Monday, July 03, 2006

Obama on Religion in Politics

Last week, Senator Barack Obama gave the keynote address at the Call to Renewal Conference. His focus was on the role of religion (and religious people) in politics and in society. The speech is worth reading.

Obama sets the groundwork for his talk by saying:

"I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people, and join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy".

I'm all for that "serious debate" (carried out respectfully, of course). How do we reconcile faith, particularly exclusivist religious belief (which are the types Obama focuses on in all his examples, both positive and negative), with pluralistic society and political involvement?

Obama first gives advice to liberals who are uncomfortable with religion. I think this section is central to his argument:

More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem here is rhetorical -- if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice. Imagine Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address without reference to "the judgments of the Lord," or King's "I have a dream" speech without reference to "all of God's children." Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.

Our failure as progressives to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical. Our fear of getting "preachy" may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems.

He goes on to give these examples:

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.

Next, he turns his sights on religious conservatives:

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.

His closing thoughts, I think, are excellent. He says that, in our public discourse, we should give to each other, even (maybe especially) those who disagree with us, a "presumption of good faith". We should be "willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in reasonable terms". If we can have the conversation on that basis, it certainly will be, as Obama said, "a conversation worth having in this country in the months and years to come".

This speech has generated a great deal of response. I'd love to hear what people around here think about the speech, and the subject in general.

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, posted a response on his blog. He argues that when Obama tells religious people that they must, when entering the social sphere, argue based on "some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all"... that in so doing he is nullifying all that he has said previously, and institutionalizing secularism as the guiding social principle.

I might respond slightly differently, though I found the same paragraph to be troubling. What are these "principles" that are accessible to everyone? What does accessible mean? If it means some principle that nearly everyone already agrees on, then you are simply playing to the lowest common denominator. If you mean a principle that people can be convinced of through persuasive argument, then I'll be more convinced by the idea.

Also, I found his specific example quite confusing. He picked abortion, a practice which he supports on the principle of the woman's right to choose. Those who argue against abortion generally do so based on the principle that pre-born children are still living humans, and that killing living humans is wrong. Now... which principle is the more generally accessible, in either sense? Yet it appears to me that Obama is saying that in some way when conservatives argue that abortion is bad they simply "point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will". There may be some issues of public policy where religious conservatives do that (though none come to mind right off the bat)... but abortion is certainly not one of them.

More responses to the Obama speech, and to the general topic of religion in politics, can be found at the GetReligion blog. I found the comments under the post to be very interesting, as well.

What should the role of religion be in public dialog on social issues? To what degree should religious people rely on their religious principles in voting for candidates or legislation?


1 comment:

Kevin said...

It's easy for me to get caught up in Obama's speeches. He is an impressive, intelligent, and earnest speaker, and it seems like the press may be setting the stage for his future bid at President. He may very well be the communicator that the Democrats have been looking for.

In his recent speech, Obama makes many excellent points, but I think yours and Mohler's brief comments reveals some of the subtle contradictions involved in his universally appealing arguments.

Although he presents a presumably respectful and thoughtful argument framed by some honest religious rhetoric, I wonder whether it serves to illuminate or occlude his final positions? Has he actually ventured beyond the stereotypical beliefs of his party? Does it seem like he has?

"Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition." Does our law therefore constitute the establishment of some derived religion? Or does consensus somehow transform the religious into the secular? And why has the once foundational moral source become progressively more politically distasteful than other arbitrary sources?

Obama points to his interpretation of Abraham's attempted murder of Isaac as a case of religion's social immorality that is ostensibly representative of religion since he then proceeds by association to minimize the impact that abortion, et al. should have in social morality.

Is one's own identification with a fetus necessarily "religious"? Or the derivation of a moral from the distinct significance of both male and female, and the empirical principle of procreation?

It seems to me that Obama, like so many others, is drawing a line through what was once Judeo-Christianity, suggesting that we have sufficiently separated social morality from it and any further derivation or correlation is the establishment of that religion. But, if so, then what is left of the religion but the unproven, irrational, and unconvincing personal beliefs that "some liberals" claim it is?

Obama implies that religion must compromise in a pluralistic democracy. By the definition of democracy, we do compromise toward a majority in order for any change to occur, but why should beliefs which correlate with a "religion" be distinct and inherently more worthy of compromise?

I think Mark's final questions are significant, but require a precise definition of "religion". I don't think I can reason about its role without considering the actual principles involved, which differ from religion to religion. Moreover, if I can rank the principles of religions, can I not rank religions themselves? And if certain laws implicitly discriminate between religions based upon abstracted principles, are we establishing a religion?

Perhaps in complement to Mark's questions, we can also ask if it is ever feasible to remove the government from social issues?

I think Obama's final prayer, presumably addressed to some sort of deity, was excellent, and sufficiently vague to appeal to that 90% of us, perhaps even more if it is interpreted as a wish.