Thursday, June 29, 2006

Obama On Religion and the Democratic Party

Is the Democratic party the party of the godless? Ann Coulter thinks so, of course, but that is to be expected as she is one of the people with the task to broadcast this wingnut soundbite. But quite a few Democrats seem to have gone along with this type of thinking and now want to make the party more welcoming to the Evangelists and other groups currently nestling against Karl Rove's bosom. Barak Obama is the latest Democrat to argue for greater tolerance of religious sentiment in the public sector.

His recent speech states:

I think we should put more of our tax dollars into educating poor girls and boys, and give them the information about contraception that can prevent unwanted pregnancies, lower abortion rates and help assure that that every child is loved and cherished. But my Bible tells me that if we train a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not turn from it. I think faith and guidance can help fortify a young woman's sense of self, a young man's sense of responsibility, and a sense of reverence by all young people for the act of sexual intimacy.

I am not suggesting that every progressive suddenly latch on to religious terminology. Nothing is more transparent than inauthentic expressions of faith -- the politician who shows up at a black church around election time and claps -- off rhythm -- to the gospel choir.

But what I am suggesting is this -- secularists 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, 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.

Moreover, if we progressives shed some of these biases, we might recognize the overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country. We might recognize that the call to sacrifice on behalf of the next generation, the need to think in terms of "thou" and not just "I" resonates in religious congregations across the country. And we might realize that we have the ability to reach out to the evangelical community and engage millions of religious Americans in the larger project of America's renewal.

To be fair to Obama, his speech is nuanced and explains carefully what he means by allowing religious beliefs to influence political debate:

While I've already laid out some of the work that progressives need to do on this, I believe that the conservative leaders of the Religious Right will need to acknowledge a few things as well.

For one, they 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.

Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. 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, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? James Dobson's or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK and that eating shellfish is an 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?

This brings me to my second point. 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. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Strictly speaking, once we allow for Obama's second point what he advocates is no different from what is actually going on anyway: Some people base their politics on religious ideals but frame the argument as a health issue or a human rights issue or a privacy issue. This is not really what the Christian fundamentalists on the right wish to see happen. They want their literal reading of the Bible to explicitly govern the laws of the country and their concept of god to be the one which is mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance. Anything less than this is regarded as oppressing them.

In a sense, then, Obama is saying nothing new, and what he says will not satisfy the right-wing Christians. In another sense, what he says plays right into their hands, because he plays with the rules of their ballgame: that Democrats are atheists and secularists who have no moral values, that moral values only come from established religions, or at least that the moral values derived from established religions should beat those arrived at in any other way.

I don't see the problem Obama frames in his speech. Religious values are not excluded from the political arena. People have them and these values affect their thinking. What is excluded currently is the authority of other people's religious values as justification for certain political decisions and the authority of religious bodies to directly deal in politics. Both of these exclusions are what the wingnut Christians lament and wish to have changed. What Obama offers them is no better than stale crumbs and will not draw any of those fervent Dominionists and such into the Democratic party.

Talking about religion and politics in this country is an odd game. It's perfectly fine to criticize the political system for excluding religious people or for slighting their rights to, say, evangelize to the rest of citizens. But it is not perfectly fine to criticize religions or the way their adherents interpret them. Thus, we don't usually point out that Christians probably shouldn't bring prayer into schools because of this Bible verse:

"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."
Matthew 6:5-6 (NIV)

And we don't usually point out that the Bible has several thousand statements about economic justice and the need to take care of the poor but not a single one that bans abortions. If explicitly religious justifications for political actions are to be welcomed, so should explicitly political criticisms of religions and their adherents.