shift is enough of a trend that E. J. Dionne, in his new book Souled Out, declares “the era of the religious Right” over. Amy Sullivan, in The Party Faithful, adds that the “God gap” between the parties is closing. Evangelicals are now prioritizing issues that aren’t Republican Party battle cries, especially the environment (“creation care”) and fighting poverty. Sullivan cites megachurch pastor and author Rick Warren as emblematic of the turn toward a broader social agenda. “I went to Bible school and seminary and got a doctorate,” Warren confessed. “How did I miss 2,000 verses in the Bible [about the poor]?” In his wake-up-call memoir, Heroic Conservatism, Gerson describes the evangelical shift as a “journey from Jerry Falwell toward Bono.” The question now is, will that same group of evangelicals take a journey from Bush to Obama, a man who gave a speech in 2006 urging progressives to talk openly about faith? Part of the purpose of Gerson’s book is to say why they shouldn’t; part of the purpose of Jim Wallis’s The Great Awakening is to say why they might. What all these books share, regardless, is a sense that the arena joining religious values to political debate is much broader in 2008 than it was in 2000 or 2004. More people are in the conversation, and they are talking about more issues.

The shift among evangelicals is particularly interesting. The recent Evangelical Manifesto spoke out against what it may as well have called the “Republican Captivity of the Church.” At 20 pages (and with enough enumerated points to leave a Victorian churchgoer dizzy), the document reasserted the priority of theology over politics and sought to separate evangelicalism from its more strident stepbrother, fundamentalism. Conspicuously absent was any explicit discussion of Catholicism—explicit because the document refers to the Protestant Reformation by name several times, and concludes by adopting the language of Luther at Worms: Here we stand. Conspicuous because in 1994, leading evangelicals—including Richard Mouw, who co-drafted this new manifesto—endorsed a joint statement, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” The religious right in America has been seeded with both Protestant and Catholic influence. Given that the manifesto drew clear distinctions between evangelicals and fundamentalists, it seems strange not to at least clarify evangelicals’ relationship to the Catholic tradition as well. Overall, the document embodied and restated an ambivalence that, to this reader (and one-time evangelical), is the distinctive mark of the evangelical style: serious and learned, but also populist and sentimental; anxious and self-conscious, but also generous and earnest; politically and culturally engaged, but also monastic and otherworldly; recoiling at Jeremiah Wright, but not for that reason rejecting Obama. The document was criticized by Alan Jacobs for not being a manifesto at all—not “sharp” enough, not “punchy,” not purposeful—and it was chided for lacking the endorsement of major evangelical leaders such as Rick Warren, and yet the timing of this redescription of evangelicalism still makes it significant, at least symbolically.

Barack Obama answering a question

Screen capture of Barack Obama at CNN’s 2008 Compassion Forum.

Alan Wolfe observed in The Guardian that through the manifesto an “important segment of conservative American religion, perhaps the single most important one, is rejecting the culture war and everything for which it stands.” Or at least half-rejecting it. It’s the ambivalence posture again. But if you join this statement to the CNN “Compassion Forum,” and the fact that Barack Obama spoke at Rick Warren’s megachurch, and the deafening delegate-silence that followed Pat Robertson’s endorsement of Rudy Giuliani, and National Association of Evangelicals vice president Richard Cizik’s “conversion” (his term) to environmental causes, it is hard to avoid a sense of at least hesitant realignment—a noticing of other possibilities, like a traditionalist poet, say, rethinking free verse.

The lingering political question is how decisive the appointment of judges proves to be for evangelicals. On the most controversial topic, abortion, Sullivan shows that there are options other than the courts being pursued (channeling energy to reduce the number of abortions rather than determining to outlaw the practice) and that Democrats are becoming less paranoid about having pro-life party members. Sullivan, a self-described evangelical who is now an editor at Time magazine, can be impatient with Democrats in this respect. She describes the party’s decision to deny pro-life Catholic Governor Bob Casey a speaking slot at the 1992 convention as a “startlingly stupid public relations move,” and a “snub” that “soon achieved canonical status in the pro-life community.” Given abortion’s position as the Verdun of the culture war (“they shall not pass”), it is worth noting, as Randall Balmer does in God in the White House, that in the early days, soon after Roe v. Wade, a fundamentalist titan like W. A. Criswell could be untroubled by the decision. “I have always felt,” Criswell noted, “that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person.” He later changed his mind, but surely it takes a little bit of the spring out of the movement’s step to learn that Roe v. Wade was not the initial mobilizer of religious conservatives, that in fact what sparked the movement was a court decision denying tax-exempt status to religious schools enforcing segregation. Not exactly a moral shot heard round the world.

In a book that matches an even, generous tone with the kind of curiosity you would expect from one of our most respected journalists, E. J. Dionne takes on the other issue that manages to both energize and frighten the religious right: same-sex marriage. Dionne contributes to this strident debate a candid account of his own changing mind. He was against gay marriage, but now he is for it, and for what he calls conservative reasons, reasons he learned, in part, from columnist David Brooks. Their argument is that conservatives believe in long-term, stable, committed relationships as the foundation of a strong society, and, so, allowing same-sex marriage would promote stability. As with Criswell, the fact that Dionne, mid-career, changed his mind on a key ethical issue should at least give us pause.

Conservative arguments against same-sex marriage differ from arguments about abortion because they can’t lean on the principles of the country’s founding: the self-evident truths of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The case against abortion, by contrast, can be viewed as an elaboration of a consensus about protecting life. The arguments don’t need to be specifically religious: the Catholic Church forbids this practice, scripture tells us it is wrong. They can be arguments about a Jeffersonian inalienable right. In fact, Michael Gerson argues, what unifies a conservative agenda is not a confessional tradition at all but the “assertion of self-evident moral truths.” True to this claim, here is how Gerson summarizes the moral heart of what he dubs “heroic conservatism”: “that every human being has a worth independent of their background or accomplishments; that the least have the same value as the great.” What liberal (and what Christian) would object? But when it comes to the issue of sexual equality and equal marriage status, Gerson points not to the Declaration of Independence, or to this statement about individual worth, but to the weight of traditions surrounding marriage. We are left to wonder what happened to the unifying criterion of self-evidence.

In her brief, compelling study, Inventing Human Rights, Lynn Hunt isolates the “paradox of self-evidence” this way: “If equality of rights is so self-evident, then why did this assertion have to be made and why was it only made in specific times and places?” Does Jefferson acknowledge this ambiguity with his verb choice: we hold these truths to be self-evident? Moreover, what does it mean for us that “scholars have argued for more than two hundred years about what Jefferson meant by his phrase”? All this leads not to incoherence (I understand how Gerson is arguing), but to his own form of paradox (he needs more than one lens to draw the position into focus, and they seem to catch different glints of light). And yet he seems elsewhere to suggest that the country’s founding principles give us what we need to build a common moral ground.

Clearly, in reality, on the ground, we need other arguments than self-evidence. We will have to talk about different traditions and history. We will have to offer our various metaphors and reasons and see which ones resonate. We will have to decide which analogies relate. Is same-sex marriage like interracial marriage, once banned but now seen as an obvious civil right? Is it like something else? If so, what? Is it like divorce, also criticized in the Bible but accepted in society and in many churches? Have there been other traditions we have come to set aside that seemed as venerable as this one? Is marriage an institution that can be harmed? Is it a custom? Is there a difference? Is there a sense in which it is sacred? Is it the role of a democracy to define sacred things? Do churches really have to worry that they will be viewed and treated as bigots, as Rick Santorum did in the wake of a recent decision by the California Supreme Court: “The California court just declared that those of us who see marriage as the union of husband and wife are the legal equivalent of racists.”1 And so on. Our arguments must draw on a number of sources. They will lead most of us to recognize paradox, intricacy. We allow for the possibility that there are things we do not see.

But I would add this one coda: I don’t think Gerson would reciprocate my acknowledgment that his argument is paradoxical rather than ridiculous or perverse. I think he’s wrong, but I understand how he could hold his position. From Gerson’s perspective, however, tension in conservative reasoning may earn the description paradox, but tension in liberal thinking rises to the level, in his words, of “hypocrisy.” The former speechwriter for the president adds that, in its own way, this is a compliment: “The hypocrisy of modern liberalism is actually a sign of moral health.” Then, adding insult to injury: “If relativists were not hypocrites, they would be monsters.” There are ethical and political differences between conservatives and liberals; there is also a difference in how they view those with whom they differ. Gerson’s recent commentary in The Washington Post has an odd strain of developmental one-upmanship that he seems to have adapted from the language of Pope Benedict XVI and that, like the line about hypocrisy, makes for a strange form of public debate. In a column from April, for example, he quotes the pontiff: “Being an adult means having a faith which does not follow the waves of today’s fashions or the latest novelties.” Gerson elaborates: “Benedict contends that modern men and women, unguided by reasoned moral beliefs, turn toward adolescent self-involvement. Their intellectual growth is stunted.” While I get the connection, I think, to 1 Corinthians (“when I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child”), the apostle’s language seems grandly confessional and metaphorical, where Gerson’s language, and even the pope’s, is the language of a clinical scold.

It is also, to borrow a word Gerson used of Barack Obama, condescending. Here is Gerson summarizing the schoolyard argumentation of a person who doesn’t appeal to absolute moral standards: “Says you.” And here he is granting this year’s Democratic candidate for the presidency the rank of grown-up: “Obama is a serious, thoughtful, decent adult who will attract the sympathy of other serious, thoughtful, decent adults.” Just to give one counter-example of argumentation from the type of liberal Gerson is attempting to describe, listen to pragmatist philosopher Jeffrey Stout, in a difficult, rewarding book, Democracy and Tradition (2004), urge us toward large-heartedness in debate: “The default position will be that our neighbors are justified in believing what they believe. If we are charitable interpreters, we will view those who differ from us religiously, in the absence of clear evidence to the contrary, as people doing their best to offer appropriate acknowledgment of their dependence.”

Finally, the strange shorthand of “faith.” From the unmarried medical missionary and the parish priest, from my grandmother and the college student who once felt a shiver of something and wondered if it might be Jesus, from Notre Dame theologians to a religionless horoscope-reader who trusts something good about the universe—all are “people of faith.” Faith is the convenient, nonsectarian term that expands to include all the varieties of American religious experience. But it is also a slippery term that is asked to do too many things, like a medicine that, having cured one disease, is used for every illness. The language of “faith” in politics is usually an attempt to pay respect to religious experience, but at the same time to make sure nothing too theological gets said. It is the flag pin of religious pluralism. And woe to the politician with an empty lapel!

In his well-known 1955 study Protestant-Catholic-Jew, Will Herberg described the substance of America’s religious consensus as being “faith in faith.” I don’t think this describes what we hear in public discourse today. Nor do I think the faith that gets discussed in political contexts is a psychological trick; people have a God in mind. In the wake of the second-most-talked-about speech of the 2007–08 campaign (Mitt Romney’s “Faith in America” address), columnist Charles Krauthammer identified the God of the American civil religion: “The God of the Founders, the God on the coinage, the God for whom Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving Day is the ineffable, ecumenical, nonsectarian Providence of the American civil religion whose relation to the blessed land is without appeal to any particular testament or ritual.”2 But for the evangelicals whom Romney was purportedly targeting in the address, this is surely an unsatisfying way to speak about a God who took on flesh. They do not pray to Providence each morning, and they have very strong opinions about two particular Testaments. And yet Romney’s speech, with these same appeals to a God more concerned about general faith than specific beliefs, met with broad approval among evangelical leaders. James Dobson, without endorsing it outright, found the address “magnificent,” “passionate,” and “inspirational.” David Neff, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, also praised more than he cautioned, calling the speech “a valiant effort” at convincing evangelicals of Romney’s religious acceptability. David Brooks reported that he “called around to many of America’s serious religious thinkers” and that everyone he spoke with “was enthusiastic about the speech, some of them wildly so.”

What is absent in both Romney’s speech and these laudatory responses is any sense of theological stress. The God of the speech, and the God usually implied by political references to faith, is a reservoir of beneficence, company for the national journey, a source of confidence, something we are better off with but not under judgment without. Faith is all good. Here is President Bush at his first National Prayer Breakfast: “Men and women can be good without faith, but faith is a force for goodness. Men and women can be compassionate without faith, but faith often inspires compassion. Human beings can love without faith, but faith is a great teacher of love.” Romney put it this way: “Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God.” More striking still was the response to Romney’s speech of Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core: “Americans, myself included, want to know what it is in the life story or heritage or belief system of a public figure that inspires them to uphold what Mr. Romney referred to as ‘American values.’ ” He goes on: “But I have never thought that doctrine dominates the life of a person of faith. I believe inspiration does. And every person of faith draws inspiration from the parts of their tradition that they connect with most deeply—a special song, a piece of scripture, a particular sermon, a certain stained glass window—and that is an entirely subjective process.”

The sentiment here is celebration without effort or hindrance. Piety is a throwing open of the shutters to let the generous light in. But don’t those religious windows open to other things as well—spiritual burdens, ambiguities, self-examination, sinfulness, fear, uncertainty, etc.—and isn’t every devout person (including, we now know, Mother Theresa) painfully aware of that? If you read back through Romney’s entire address, you’ll search in vain for anything strange or ambivalent about a person of faith. When Romney spoke of being “moved by the Lord’s words” about feeding the hungry and housing the stranger (one of the more commonly quoted stretches of the Bible in political speeches), there was no whiff of the verses that immediately follow: people who don’t do these things will be cast, not out of the American polity, but into an “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” We are like Victorian audiences of King Lear who can’t stand for Cordelia to die, and so we watch a revised ending. For Romney—and he is in no way alone—”every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God.” This is the civic religion, not a quiet reverence before Krauthammer’s ineffable God—or Lincoln’s inscrutable one—but a celebration of God filling the reservoir for people of all faiths, except for those with no faith and the radical Islamists intent on “theocratic tyranny.”

It is almost all good news; but it is hardly, for that, a gospel. The danger is, if nothing else ever gets said, we reinforce an image of the God of the touchdown, first to be thanked in the interview after a big win. The challenge is, what else can be said apart from wishing for God to bless America? The public square is not a good host for theological controversy, as John Hagee, Rod Parsley, and Jeremiah Wright have all discovered. Maybe a bold politician will try one time talking in parables.

In his book The Stillborn God, Mark Lilla describes the situation we find ourselves in—a secular democracy governing people who remain largely religious—as a historically “fragile” experiment. People of faith should acknowledge fragility too. It should be part of the rhetoric about how to balance individual and communal religious beliefs with the needs of a pluralistic democracy. The source of this fragility is not a secular threat to religion but the paradoxes inherent in traditional belief itself, and inherent in a pluralistic world. Lilla also writes of what he observes in the Middle Ages as “a kind of picture-thinking, a groping after images and metaphors to help understand the nature of Christian politics.” This seems to me to be the right final word. For the contest between various views about what makes a good society, and what constitutes the good life, and how we will live together with people we disagree with, and what religion has to do with politics, is often framed as a moralistic debate. And moralistic debate is pale, to borrow a phrase from Czeslaw Milosz, “because it knows less than we know.” It rows a ship with one mighty oar. There is not enough lightness or balance, rupture or indirection; not enough style, uncanniness, lyricism; not enough tree-climbing tax collectors or spikenards of anointment being wasted on an itinerant teacher’s feet; not enough changing minds, loafing, lingering behind, not enough garment hems being touched, not enough storms sending young students to monastery doors, not enough nostalgia, not enough Eutychuses falling asleep in sermons and then out of windows, not enough rolling over in bed like the Tolstoy character who wondered if he’d lived the wrong life, not enough Pilgrims plugging their ears so they won’t be tempted to turn back, not enough confessions like Shakespeare’s King Richard who felt he played in his one person many people—and none contented.

In a word, not enough imagination. But this is where religious faith lives—in our conception of how the world is and how we are in the world. And if our conception lacks imaginative depth, it is like a photograph of electricity, or Shakespeare paraphrased—poetry tamed into prose.


  1. Rick Santorum, “The Elephant in the Room: A Wake-up Call on Gay Marriage After ’03 Alarm Went Unheeded,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 22, 2008.
  2. Charles Krauthammer, “Huckabee Plays the Religion Card,” The Washington Post December 7, 2007.

Todd Shy is a book critic for the News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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