For our annual special program looking ahead to the top religion and ethics stories we expect to be following in 2017, host Bob Abernethy talks with managing editor Kim Lawton, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, and Jerome Socolovsky, editor-in-chief of Religion News Service.
BOB ABERNETHY, host: Welcome, I’m Bob Abernethy. It’s good to have you with us for our annual look ahead at what the top religion and ethics stories of this New Year might be. E.J. Dionne is here. He’s a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, a columnist for the Washington Post, and a professor at Georgetown University. Jerome Socolovsky is the editor-in-chief of Religion News Service, and Kim Lawton is managing editor of this program. Welcome to you all. Jerome, get us started. What do you see?
JEROME SOCOLOVSKY (Editor in Chief, Religion News Service): Well, we saw 81 percent of white evangelicals vote for Donald Trump. Their leaders are now going to expect something in return. Now, Donald Trump is a man who’s been on both sides of almost every issue, and he’s a recent convert on abortion, for example, so will he appoint a Supreme Court justice in their liking? The early indications, I would say, based on who he’s picked for his cabinet, are that he will do that.
KIM LAWTON (Managing Editor): Although they were not happy with his selection of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, which was interesting, because there had been a lot of statements saying oh we like this person, oh we like that person, this is great, this is great, and then you heard some of the leaders of that conservative religious movement saying well, that one we’re not thrilled about. So it will be interesting to see how they maneuver and how they relate to the Trump administration.
ABERNETHY: E.J., how do you interpret the appointments so far?
E.J. DIONNE (Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution): It’s an extremely conservative administration, with a lot of generals, a lot of billionaires in it. You know, my sense is that on a lot of issues Trump looks ready to delegate a lot of policy to Congress, to conservatives in Congress. He picked a very conservative budget director in Mick Mulvaney, an early Tea Party person, smart guy, who is, you know, a budget cutter perhaps even more enthusiastically than Paul Ryan, who is a pretty enthusiastic budget cutter. So it’s going to be fascinating to see how that fits in with some of the other Trump promises, like more spending on defense, more spending on infrastructure, what kind of infrastructure program is he going to have. So we’re going to be looking at what promises Trump chooses to keep. I think we’re also going to look at an extraordinary movement that will organize against him. I think from the day after his election, you saw the demonstrations almost immediately. I have sensed an awful lot of activism among young Americans, and so I think you’re going to have, if you will, big battalions in the country lined up against each other. I think you’re going to see on the left and center left something that has the energy of the Tea Party that really came to the fore right after President Obama got elected. I think we’re going to see that, and the role of the churches in this is going to be very interesting, particularly around immigration issues and the rights of Muslims and those kinds of issues, where that really matters to the religious groups.
SOCOLOVSKY: It’s almost like the grassroots campaigning that started after President Obama’s election, four and eight years ago, that may have brought us this moment maybe starting now.
LAWTON: And the faith community is already signaling that it intends to be very active on these questions and on these issues, and the ones that are concerned about the Trump administration, the ones that are concerned about some of the appointments have already been speaking out. They’ve been holding joint news conferences. Some of them have been promising to be what they call a “prophetic witness,” that voice of opposition from a faith point of view, and some of them are even talking about waging civil disobedience in a nonviolent way, but making sure that their values are out there.
DIONNE: And I think that the Catholic Church is going to be particularly interesting in this respect, because the American Catholic Church is still, in a broad sense, because of who the bishops are, more conservative than Francis, although Francis is gaining some ground. The Francis view with appointments like Cardinal Cupich, Bishop McElroy out in San Diego, they were, a lot of the bishops were, either chose not to engage or sent out some very tough anti-Hillary Clinton signals. Yet the Catholic Church has been one of the strongest voices for immigration reform and on behalf of immigrants, because a third of American Catholics, roughly, are Latinos, and so I think it’s going to be a real challenge as to whether, how forcefully they speak out on immigration issues if, indeed, Trump keeps some of his promises to be much tougher on immigrants and refugees.
LAWTON: Immigration is going to be a really interesting issue to watch this coming year, and the years ahead, not just legal and illegal immigration, but also refugees coming in, and how the Trump administration handles that. And again, if any refugees—I mean the Obama administration set a goal for fiscal year 2017 of 110,000 refugees to be brought into this country. What’s going to happen to that?
DIONNE: I think that all disappears under the Trump administration
LAWTON: And, again, you had a pretty broad faith coalition—evangelicals, Catholics, mainline Protestants, Jews and others really coming together to say we want to bring people in, we want to help resettle them, and so they’re not going to be on board with some of that policy, and some of them, especially in the mainline Protestant community, have said, we’re going to make our churches sanctuary churches, so that rather than being deported, immigrants can come here and receive some kind of protection. So that’ll be a very interesting issue.
ABERNETHY: Many bits of action, too, all over the place, by police chiefs, by mayors already.
DIONNE: Well, that is going to be a fascinating thing. You have, the last I looked, 26 of the largest 30 American cities have Democratic mayors. You have states that resoundingly rejected Donald Trump, voted for Hillary Clinton. She got the biggest margin since FDR out in California. And Governor Jerry Brown has made very clear that the state will not necessarily go along with Trump, where they have room to oppose or resist, and this is going to be a fascinating inversion of the usual argument, we have states’ rights, local rights—conservatives say that is their issue, but I think in the Trump years you are going to see more liberal or progressive states insisting on their rights against the federal government, and that will be another form of opposition that’s going to play out in very challenging and complicated ways for the country.
ABERNETHY: One of the things going on is the response to the hacking. What do you see there?
SOCOLOVSKY: Well, I think that to have an effective response to hacking, it has to be done, you know, in the cover of darkness if, in the way that back when there was, say, a retaliation against Iran, with the Stuxnet virus that stopped the nuclear centrifuges from running. Nobody knew. There were no fingerprints on it, so it could be that there will be a response to Russia’s hacking, but we won’t know about it.
ABERNETHY: Is anybody in the religious community saying, you know, we shouldn’t get too close to any administration. We get burned sometimes when we get close sometimes. Is any of that sentiment going on?
LAWTON: Well, that’s always a perennial debate going on within, among conservative evangelicals, for example, who have felt under previous Republican presidencies that they helped him get elected, and then they didn’t get everything they wanted. And so I think even more so this year, since there was, this past year, since there was so much criticism of how many evangelicals, white evangelicals, ended up supporting Donald Trump despite some of his personal behaviors, his character, concerns about those issues didn’t seem to matter, and I think those debates are going to continue on.
DIONNE: I think there is this fascinating ferment in the white evangelical community even though they voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. There was the poll from PRRI last year where evangelicals, as recently as 2011 only 30 percent of them said you could live, if you will, an immoral private life and still be ethical in your public life. Now that number went to 72 percent, so that what it appeared is that evangelicals conform their view on that question to their decision to support Donald Trump.
LAWTON: And they did the opposite with Bill Clinton on that issue.
DIONNE: Right, and their change was bigger than any other group in the country.
SOCOLOVSKY: So would it flip-flop again in four years if you have a totally different kind of candidate?
DIONNE: That’s the kind of thing I think a lot of evangelicals, like Russell Moore, who are critical of Donald Trump, and an evangelical voice like my Washington Post colleague Michael Gerson, who was very critical of Donald Trump, and then I think there are, even among evangelicals who supported Trump, white evangelicals, there’s still some unease about who he is. Some of those votes are anti-votes, not Trump votes.
LAWTON: Right, a lot of them were more anti-Hillary than they were pro-Trump.
DIONNE: And where does that go during a Trump administration?
ABERNETHY: And how about American policy in the Middle East?
SOCOLOVSKY: I think in the Arab world there’s already a sense that America is pro-Israeli, and who you appoint to be ambassador there doesn’t really make that much of a difference to them. It might make a difference in the negotiations, but right now the negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians are nonexistent.
LAWTON: It’s interesting, it may make an interesting difference here in the US, in the Jewish community, because there is some debate about how, for example, the settler’s movement, and how much support, if you’re pro-Israel, does that mean you have to be pro-settlers and the settlements? And so some of those questions have been debated within the Jewish community, there’s a lot of concern in the Jewish community about Donald Trump and some of his policies. So I’ll be watching how that all plays out, and the rising anti-Semitism that we saw during the campaign season, and there’s a lot of concern in the Jewish community to see if that continues as well.
DIONNE: The appointment of David Friedman as the ambassador, we’ll see how that goes in the Senate, is more provocative than your usual appointment to be ambassador to Israel, because he is an active supporter of the right end of Israeli politics, he’s a supporter of the settler movement, he’s been critical of the two-state solution, and to go to Kim’s point, he has been very critical of more liberal, or if you will, peace-minded Jewish groups like J Street, who he compared to concentration camp guards. I mean J Street has come out very strongly against him; this is going to create, as you said, Kim, real division and debate in the American Jewish community, and it's, it really puts Trump on a side, puts the administration, it would appear, on the side in Israeli politics. Now that’s not entirely new, but it’s not as—it’s particularly explicit in this case.
SOCOLOVSKY: Right, I just think that in the wider Middle East it might be seen as okay, well, now they’re showing their cards.
LAWTON: What their true feelings really were. Well there’s been so much attention this, in 2016, to Syria and Iraq, and deservedly so. I mean it’s just a mess, and we saw such humanitarian catastrophes there and the ongoing violence. That’s going to continue, and that’s going to put the Trump administration in a tough spot, because those are not easy issues to solve, and the relationship with Russia plays into that as well, and a lot of people in the faith community have been very concerned about those issues. They’ve been active trying to help the people there, they’ve been calling for peace, so that’s going to be a challenging set of issues in that whole part of the world for Trump.
DIONNE: You know, and also I think it’s almost impossible for anyone, possibly even Donald Trump, to predict what Donald Trump will do. I was talking to a group of foreign policy specialists who were at a conference on this subject, and they said when you look at Trump’s various declarations, there are only a small amount of things he’s really clear about, and even there it’s not clear what it means. For example, he’s talked a lot about ISIS and the need to destroy ISIS. Okay, but what does that actually mean in policy? It sounds like he wants to ally with the Russians and Assad in Syria to fight ISIS. Is he really going to follow through on that? So I think there are many more question marks at this point about what a Trump foreign policy looks like than there are answers.
SOCOLOVSKY: There is, though, a line of analysis that Donald Trump, looking back at statements he’s made even before he was a candidate, that he believes that the world is leaning on the US too much, that we’re funding other people’s defense and security, and I think that’s going to cause a lot of worries among allies—Japan, Korea.
ABERNETHY: We’ve always had a sense, haven’t we, that where somebody was in trouble overseas, we needed to try to help.
LAWTON: Well, you know, the refrain “never again, never again” will we allow these kinds of terrible catastrophes to happen in the world, and then people say well, where are you in Syria? Where are you in South Sudan? And the ethical debates about at what point do we have a moral obligation to intervene, those have always been difficult debates and questions. What are our moral responsibilities? And I think precisely because of some of the things Trump has said in the past, those debates are going to be even more pointed.
DIONNE: I think that those debates have often split people who are often allies, between those who are primarily noninterventionists and just don’t want to go, and those who support humanitarian intervention, and we saw that debate over Syria, you know, over the last couple of years, and those, I think, will continue. Jerome is absolutely right on NATO and on our allies. Our allies don’t really know where this administration is going, and his statements on NATO have made people in Eastern Europe, particularly in a place like Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia extremely nervous about how committed Trump is to their defense. And that’s going to be, you know, short term and maybe long term, a big problem.
SOCOLOVSKY: And that he may allow Vladimir Putin a free hand to do another Ukraine in one of these states.
LAWTON: I’m going to be watching Pope Francis in the coming year in this role of peacemaker and sort of international deal-broker, dialogue-maker. We saw some of that when he tried to get involved in the Cuba-US disputes, and this in 2016, he tried to get involved in the Colombia disputes, and he’s been a little more, he’s always been critical of the violence in Syria, but a little more pointed against Assad, and calling, directly calling Assad to do more, and so, you know, it’ll be interesting to see what Francis is up to on the international stage...
DIONNE: ...and inside the Church. I think that Francis—some of the traditionalists, or more conservative leadership in the Church has been pushing back harder against Francis. You’ve rarely seen this kind of open debate and confrontation, and I think we’re going to watch that play out in the course of the next year, Francis kind of talked back to them, you know, and it’s always odd to see situations with people saying they’re more Catholic than the pope, but that’s exactly what his critics are saying.
ABERNETHY: And this is something that will go on within the Catholic Church in the US?
DIONNE: It already has. People like Cardinal Cupich, who are very much Francis bishops, you know, with—and also on that side Cardinal O’Malley up in Boston, Cardinal Wuerl in DC, you know, versus other bishops who are far more conservative, Archbishop Chaput in Philadelphia, I think you are going to see these arguments be more explicit than they usually are as the year unfolds.
ABERNETHY: Sometimes we go through this exercise of trying to identify things that are coming up, we see ahead. What do you see?
LAWTON: I’ve been concerned about South Sudan and the situation there. A lot of people in the faith community really were supporting the independent South Sudan to become its own nation in 2011, and it was put as the Christian and traditional African religions versus the predominantly Muslim leadership of Sudan. Well, South Sudan got its independence and it—the place is just falling apart. There are a lot of voices out there in the human rights community saying genocide, we are on the edge of genocide there, the ethnic fighting between different tribal groups there has led to famine, it’s led to gross atrocities on the level of genocide. Where’s the religious community on that? I think that’s something that the world just felt so overwhelmed, maybe, with the refugees coming in from other parts of the world, and other conflicts. Pope Francis has said maybe he’ll go to Africa in 2017, maybe South Sudan, but I do feel like the religious community hasn’t really been paying attention there, so I’ll be watching that to see if that changes.
SOCOLOVSKY: I would like to know more about how churches, especially immigrant churches, influence religion in America. There’s some very, very big churches who, that cater to Nigerians, to Middle Eastern Christians, who serve a very important role in helping to absorb them in our country. But there’s also some of these churches really believe that they have something to contribute to American religion and society. I think it’s something undercovered, and I’d like to see more of it in the coming year.
ABERNETHY: For instance, how would that be different from older churches?
SOCOLOVSKY: Well, there’s something called the “reverse mission.” The West brought Christianity to Africa, Asia, Latin America, and now we see many of these communities back in the US who look at the US and feel that we have become too secularized, and they have a kind of cultural clash, cognitive dissonance if you like, and they feel that they have a mission to bring us back to God.
DIONNE: You know, we all know we’re going to have big arguments all year long about health care, beginning with the repeal of Obamacare that Trump and the Republicans have promised, but also about Medicaid and Medicare. I think the sleeper part of that is the role religious organizations are going to play. Religious groups, particularly but not exclusively Catholics, provide a lot of health care in this country, have very strong views on it, Sister Carol Keehan at the Catholic Health Association, for example, and I think that religious groups are going to play a surprisingly big role in the big fight that we’re going to have over health care in the coming year.
LAWTON: And just overall I think the safety net for the poor, as it’s called, and if we change some of those structures, who is going to pick up the slack? We’ve already seen some international groups raising concerns about the budget and whether we’re going to continue allocating the funds for international humanitarian aid and development, and you know, the extent to which that is going to happen abroad as well as here in the United States.
DIONNE: And religious or religiously inflected groups play a big role in the debate over whether those cuts should happen, groups like Bread for the World, and I think you’re going to see them playing a big role in this budget, this larger budget debate that is going to preoccupy Washington for a long time.
ABERNETHY: So the divisions that you and others have written about, E.J., the divisions in the country are just going to continue, right?
DIONNE: I wish I could say that we are all going to come together happily and join hands in the coming years, but I don’t see it. I don’t think anybody really sees it, I think we are in for a season of very serious argument and struggle, and I don’t see any way around that.
SOCOLOVSKY: There have been so many interfaith efforts between Christians and Jews and Muslims. We may need them now for people on the right and people on the left.
DIONNE: No, it’s true. The splits are not denominational anymore, they’re within denominations along political lines, which constantly raises questions for all of us. This is not criticizing one side or the other. Are our politics really primary in that the religious faith comes second? And I think there will be, there will and ought to be, some real reflection on that.
LAWTON: We can’t end without reminding ourselves that 2017 will be the year of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which is, it’s, you know, it’s an anniversary, but yet I think that there’s been so many changes between Catholics and Protestants in the last 500 years, and this will be an occasion for some of those groups to talk about their similarities and their continuing differences.
ABERNETHY: My vote for the most underreported story of the year, last year, was when the pope went to Sweden to help Protestants celebrate the Reformation.
LAWTON: Although they were quick to say it wasn’t a celebration, it was a commemoration. The Vatican wanted to make that clear. We’re not celebrating it, we’re commemorating it.
ABERNETHY: Take it either way. Can you imagine the pope being involved in a celebration?
DIONNE: If there can be a coming together around the Reformation, maybe there’s hope in other spheres.
ABERNETHY: Our time is up, I'm sorry to say. Thanks to E.J. Dionne, Jerome Socolovsky, and Kim Lawton.