E.J. Dionne on the Supreme Court, cable news and evangelicals
You don't often hear talk from the partisan news cycle about striking a balance between the state and the market -- do you ever receive criticism from the left for acknowledging the validity of the right?
Partly because of my communitarianism, I have more feeling for a certain style of social conservatism -- not right-wing conservatism. I agree with the right that the family is actually important to social policy and that family breakdown has caused us difficulty as a country. It has made eradicating poverty more difficult. Where I part company is when they translate that to opposition to gay marriage or gay rights in general. In fact, I think that the strongest argument for gay marriage is actually a kind of conservative argument: if you believe in fidelity and commitment, why would you close off people who are gay or lesbian to the opportunity of marriage?
In your 2008 book Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right you argue that evangelicals are losing their foot-hold in American politics, and that the left is reclaiming a religious identity within the culture of Washington. Do you think that the failure of Rick Santorum's presidential campaign was an indication of this?
I'd probably like to say that. But the movement, in some respects, has had more staying power than I had expected. It's become a genuinely important pressure group inside the Republican Party. In the primaries this year we saw that evangelicals are a still a force to be reckoned with, but they are not a force that can dominate the party. I still cling to my original view that in the long-run they face a slow decline in politics.
Is that because the younger evangelical generation isn't carrying the same torch along?
Yes, because of demographics. And also because they will always face the problem that the Republican Party's primary commitment is to economic conservationism. The real legislative energy in the party is with the business wing, and not the evangelical wing.
And it's not that the younger generation are churched less, it's that the younger generation of evangelicals have different views on important issues, like gay marriage or social justice, than the older evangelicals.
Do you think Mitt Romney is making any progress winning them over?
I think that the overwhelming dislike of President Obama among evangelical conservatives is so strong that Romney will win a substantial majority of them. The only question he has to face is whether his Mormonism creates a drop in turnout. It's hard to imagine his faith leading evangelical conservatives to vote for president Obama. The cost for Romney is that evangelicals won't allow him to move to the center; I think he's worried about losing them. If I remember right, I don't think he won a single primary where evangelicals cast a majority of the vote.
I was in Iowa at that time, speaking to evangelicals about the primaries -- they were all for either Santorum or Gingrich, and whenever Romney's name came up they almost unanimously dismissed him, explaining that his Mormonism was a dealbreaker. His campaign is certainly not putting his faith at the center of his identity like George W. Bush or Jimmy Carter did.
And that's because Mormons are a minority faith. It was politically functional for President Bush to do that -- it's not politically functional for Romney to put Mormonism in the center. And that has a couple of costs, one being that he is not able to tell an important part of his personal story.
Which is integral to selling yourself as a candidate. Do you think this will change when we get closer to the election?
I think he's wary of that, because in 2007 he tried to give a substantial speech on religion -- and it didn't really work very well. It was in contradiction with itself: the first half was a Kennedy-like you shouldn't vote for people on religious grounds, and then the second half was how he committed he was to a faith that closely resembled evangelical Christianity. The two halves didn't work well together.
He's going to count on other issues to convince evangelicals to vote for him.