Can religion and politics make us more civil?

E. J. Dionne

One of the many joys of being in Saint Louis is to watch the emerging creative engagement of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University. From time to time I (and others) hope to blog about Danforth Center offerings. One recent offering on October 10, 2011:

E. J. Dionne, Jr., Washington Post columnist, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, prof at Georgetown University, and author of Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right, offered the fall 2011 keynote lecture, “Can Religion and Politics Make Us More Civil and Not Just Angry?” (You can watch the full lecture online here.)

Dionne’s answer to the question of his talk: yes, religion can but it is not actually doing so in 21st century America, or most anywhere else on the planet either.  From his perspective, now that the societal glue of American Protestantism has lost its stickiness, there is no unifying religious principle that holds America together. In fact, the opposite holds true as religion becomes more polarizing.

Dionne sees hope in the possible emerging value of “neighbor.” Looking to find our commonness with others even in the midst of our diversity, religious people begin to look for what connects us rather than what divides us. This then creates a society of respect, care, and empathy even though there are clear differences in religious belief of people within it. This approach appeals to what he believes are some of the essential human care and compassion instincts of most all religious belief and is the value that helps us live together in constructive and healthy ways.

I am not prone to ask questions at such large gatherings, but I wondered out loud and at the microphone if Dionne saw any emergent or actual voices on the American political scene that could champion such a position. While he saw an occasional speech here and there, there is no identifiable champion he could identify. Too bad! The idea of “neighbor” is a worthy candidate to be some new glue. Can we find a champion?

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