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Robinson: Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, you’re ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk, whatever. Robinson: The word “cosmopolitan” was never applied.

I mean, when people are turning in on themselves—and God knows, arming themselves and so on—against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously. The President: Well, that’s one of the things I love about your characters in your novels, it’s not as if it’s easy for them to be good Christians, right? The President: Which town in Idaho did you grow up in? Robinson: Yes, the second-largest city in the state at the time.

But when it’s brought home, when it becomes part of our own political conversation about ourselves, I think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.

The President: Well, now there’s been that strain in our democracy and in American politics for a long time. I think the argument right now would be that because people are feeling the stresses of globalization and rapid change, and we went through one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression, and the political system seems gridlocked, that people may be particularly receptive to that brand of politics.

There’s no alternative that is theologically respectable to treating people in terms of that understanding. It seems to me as if democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level. The President: But you’ve struggled with the fact that here in the United States, sometimes Christian interpretation seems to posit an “us versus them,” and those are sometimes the loudest voices.

But sometimes I think you also get frustrated with kind of the wishy-washy, more liberal versions where anything goes. The President: How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them? Now, you grew up in Idaho, in a pretty—it wasn’t a big, cosmopolitan place.

And you and I, therefore, have an Iowa connection, because Gilead is actually set here in Iowa.And that’s just a terrible darkening of the national outlook, I think. Robinson: But when you say that to me, I say to you, you’re a better person than I am. The President: And that’s part of the foundation of your writings, fiction and nonfiction.The President: Well, but I want to pick up on the point you made about us coming from everywhere. And one of the points that you’ve made in one of your most recent essays is that there was a time in which at least reformed Christianity in Europe was very much “the other.” And part of our system of government was based on us rejecting an exclusive, inclusive—or an exclusive and tightly controlled sense of who is part of the community and who is not, in favor of a more expansive one.And I’ve told you this—one of my favorite characters in fiction is a pastor in Gilead, Iowa, named John Ames, who is gracious and courtly and a little bit confused about how to reconcile his faith with all the various travails that his family goes through.

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And I was just—I just fell in love with the character, fell in love with the book, and then you and I had a chance to meet when you got a fancy award at the White House.

But one of the things that I don’t get a chance to do as often as I’d like is just to have a conversation with somebody who I enjoy and I’m interested in; to hear from them and have a conversation with them about some of the broader cultural forces that shape our democracy and shape our ideas, and shape how we feel about citizenship and the direction that the country should be going in.