Tippett, Brooks, and Dionne Discuss Religion and Politics


Check  out On Being host Krista Tippett’s interview with David Brooks and E.J. Dionne about the role of religion in American political life.  The event was hosted by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

Here is a taste of the transcript:

Tippett: OK, let’s talk about sin. This is a word you have both used. I find it remarkable. So let’s go there. David, you’ve been talking about, as you quote Saint Augustine around the country, Saint Augustine’s notion of “disordered loves.” That’s a definition of sin, and also—but how that is also a way to diagnose us and the political state of our soul.

Brooks: Yes, somebody—it might have been C.S. Lewis said, “Sin—” or maybe Chesterton—“Original sin is the only concept with scientifically variable proof.” That we are…

Tippett: I think Niebuhr said…

Dionne: I’d attribute it to Niebuhr, and he got it from somebody else.

Tippett: Well, didn’t Niebuhr say, “You just have to read today’s newspaper to know there’s something to it?”

Brooks: Yeah, or look in the mirror.

Dionne: “Original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian church.” Yeah, it’s one of my favorite lines.

Brooks: And so the question is—and for me, the challenge was how to express it in a secular audience. I’m a secular writer. I don’t write for religious audiences. I write for The New York Times. How secular can you get? My joke—I can’t help inserting my joke of being a conservative columnist at The New York Times is like being Chief Rabbi at Mecca.


Brooks: Not totally fair, but it’s a joke. So I wrote this book, and Augustine was central to it, and I think the awareness of sin is central to Niebuhr—that we are more sinful than we think even when we think we’re taking the purest action, and we have to be aware of that sinfulness. But how do you talk about sin in modern America? And I had gone on the Charlie Rose show, my closest encounter to heaven until recently—no, I’m kidding—and I had talked about my book before it came out, and I had talked about the word “sin.”

And I got an email from an editor in New York at a different publishing house, and he said, “I love the way you were talking about your book, but I didn’t like the way you used that word ‘sin.’ It’s a downer. Use the word ‘insensitive’ instead.” And so I forwarded his email to my editor at Random House—it was sort of a test of him—and he said, “Well, that’s why you’re writing the book, to redeem sin.” But then how do you talk about it?

You really can’t talk about “original sin.” People will just push you away. And so I go to Augustine’s concept of “disordered loves,” which is we all love a lot of things, and we all know some loves are higher than others. Our love of truth should be higher than our love of money, but because of some screw-up in our nature, we get our loves out of order all the time. So if a friend blabs to you a secret and you tell it at a dinner party, you’re putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship, and that’s a sin. And I think, in this world, which doesn’t like to peer darkly into brokenness, it’s easier to swallow the concept of two positive things that are out of order. And that’s a way you can introduce the concept of sin. But a lot of what we have to do now is reintroduce these concepts in a way that people won’t immediately think you’re preaching at them.

Tippett: Right, right. Or it’s a downer. And E.J., you wrote this: “I believe a serious embrace of Christianity inevitably leads one into politics, since sin is social as well as individual.”

Dionne: It’s been one of the classic arguments between more progressive and more conservative Christians about where is the emphasis on social sin versus individual sin? And one area, for example, where that often comes out is in our discussion of family life. Because, on the one hand, if you care about family values, you’ve got to care about social justice. Because one of the reasons the family is under such pressure is the way in which the economy is a battering ram at times against the family, particularly among folks who have lost jobs that once supported families.

So you cannot look at family breakup without looking at the economic factors. On the other hand—and this is really the theme of Bob Putnam’s Our Kids—we also know that, as a practical matter, most of the time, two parents are better than one, and that kids who grow up in sort of stable, intact families are likely to do better. Conservatives want to talk about one-half of that truth. Progressives want to focus on the other half of that truth. And yet, they are really part of one truth that we need to discuss.

Read a transcript of the entire conversation here.

One thought on “Tippett, Brooks, and Dionne Discuss Religion and Politics

  1. It’s painful to see Brooks trotted out as some sort of counterpoint to Dionne. They are the same side of the same coin.

    If only persons such as First Things editor R.R. Reno were given the floor. In the November issue, he elegantly lays out the current theologico-political crisis:

    Helen Andrews gave a talk at our offices on September 22 as part of our regular series of evening book talks and lectures. Her provocative title: “How to Spot a Dictator.” She’s been researching the Roosevelt era and had a lot to say about the four-term president’s imperious style. But more important was the fact that ­Roosevelt oversaw the construction of the administrative state. The Tennessee Valley Authority was unprecedented: a government business venture. It epitomized the era. The 1930s gave rise to the notion that the federal government has responsibility for ensuring economic prosperity.

    We’re at a similar juncture today, though with respect to culture, not economics. Progressives believe that the federal government must ensure “inclusion” and “equality.” The Supreme Court’s redefinition of marriage is akin to nationalization of industries. It’s a government takeover of a traditional institution.

    I’m more and more convinced that a planned culture, engineered by political correctness, is as likely to fail as a planned economy. Rising illegitimacy, suicide rates, drug overdose deaths, and racial tension, combined with fatherless households, declining labor participation, and middle class anxiety—these are indicators that it’s already failing.

    Even if Beatitudism were the alpha and omega of Christian politics, as we see, even the best intentions can go very wrong. Brooks may be right about one thing–the road to hell is also paved with bad results.


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