Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Conquering Divide

Sen. Barack Obama's address to religious progressives at the Call to Renewal Conference can be found here. He has much to say about the proper role of religion in politics that will upset people on both sides. First, what qualifications does Sen. Obama have to expound on this issue? There is this:

[T]owards the end of the [2004 Senate] campaign, [Alan] Keyes said that, "Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama. Christ would not vote for Barack Obama because Barack Obama has behaved in a way that it is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved." ...

Mr. Keyes implicit accusation that I was not a true Christian nagged at me, and I was also aware that my answer [that this is a pluralistic society and we can't impose our religious views on others] didn't adequately address the role my faith has in guiding my own values and beliefs.
He eventually came to the conclusion that:

[S]ecularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant (sic), Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. To say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity; our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
On the other hand:

[Conservative leaders of the Religious Right] need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. That during our founding, it was not the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of this separation; it was the persecuted religious minorities, Baptists like John Leland, who were most concerned that any state-sponsored religion might hinder their ability to practice their faith.

. . . Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.

And even if we did have only Christians within our borders, who's Christianity would we teach in the schools? . . . Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Levitacus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage so radical that it's doubtful that our Defense Department would survive its application?
As Sen. Obama points out:

[T]he single biggest "gap" in party affiliation among white Americans today is not between men and women, or those who reside in so-called Red States and those who reside in Blue, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don't.
How can the gap between the religious and the secular be bridged?

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. ...

This may be difficult for those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of the possible. ...
While I think the Senator has correctly identified a serious problem that is driving American politics into bitter and so far intractable division, the "solution" he presents is far easier to express than implement. A start would be if liberals could learn reach across the divide in their own ranks.
I wonder if it would not be more fair to say "belivers and belivers in something else," rather then, "belivers and non belivers."

Just a thought not a stab at any one's faith.

J. Gatsby
While I think you may be right, that will just evoke another argument from certain "non-believers" who insist their views don't entail any "belief," which they equate with "faith" (which is another slippery word).
I like what Obama says. He echoes thoughts I've often had over the past number of years (both in my Christian and atheist phases). Politics in action is about the sort of society we will have; the sort of society we want is inescapably affected by our values; personal values come from all sorts of sources, including religious traditions. To say (as some atheists seem to) that the religious have no right to bring their values to the table of public discussion really is to discriminate against them and establish a hegemony of unbelief.

Now, how you take into account all the diverse values, and arrive at a consensus that allows us all some reasonable degree of freedom of action and conscience is a difficult practical problem -- how to draw the line between promoting values and establishing a religion. But I think the principle is correct and important.
"...if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will..."

That strikes me as the nub of the separation argument in this context. Most believers seem to understand this, but there are a vocal few who can't get it into their heads that as far as the U.S. Constitution is concerned, there is no "God's Law", only citizens' beliefs about such - and nobody's beliefs in that regard are special or privileged.
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