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Columnist says era of religious right at an end

Claire Reising | Tuesday, April 1, 2008

After over 20 years of association with right-wing conservatism, Christians are redefining their relationship with politics and moving away from the religious right to support the Democratic Party, Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. said.

“The era of the religious right is over. The end of the religious right does not signal an end to conservative Christianity,” Dionne said in a lecture Monday in Carey Auditorium. “It’s a sign of a reformation among Christians who are disentangling their great religious movement from a political machine.”

Christian conservatives have adopted “a broader definition of what it means to be a Christian in public life,” he said.

Dionne said religion has traditionally been a conservative force but religious Americans are now focusing on other faith-influenced issues such as social justice and Jesus’ emphasis on serving the poor.

“This is a change which is now underway, for liberals and conservatives alike, to abandon their sometimes narrow view about who real Americans are and what they believe,” he said.

Voting trends among young people indicate this ideological shift, Dionne said when he compared Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election with today’s political climate. Voters under 30 voted three to two for Reagan, who was a Republican, but in 2006, young voters supported democratic candidates three to two. Likewise, in the 2008 presidential primaries, young voters are showing the most support for “Obama-style progress,” he said.

Dionne said Democratic politicians’ greater openness to discussing religion’s influence in politics and their personal religious lives might be an explanation for this shift. He said Barack Obama has created a “new public language” about religion, and Hillary Clinton discusses religion in a sophisticated, personal way.

Dionne said despite this move away from the religious right, there are still polarizing religious issues, like abortion.

Dionne also said the problem of abortion needs new solutions, since it has been legal for 35 years, and even if Roe v. Wade was reversed, he said most states would still allow early-term abortions, and women would obtain them illegally.

“Our rate is much higher than in other countries where abortion is legal,” he said. “It seems to me the time has come for pro-choice people to acknowledge that abortion is a moral problem and to understand why right-to-lifers see abortion as a moral evil and for pro-lifers to say, ‘Let us pursue a strategy that will substantially reduce the number of abortions in our nation.'”

Instead of arguing over issues like Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States, Dionne proposed that both pro-life and pro-choice advocates should seek abortion-reducing policies, such programs that combine abstinence and contraceptive approaches to prevent unwanted pregnancy.

While some religious Americans are redefining their political priorities, Dionne said secularism and neo-atheism are on the rise on the American political scene.

In a study conducted by Pew Forum Religion and Public Life, 16 percent of Americans now claim no religious affiliation and 31 percent of that sample said Catholicism was their childhood religion, Dionne said. He offered several reasons for this trend, such as disputes over science and the notion that religion implies conservatism.

Dionne said although some atheists take belief seriously and engage in intellectual discourse, the neo-atheists can be as adamant in their right-wing conservative Christian views.

“They are operating in a tradition too,” he said. “There’s a sort of elitism in some of their line of argument, which I find no less troublesome than a right-wing Christian who votes differently than I do in every political contest.”