The Danforth Dialogues: A Review

On Saturday, October 8th in Graham Chapel, the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics presented the Danforth Dialogues, a directive that they have been working on since the center’s founding in 2010. The goal of the Dialogues, according to Marie Griffith, the Director of the Center, was to connect this presidential election cycle with the Center’s goal of analyzing the relationship between religion and politics in the United States. The Dialogues were introduced by Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton, who lauded the importance of the Danforth Center and pointed to its research and accomplishments in the field.

The Dialogues were split into two separate panel discussions, both moderated by Krista Tippett, host of On Being with Krista Tippet, a radio talk show. The first, entitled “Religion and the Common Good,” featured Eboo Patel and Natasha Trethewey. Patel is the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, and Trethewey is a former Poet Laureate of the United States.

Patel, when asked what his religious activism meant to him, pointed to the teachings of Dorothy Day, arguing that—in a religious context—service is not something to be proud of, but is something to be expected; it is the bare minimum that a religious person can undertake. Trethewey, as a poet, pointed to a more linguistic approach, noting that there is an etymological connection between religion and service; the word “liturgy” comes from the Greek leitourgia, meaning “public duty.” This, Trethewey argued, is where she sees religion affecting the common good.

The conversation quickly turned from the abstract discussion of the common good to discussions of America is a whole, and both speakers lightly touched on how this election has changed their views of America. Patel confessed that, before this election cycle, he had been blind to many Americans and their views. Trethewey noted that she has seen racial tensions like the ones she grew up with in Alabama resurfacing in modern times—proof, she said, that racism never went away, it simply went into hiding.

The first panel discussion ended on a light note with a discussion about what made America unique. Both panelists pointed to the vast diversity of the nation, agreeing that the unique and even sacred (as Patel said) project of a vast, diverse state is great because of its tumult and confusion that comes with its diversity. The greatness of America, agreed the panelists, comes from the recognition of the benefits and hardships that come with diversity.

The second flagship discussion, titled “Religion and National Politics,” featured columnists David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, writers for the New York Times and the Washington Post, respectively. From the start, the two speakers engaged in lively banter, making it clear that they were friendly and familiar with each other. Both agreed that religion holds the country to a higher moral standard. Dionne pointed out that he believes that religion will make people live lives that are more emotional, citing the civil rights era as an example of a time that religion was highly relevant and a catalyst for positive social change.

Brooks depicted the American story as one of idealism and possibility, arguing that the possibility in the power of politics that has driven the nation forward has been lost in current times. Dionne concurred with that point; he asked a pointed question about why the Dialogues had to be split into two separate discussions. Why are national politics and the common good separate issues?

Brooks delved briefly into popular culture and the issues surrounding football player Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem. Brooks argued that the protest is an insult to the radical ideals of the nation’s foundations, and that it gets rid of any possibility for politics to make great change.

The discussion ended with both speakers’ thoughts on the current election cycle. Brooks and Dionne both agreed that politics is no longer an empathetic pursuit. Dionne confessed that he has never wanted an election cycle to end as badly as this one. Brooks argued that politics now pushes people apart and that religion, in his view, can bring people together and cause them to empathize with each other.

The Danforth Dialogues was well-attended by students and faculty of Washington University as well as members of the wider St. Louis community, and both panels were tinged with outbreaks of applause at certain points. Brooks’ and Dionne’s discussion was punctuated by a standing ovation from the crowd. Both panels, but especially Brooks’ and Dionne’s, touched on an important value that voters and Americans might be missing during this election cycle: empathy.

In the coming week, the Washington University Political Review will have the opportunity to interview E.J. Dionne. Check the WUPR website later in the week for a transcript of the interview.

Jacob Finke

Jacob Finke '20 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at jbfinke@wustl.edu.

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