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E.J. Dionne Jr. Part I -

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HideAndrew West: Hurricane Sandy has cut a swathe through the northeast of the United States in the past 36 hours. It’s focused attention not only on the role of government, especially in the recovery effort, but on the whole ethos of community. Is America the home of the mythic rugged individual? The place where you’re on your own to make it or fail. Or does the US actually have an alternative history as a communitarian country that derives its ethos from the biblical story of a city on a hill?

It’s a question that’s preoccupied our next guest for 20 years. EJ Dionne is familiar to RN Breakfast listeners. He’s a columnist with The Washington Post. He’s also a celebrated public intellectual. Harvard and Oxford educated, he’s a fellow of the Brookings Institution and a professor at Georgetown University. EJ’s also a practising Catholic and his writing on religion has tried to breech the chasm between liberals and conservatives. His latest book is due out in Australia next month. It’s called Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent.

In the middle of a recent storm—not Hurricane Sandy—I caught up with EJ on the phone at his home in Washington.

EJ Dionne: Yes, we Americans do like to believe that America is a nation built not on blood and soil but on an idea. And we’ve been arguing what that American idea is from the very beginning of our republic.

The title of the book Our Divided Political Heart comes from a view that from the very beginning we Americans had been torn by a deep, but I believe healthy, tension between our love of individualism and liberty on the one side, and our quest for, and deep affection for, community on the other side. Americans often explain themselves—and people abroad often explain us too—solely in terms of individualism and liberty. And we are often seen as one of the most individualistic countries on earth.

But I argue that when you go back to the very origins of the republic and follow our history straight through, the idea of community, the idea of common provision, the idea of looking out for each other, I think has been there not only from the beginning in the sense of the establishment of our constitution, but also all the way back to the Puritan times where there was a very very very strong communitarian ethic in the country. In fact in the book I quote John Winthrop.

Andrew West: EJ we’re going to make that journey back. I just want to ask you before we get there though, to what extent has the 2012 presidential race become a reflection of this deeper battle, this communitarian versus individualist battle?

EJ Dionne: Well of course it’s very dangerous to ask someone who has written a new book how relevant it is because the author always sees it as entirely relevant. But in this case I actually do believe that the battle I’m describing in the book is very much the battle we’re having in the election. It’s the reason, in a sense, that I wrote the book because ever since the lies of the Tea Party at the beginning of Barack Obama’s administration, you can…one side of our debate, the conservative side of our debate, really a short, a kind of radical individualism that I see as quite different from the traditional tempered individualism. And while Mitt Romney in the late stages of the campaign has been trying to back away from that kind of radical individualism, he’s expressed it himself, most notably in the sort of video tape heard around the world, where he essentially argued that 47 per cent of Americans are dependent on the state. And it was a vigorous defence of a rather radical view of capitalist competition.

The other side of the argument in the United States is not some sort of socialist collectivism; rather it is this balance. And I think when you look at President Obama both in rhetoric and in action he is someone who certainly honours the individualistic and libertarian side—we are still very much a capitalist economy in the United States and he has repeatedly defended it—but he also argues that there is an important role for government and for community action. And he made that very explicit, I think, in the second debate and he’s been making that very explicit in the campaign. So I see the US as having been governed under this balance between individuals and community state in the market since our progressive era back at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century.

Andrew West: Well in the book EJ you do take the terms republican and liberal and you strip them of their capital letters and you kind of turn them upside down. So what do you mean by small r republicanism and small l liberalism?

EJ Dionne: Right. It’s an interesting fact of our history that if you go back to the revolutionary period, there were two ideas then that were very very strong. There was the older form of liberalism which in some ways is contemporary libertarianism, which really argued for individual liberty as the sole reason for the revolution. But the Republicans, who were very dominant in the period before and during our revolution, defined liberty rather differently than we did; they defined liberty in terms of the capacity for self-government. They defined liberty as involving our freedom to reach collective decisions in the common good and to participate in that process. True liberty, as one of the founders said, was natural liberty restrained in such a manner as to render society one great family where everyone must consult his neighbour’s happiness as well as his own. That is very much a kind of small r republican view of liberty and it’s ironic that for the moment the Republican Party with a capital r is less sympathetic to that old small r republican tradition. So that I argue to conservatives in the book that they really need to rediscover this aspect of their own philosophy because it is a very attractive part of conservatism that I see conservatives kind of kicking overboard for the time being.

Andrew West: But instead EJ you’ve got this Tea Party wing of the Republican Party which you trace back at least at one point to 1964 with Barry Goldwater’s nomination as the Republican candidate for president.

EJ Dionne: Right. Well in fact the Tea Party should be understood as an American right wing, or the right end of our political spectrum if you will. It’s been with us for a long time. Some of their ideas you can trace all the way back to the reaction to Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal. Some of it you can trace back to the radical right in the 1950s and early 1960s and the John Birch Society. And a lot of that got expressed in Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964. I think that it’s important to realise that the Republican Party before the Goldwater campaign came along had a very very strong moderate, even progressive, wing. There were many genuinely progressive Republicans. And Goldwater’s victory in ’64 began a long march of American conservatism that really took over the Republican Party—eventually nominated Ronald Reagan and slowly drove these kinds of Republicans out of the party. And now, since then, you’ve had a kind of self-perpetuating process because as moderates have left the Republican Party and become either Independents or Democrats, Republican primary electorates who pick the candidates have moved well to the right of where they were even 20 years ago.

Andrew West: And the new Democratic Party, or the contemporary Democratic Party, you say has tried to redeem a bit of the communitarian ethos having been overtaken in the late ’60s and early ’70s by sort of individualism. I think you point to Bill Clinton who famously used Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. What is that quote by the way and what does it say about the modern Democratic Party’s attempt to rediscover communitarianism?

EJ Dionne: Clinton once gave a whole speech, which was really a sermon, in the African American church quoting St Paul saying we are all part of one another. And Clinton talked a lot about community as a central purpose of his politics. He talked about community, opportunity and responsibility. And I think you saw Barack Obama do much the same thing; he gave, again, a kind of sermon to a progressive evangelical group here called Call to Renewal in which he also talked about this side of us. And he talked not only about community as a rationale for state action on behalf of the needy, he also talked about religious community as providing a moral foundation that people needed. He called upon progressives to shed some of the prejudices that they have against religion even as he called upon religious people to shed some of the prejudices they have against non-believers. And I think both Clinton and Obama saw both the achievements of the 1960s—certainly in terms of civil rights and feminism, and the equal rights for women—but also the limits of the 1960s, both in political terms in driving away some white working class voters and in theoretical terms because obviously candidates who support public action are not going to make their case very well if they’re arguing only in individualistic terms.

Andrew West: On the Religion and Ethics Report this is me, Andrew West, speaking this week with EJ Dionne, the American commentator and scholar about his new book, Our Divided Political Heart.

EJ, let’s talk now about some of the very distinct religious roots of this battle that you’ve been talking about, and we’ll stick with the Tea Partiers for the moment. Because you demonstrate in your book, referring to research conducted, that the modern Tea Party, despite its protestations, does in fact have a lot to do with the religious right—many overlapping characteristics.

EJ Dionne: Right. Well some colleagues and I, before and after the 2010 elections, did a couple of large surveys and what we found is that roughly half of the members of the people who said they considered themselves members of the Tea Party also considered themselves religious conservatives, members of the religious right. And if you drilled deeper and looked at the attitudes of Tea Party members they’re probably closer to three-quarters of them express views of broadly socially conservative views. And so this is in a way a new form of social conservative politics for a moment when economic issues have eclipsed the traditional social issues to a large degree because of the economic downturn. They may have eclipsed those issues but they haven’t gone away entirely.

Andrew West: Well that group may have been socially conservative but this book, and indeed your whole body of research, points in many ways to this movement in evangelical sympathy. In the book you do trace very specifically the transition of evangelicals from a communitarian small r sort of republican position. What is that trajectory EJ? Because it’s fascinating.

EJ Dionne: Right. Well if you look back at American history, Christian evangelicals were often at the forefront of movements for social reform in the United States. Evangelicals were very very important—and this was true in Britain as well—but they were very very important to the formation of the anti-slavery movement. They were very important in parts of our progressive movement. They were very important among groups that went into city slums in the 1880s and 1890s to try to improve the conditions of the poor. And when Theodore Roosevelt won the Progressive Party nomination when he challenged the Republicans from the outside, the last words of his speech were, ‘we stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.’ And the Lord was presumed to be a Progressive.

I think this began to change for a number of reasons. One is that Protestantism kind of split between more theological liberals who tended to align with these strong socially progressive tendencies. And so more fundamentalist or evangelical or scripturally-based Christians or theologically conservative Christians, kind of began pulling away from progressivism altogether. And then of course you had the 1960s, the legalisation of abortion, the alignment of a whole series of new issues which further pushed evangelicals toward the right side of politics. But one of the things I talk about, about this…I think one of the mysteries still, is how evangelical Christians could ally themselves so easily with a radically individualistic movement, because Christianity itself is clearly not an individualistic creed as most of us see it—as most Christians see it. And yet I think I've found a clue in the way in which various kinds of American Christians describe their relationship to Jesus—that among more evangelical Christians the emphasis is on personal salvation. And people talk about Jesus as the figure who changed their lives. More progressive Christians often talk about Jesus as someone who changed the world.

Now obviously there are many Christians who believe both those things. But I think that the way in which the Christian conservatives have easily allied it into a kind of individualism is partly theologically rooted in the idea that salvation is an individual choice—John 3:16. And that it creates a link that is, I see in other senses, quite surprising between Tea Party style individualism and evangelicalism.

Andrew West: Now EJ I promised we would talk about John Winthrop because you do put quite an emphasis on Winthrop. His whole city on the hill which was an allusion itself to something in Matthew’s gospel, that implied a notion of community didn’t it?

EJ Dionne: Right, and it was a phrase much loved by Ronald Reagan. Reagan often talked about America as a shining city on a hill. And he very consciously drew that from Winthrop…becomes the Governor of Massachusetts who in 1630 gave a sermon entitled ‘The Model of Christian Charity’—and if I could read just one of my favourite sentences in the sermon, Winthrop said, ‘We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labour and suffer together, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body.’ And I’ve been having fun with someone talking about the book because there is a new album this year from Bruce Springsteen the very popular rock and roll star—I assume popular in Australia, certainly…

Andrew West: Very popular.

EJ Dionne: Yes. Everybody loves Bruce. And in the very first song he says, ‘wherever this flag is flown’—meaning the American flag—‘we take care of our own.’ And I’ve been arguing that there’s a direct link between Bruce Springsteen and the Puritan John Winthrop in this very strong expression of American communitarian feeling and this notion that the preservation of liberty requires us to come to the defence of each other’s liberty, and also requires us to build the strong communities both nationally and locally. And I started talking about this early in the summer and before too long Bruce Springsteen’s song is now regularly played at Obama rallies. And I doubt that my talking about my book had any effect on this but I think it does suggest that the sentiment that I’m talking about from Winthrop to Springsteen is still very much alive and very much at the centre of our politics.

Andrew West: The American columnist, scholar and author, EJ Dionne discussing his latest book, Our Divided Political Heart. We’ll bring you part two of that interview next week. And you’ll find details of EJ’s book at our homepage on the RN website where you can download or podcast all of today’s stories, leave a comment, follow us on Twitter @abcreligion.

Next week we’ll look at the results of the US election and the role religion might have played. But that’s this week’s show.

Thanks to producer Mark Franklin, technical producers Paul Gough and Michelle Goldsworthy. I hope you’ll tune in next week.