Saturday, July 01, 2006


Parsing Divisions

I said that the recent speech by Sen. Barack Obama on the proper role of religion in politics would upset people on both sides of the issue. Since I'm not much interested in wading through any websites of the religious right for their take on it, I'll just note some of the fire that's been coming from people to the left of troglodyte:

Michelle Goldberg, a senior writer at and the author of the new book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (excerpts of which scared the bejeebus out of me -- see: here, here and here), had this to say over at The Huffington Post:

The trouble with Barack Obama's controversial recent speech about religion and the Democratic Party is not his embrace of religious language in the service of liberalism. Religious speech can be transcendent, and genuinely Christian ideals about justice and mercy can inspire even non-believers. The right has successfully convinced much of the country that the Democratic Party is hostile to people of faith, and speeches that work to counter that myth are valuable. Unfortunately, Obama's rhetoric ends up reinforcing Republican myths about liberal Godlessness instead of challenging them.
Specifically, she finds his treatment of the flap over the Pledge of Allegiance to be faulty:

He perpetuates the fantasy that there really is a liberal war on faith. "[A] sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state," he says. "Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation -- context matters. It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase 'under God.' ...

Let's unpack this. It is a common right-wing talking point that liberals want to take the phrase "under God" of the pledge of allegiance. Undoubtedly, some of us regret that, during a moment of Cold War panic in 1954, our government amended the historic pledge to put the word God in it. However, there is now no organized movement to take it out. The California man who sued over the pledge a few years ago represented no one but himself, and in 2002, when the 9th Circuit voted in his favor, many ardent defenders of church/state separation groaned. "This is a godsend for the religious right," Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State told me that day. "They're going to raise millions of dollars on this issue. ...

The fact is, no liberal of any stature -- and certainly no Democrat -- is fighting against the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Still, she is not all critical:

There's much in the speech to admire, particularly Obama's call for us to take the religious right's rhetoric seriously, to engage and argue with the movement's ideas rather than brushing them off as mere fanaticism. He gets the spiritual void at the heart of American life, and the need for social movements to offer people meaning and existential solace along with practical policy solutions.
She sums up the problem nicely when she says:

The relevant argument, then, is not about whether there will be prayer in public schools. It's about whether there will be government-mandated prayer in public schools. The argument is not whether religion can do good things in people's lives. It's whether the government should fund religion. The argument is not even whether religious groups should contract with the government to provide social services -- Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army and others have been doing that for decades. It's whether religious groups that do receive taxpayer funds should be permitted to proselytize on the public dime, and to refuse to hire those of the wrong faith.
But what she doesn't seem to have is an answer for is why those in favor of religious freedom are having such trouble getting that message through to the American people or how the forces of toleration and moderation can address the spiritual void she agrees is at the heart of the problem.

PZ Myers over at Pharyngula (which has just about the best balance to be found on the web between hard science, anti-creationism, humor, politics and mollusks in all their glory) is more succinct. He titles his short article "Why I will never vote for Barack Obama" and there is not much more to it:

If a liberal Democratic politician wants to buy into the foolish idea that Christians can't accept evolution, that it's a good thing that more Americans believe in this insane nonsense about angels than in science, then he has lost my vote.
Frankly, I'm not sure where PZ gets the idea that Obama thinks that Christians can't accept evolution or that it's a good thing that more Americans believe in angels than in science. Maybe he is overdosing a bit on religion of late. PZ has had a number of posts that have attracted a lot of attention within the last week or so about religion here, here, here, here, here and especially this post over at the Panda's Thumb (which is closing in on 800 comments at last look), that degenerated into a flame war between PZ and Lenny Flank, another anti-creationist, that had 'em chortling over at William Dembski's blog, Uncommon Descent (see trackbacks at the Panda's Thumb).

Lastly (for the time being, at least) there is Mike Dunford at The Questionable Authority who thoughtfully weighs the pros and cons of Obama's speech and sums up with what may be the wisest observation I've seen yet:

There is a debate over the role of religion in public policy in this country, and that debate does need to be addressed. While we are addressing it, however, we need to remember that the mere existance of two arguments does not imply that the truth lies somewhere near the middle. The religious and the irreligious have equal rights to participate in public discourse and debate in this country. This equality exists because the Constitution specifically provides for a secular government. Those who think that was a good idea should not have to sacrifice any of those protections for the privledge of gaining support from the religious.
Maybe the last word should come from Bertrand Russell:
The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.

Two relevant excerpts from Obama's website.

* On science and faith in the classroom: "Intelligent design is not science. We should teach our children theology to get them to think about the meaning of life. But that's separate from how atoms or photons work."

And at a time when truth and science are constantly being challenged by political agendas and ideologies; a time where so many refuse to teach evolution in our schools, where fake science is used to beat back attempts to curb global warming or fund life-saving research; libraries remind us that truth isn't about who yells the loudest, but who has the right information. Because even as we're the most religious of people, America's innovative genius has always been preserved because we also have a deep faith in facts.
I think PZ took this quote:

And if we're going to do that then we first need to understand that Americans are a religious people. 90 percent of us believe in God, 70 percent affiliate themselves with an organized religion, 38 percent call themselves committed Christians, and substantially more people in America believe in angels than they do in evolution.

and parsed it to mean that Obama approves of the beliefs so professed.

I don't think that's there - though exactly what Obama does think about evolution isn't addressed in the speech. As for angels, I'd like to fasten onto these words from the Senator, myself:

We all know the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his only son, and without argument, he takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded.

Of course, in the end God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute, and Abraham passes God's test of devotion.

But it's fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason.
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