Im late to this party, but Barack Obamas speech on religion and politics has been getting lots of attention. Peter Wood is suspicious of a good bit of it. Kevin Drum is cautiously favorable. At Mirror of Justice, Thomas Berg kicked off an exchange that included a number of interesting interventions, more indeed than I can accommodate without adding these links.
I dont think Im quite as suspicious of the speech as Wood is, but I do think that it is an interestingly confused (or perhaps carefully strategic, though I doubt it) presentation by a man likely to be a major force in the Democratic Party. Im going to give some more thought to it and write something formal for one of my publication venues.
In the meantime, heres an example of whats interestingly confused:
over the long haul, I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in peoples lives -- in the lives of the American people -- and I think its time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.
And if were 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.
This religious tendency is not simply the result of successful marketing by skilled preachers or the draw of popular mega-churches. In fact, it speaks to a hunger thats deeper than that - a hunger that goes beyond any particular issue or cause.
Each day, it seems, thousands of Americans are going about their daily rounds - dropping off the kids at school, driving to the office, flying to a business meeting, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets - and theyre coming to the realization that something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough.
They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. Theyre looking to relieve a chronic loneliness, a feeling supported by a recent study that shows Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than ever before. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them - that they are not just destined to travel down that long highway towards nothingness.
Can you tell whether he means this as an anthropological observation, a theological observation, or both? Heres his (sort of) answer:
It wasnt until after college, when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma.
I was working with churches, and the Christians who I worked with recognized themselves in me. They saw that I knew their Book and that I shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me that remained removed, detached, that I was an observer in their midst.
And in time, I came to realize that something was missing as well -- that without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.
And if it werent for the particular attributes of the historically black church, I may have accepted this fate. But as the months passed in Chicago, I found myself drawn - not just to work with the church, but to be in the church.
For one thing, I believed and still believe in the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change, a power made real by some of the leaders here today. Because of its past, the black church understands in an intimate way the Biblical call to feed the hungry and cloth the naked and challenge powers and principalities. And in its historical struggles for freedom and the rights of man, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source of hope.
What gives his life meaning, apparently, is working for social justice in this world, through a church, albeit not only or even mainly through a church. If faith were merely "a comfort tp the weary" or "a hedge against death" he might not take it as seriously. Theres more that I need to chew on.