EJ Dionne, Jr. at Willamette Univ.
Bill Long 9/30/08
The Cup Really is Half Full
A few years ago the President of Willamette University, where I taught at the time, announced the creation of a number (4) of new "centers" of inquiry on campus. This approach to learning is Willamette's version of the attempt in much of modern academia to infuse the "traditional departments" of the university with an "interdisciplinary" boost. It is also a good way to see academicians, who often pride themselves on pure commitment to the ideas of their discipline, become junior entrepreneurs as they learned the techniques of asking for money and making their "case" for recognition. Well, one of the entities that emerged after this competition was the Center for Religion, Law and Democracy, aka the place where liberals could speak favorably about religion, bash the "Fundies," and get paid for it all at the same time.
One of the ways that centers get visibility is to bring in speakers from the outside to help the cause. And, certainly by securing EJ Dionne as a late September speaker on the subject of "Religion and Politics in the 2008 Election," the Center had fulfilled its mission to a "t." Dionne has written a number of books that others have reviewed positively and has, for about 15 years, been a twice-weekly syndicated columnist for the Washington Post. He has been called "one of Washington's finest journalistic thinkers..." His Harvard/Oxford pedigree adds to the luster. A perfect fit between the Center and its mission and Dionne and his expertise, I thought.
The only problem with this nicely orchestrated scenario is that Dionne, figuratively, didn't show up. Oh, he was there, and was appropriately deferential to his audience, in fine fettle and humor and transparently energetic. The only problem (well, there were several, really) is that he neither spoke on religion or democracy or the 2008 Presidential election. In fact, his content was so "thin" that it would make most first-year journalist students blush or blanch. He began with a number of "one-liners" which were pretty forgettable but received polite titters of laughter because of his energetic and engaging personal style.
I began to say to myself, "Ok, EJ, when are we going to get to the topic?" So, he settled into his exposition, which turned out to be a few generic statements about how progressive politics really should not abandon Christianity/Judaism in the future. He drew on a few statements from Lincoln and TR, and examples from the civil rights movement which really established very little and were among the most commonplace observations that any first-year religion student has learned (Lincoln's willingness to be humble in the Second Inaugural and not claim that God was on the Union side, for example).
I was beginning to get restless and then he said, about 20 minutes into the presentation, "In conclusion..." But his conclusion, derived largely from his "reading" of Its a Wonderful Life took about 20 minutes. He addressed the "older" ones in the audience, before turning to the "students" and basically ending up with the statement that the glass was "half-full"--i.e., that our best days of religion and politics were ahead of us. The last 15 minutes of his talk sounded like they were stitched together from at least two or three commencement addresses he had recently given to high schools graduates or, more scary, the first draft of a chapter of a future book.
What He Could Have Done
He could have done so much with the topic. He could have used it as an occasion to trace the ways that Evangelical religion has itself morphed in the last decade, who the "thinkers" behind this morphing had been, what resistance it has faced, what prospects it had, etc. He could have pointed out the ways that mainline Protestantism has or has lost its energy. He could have tried to limn the nature of modern American Catholicism, the ways that the clergy abuse scandal has affected the Church in its political work. He could, and he should, have addressed the issue of America's having, for the first time, a serious LDS candidate for President, Mitt Romney (Orrin Hatch from 2000 doesn't count). Well, what am I doing here suggesting what he could have done? After all, he is the "expert," the guy who no doubt got thousands for the lecture and appearance.
I haven't been a regular reader of Dionne over the years. I was generally impressed by his warm and ebullient personality, as well as his optimistic spirit. Indeed, he strikes me as a sort of latter day Hubert Humphrey, with a sense of America's promise brimming with hope. But I wish he had the courtesy to give a bit better talk last night, one that was worthy of the words "finest journalistic thinker" in DC. But then, I wondered. Maybe he did...