Religion and the 2000 Election: A Panel Discussion

Templeton Lecture Series

David Brooks
The Weekly Standard

E.J. Dionne
The Washington Post

Date: November 16, 2000

Location: Gasson 305


The Boisi Center inaugurated its series of Templeton Lectures on November 16 with a panel by David Brooks and E. J. Dionne, moderated by Alan Wolfe on "Religion and the 2000 Election." Brooks, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard, and Dionne, a columnist for the Washington Post and Fellow at the Brookings Institute, offered analysis of the election results and thoughts about future trends in American politics.

Wolfe began the discussion by asking both men what they thought the election said about America today. Brooks argued that, while American politics is divided, divided, the country itself is not, and this is a sign of the increasing distance between the political class and the rest of Americans. One factor contributing to this division is the saturation of politics by interest groups: he noted that this was the first election in which soft money contributions surpassed hard money contributions.

Dionne argued that "America is sharply but not deeply divided." There were clear divisions on social issues, but the debate over the size and role of the federal government is perhaps the most significant. While Bush took the position of Ronald Reagan arguing for smaller government, Gore claimed that it was now possible for the government to be more active. "This is a more important election than we think," he said, as "the country hasn’t made up its mind which direction it wants to go." Dionne noted that in the past the Democrats wanted to look like Republicans, whereas in this election the reverse was true, and he suggested that this may be a sign of things to come.

Brooks argued that Republican politicians were unsure how to play the moral issues. McCain and Bush responded to the Clinton scandals almost anti-religiously with an appeal to a very vague, secular notion of virtue. The McCain attacks on Falwell and Robertson did not go over very well with the rank and file of the Republican party: "While ninety percent may have agreed with the substance of the attacks," Brooks argued, "they didn’t like the fact that the attacks came from someone so secular."

When asked specifically about the fate of the Religious Right and New Democrats, both Brooks and Dionne agreed that their influence was greatly diminishing. On the Republican side, organizational problems have led to an overall weakening of the religious conservatives. In particular, increasing affluence has softened the most hard-core activists, Brooks claimed, and as a result they make up a much smaller percent of the religious right. In addition, the religious right has become less libertarian. The Democratic Party has rejected the New Democrats, Brooks said, and it was the more liberal side of the party which supported Clinton and asserted its influence during the impeachment process. Gore’s quasi-populist campaign, moreover, proved more effective than many thought. Dionne argued that Clinton was never really a New Democrat, but rather he appealed to moderates in order to add new voters to the Democratic base. Conversely, Gore’s populism is rather moderate, with attacks limited to drug companies, HMOs, and polluters among others. Both speakers agreed that the American political spectrum is shifting to the left.

At the end of the evening Alan Wolfe thanked the panelists for offering students at Boston College a wonderful opportunity to hear their insights and reflections at a time when the election was still undetermined. Earlier in the evening, Dionne had also met with students from the course co-taught by Wolfe, Dean Joseph Quinn, and Professor Marc Landy titled "Economic Freedom, Religious Freedom and Social Justice."