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Politics and Government

Week In Politics: Charleston, S.C., Shooting, Papal Encyclical

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And we'll continue now with thoughts on the assault in Charleston and more from E J Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Thank you.

BLOCK: I want to start by playing a bit of President Obama's remarks yesterday about the deaths in Charleston. He quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from the eulogy that King gave back in 1963 for the four young girls who were killed in the Birmingham church bombing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They say to each of us, Dr. King said, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely with who murdered them but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.

BLOCK: And E J, I'm thinking about that because there are a lot of voices now who are saying it's wrong to see this action. It's unfathomable - the action of an evil, sick gunmen - that it should be seen as part of a system, a way of life, a philosophy, and that what we call this matters. What do you think?

DIONNE: Well, I think that's absolutely right. It's got to be said at the onset, these were extraordinary human beings, the people who were killed in both their religious faith and in their civic devotion. And in Cheryl's piece you heard sort of the passion of their families. But I think there are two forms of evasion here. One, I will just have to say it on guns - and the president mentioned this - the notion that we cannot act as a nation to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them is just remarkable and I think a sign of national cowardice.

But on race, this can't be just said to be the actions of a deranged man. He said himself this was about creating a race war. And I truly hope that the state of South Carolina sort of has - it decides to take down that Confederate flag that is flying at the capital. That is a symbol of racism whether people intend it that way or not, both initially in terms of a confederacy set up to defend slavery and the fact that that flag was put up there in 1962 in the midst of the civil rights push. We cannot evade the role of race or the history of race in this awful event.

BLOCK: David, let me turn to you. And especially on that point about the Confederate flag on the state capitol grounds, the senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham, was asked about this. He said, look, this is part of who we are. It works here.

BROOKS: Yeah, well, first, I hadn't heard that message of forgiveness until just now and I'm sort of stunned by it. I hope it's seared into our minds as we go about our days.

BLOCK: It was really something.

BROOKS: It's just a depth of graciousness of spirit that's almost beyond fathoming. As for the Confederate flag, it's impolite. If a group of people is offended by it, that should be sufficient to take it down and especially if it's group of people in your own state, members of your own country, members of your own faith, members of your own community. It should be taken down. And so I think the Confederate flag is an outrage, incorporating it in the flag. As for how much to extend and generalize from the case of Dylann Roof...

BLOCK: Yeah.

BROOKS: ...To the wider problems of racism in society, I confess I have very mixed emotions about that. There's no ideology in our society that has any mainstream purchase that believes in shooting people who are in the midst of Bible study. And there's no ideology of white race, of white supremacy, except for on the extreme, angry and furious fringes of society that believe Rhodesia - Rhodesia - or South Africa were admirable states. And so I think he was a hate-filled young man. I think that we suddenly seem to have a lot of hate-filled to very solitary young men grasping onto hate, any hate-filled ideology. I think we have serious problems with race in society, but I think they're not easily extendable to shooting people in the middle of Bible study. I think that's a different order of magnitude.

BLOCK: And the counter to that is people who say but this does not occur in a vacuum, that the climate surrounding this is pernicious and it invades people.

BROOKS: Yeah, well, I think there is a pernicious culture of racism in society, but it's not the kind that leads to this level of hate, this level of alienation. And he was reacting against things. He was not reacting with things. Now, that doesn't mean people who fly the Confederate flag should not be criticized. It doesn't mean people that are racist, they should not be criticized. But that's a mainstream debate. This guy is off on some militant fringe.

BLOCK: E J.

DIONNE: Just briefly, I think obviously this is - there's something terribly wrong with this man that he should do this, and there aren't lots of people right now going around to do this. But there is a history of this sort of action in our country, particularly in trying to push back against advances by African-Americans. And so yes, you can't say that all Americans are represented by Dylann Roof - of course not. But he represents more, I think, the feelings of racism that he is talking about, they are out there in a serious way on the Internet, around the country, and we got to grapple with them.

BLOCK: I want to pivot to talk about the encyclical release by Pope Francis yesterday about the environment, a very forceful call about the dangers of climate change and human activity. He's sharply critical about what he calls our throwaway culture and rampant consumerism. E J, you've been writing about this a lot. What was your take on the pope's message?

DIONNE: This was an extraordinary document. Two quick takes - one political and one spiritual. And it's got to be said, this is more a spiritual document than a directly political document. The political take is it's fascinating that many who loved what pope said on - when they were being conservative, as we use the term, on issues like abortion, suddenly turned around and said, well, as Jeb Bush, I think religion ought to be about making us better as people.

And so there's going to be a whole new debate on the role of religious voices in public life, and progressives are going to be on the side of a strong, religious voice. But this was so powerfully spiritual. He cited his namesake saint, St. Francis of Assisi, over and over again. And if I can just read one line that really to me captures where the personal and political come together, (reading) we must, the pope wrote, regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. That sums up his papacy in so many ways.

BLOCK: And David, E J mentioned the political element of this. There are folks, especially conservatives, who say the pope is inappropriately stepping into political waters here. It's putting candidates in an interesting spot. What do you think?

BROOKS: Yeah, there's a - the hypocrisy on this is rampant, progressives suddenly discovering that God should play a role in the public sphere in politics and conservatives suddenly discovering the opposite. I find myself - I love the theology of it, the emphasis on the seamless frag - fabric of life. He said every creature bears in itself a Trinitarian structure.

And in some ways, the church is more consistent than we are comparing the frag - the sacredness of a fetus' life and the sacredness of animal life. That seamless fabric does merge the pro-life and environmental movements in a ways that doesn't happen in our political culture. It made me feel environmental, the theology of it, because it shows how connected we are to life in all its forms. I have to say I disagree with the politics of it. You know, I think the pope is way too hostile to capitalism, which has lifted more people out of poverty than any other force, but overall, quite a beautiful document.

BLOCK: Thanks to you both. Have a good weekend.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

BLOCK: David Brooks of The New York Times and E J Dionne of the Washington Post. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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