In the speech, he acknowledges the role faith has come to play in his own life, in his approach to politics, and in our national life and politics. Here are some snippets:
It wasn’t 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. In a sense, what brought me to Chicago in the first place was a hunger for some sort of meaning in my life. I wanted to be part of something larger. I’d been inspired by the civil rights movement – by all the clear-eyed, straight-backed, courageous young people who’d boarded buses and traveled down South to march and sit at lunch counters, and lay down their lives in some cases for freedom. I was too young to be involved in that movement, but I felt I could play a small part in the continuing battle for justice by helping rebuild some of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods.
So it’s 1985, and I’m in Chicago, and I’m working with these churches, and with lots of laypeople who are much older than I am. And I found that I recognized in these folks a part of myself. I learned that everyone’s got a sacred story when you take the time to listen.
So one Sunday, I put on one of the few clean jackets I had, and went over to Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. And I heard Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright deliver a sermon called “The Audacity of Hope.” And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came 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 and in my own life.
But my journey is part of a larger journey – one shared by all who’ve ever sought to apply the values of their faith to our society. It’s a journey that takes us back to our nation’s founding, when none other than a UCC church inspired the Boston Tea Party and helped bring an Empire to its knees. In the following century, men and women of faith waded into the battles over prison reform and temperance, public education and women’s rights – and above all, abolition. And when the Civil War was fought and our country dedicated itself to a new birth of freedom, they took on the problems of an industrializing nation – fighting the crimes against society and the sins against God that they felt were being committed in our factories and in our slums.
So doing the Lord’s work is a thread that’s run through our politics since the very beginning. And it puts the lie to the notion that the separation of church and state in America means faith should have no role in public life. Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural without its reference to “the judgments of the Lord.” Or King’s “I Have a Dream” speech without its reference to “all of God’s children.” Or President Kennedy’s Inaugural without the words, “here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” At each of these junctures, by summoning a higher truth and embracing a universal faith, our leaders inspired ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things.
No one who says these kinds of things can be a simple-minded separationist after the model of Americans United or the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Obama has too much awareness of the role religion plays in his own life--tying his personal narrative to something bigger than himself, lifting him up and, at the same time, humbling him. And he has too much awareness of the role that religion has played in the life of the nation, calling us, as Lincoln once said, to the better angels of our nature.
It’s nonetheless disappointing, as Claremont’s John J. Pitney, Jr. notes, that Obama can’t find room in his speech (or in his heart or in his mind) to acknowledge that men and women of faith and good will might disagree with the practical conclusions he draws from his faith. He has two things to say about abortion and other issues emphasized by religious conservatives:
But somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and started being used to drive us apart. It got hijacked. Part of it’s because of the so-called leaders of the Christian Right, who’ve been all too eager to exploit what divides us. At every opportunity, they’ve told evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design.
[God is] still speaking to our Catholic friends – who are holding up a consistent ethic of life that goes beyond abortion – one that includes a respect for life and dignity whether it’s in Iraq, in poor neighborhoods, in African villages or even on death row. They’re telling me that their conversation about what it means to be Catholic continues. God is still speaking.
While he speaks frequently about human dignity, all he has to say about abortion is that Catholic efforts to go beyond it are praiseworthy (so long as they agree with the rest of his agenda) and that religious conservatives use it to divide us, as if they don’t take the issue seriously. He has, in the past (before he was a presidential candidate), had somewhat more nuanced things to say about abortion. He has, in the past (before he was a presidential candidate), been more willing to emphasize the spiritual dimensions of our problems, problems that can be addressed by churches and faith-based organizations, but not necessarily or exclusively by government.
I once thought he might be willing to test the limit of faithful witness in the Democratic Party, to say "hey, we’re all brothers and sisters; let’s respect our differences and find a way to take seriously the concerns of folk who care about the unborn, who worry that we’re playing God when we give carte blanche to the stem cell researchers, and who have honest moral scruples about same-sex marriage." He might not agree with any of these positions, as they’re expressed by religious conservatives, but to hold him to the same standard that he holds those he criticizes, he shouldn’t demonize and dismiss them.
In the end, however, Obama isn’t willing to push the envelope. He wants the support of secular Democrats and religious liberals, and if he has to caricature religious conservatives to do so, so be it. For his current political purposes, which clearly trump his "conscientious" religious views (which makes him no different from those on the faith-based right he criticizes), the only religious witness that can have a seat at the national table is that of the religious Left. I’m disappointed, but not at all surprised.
Update: Our friend Jon Schaff has smart and sharp observations abour religious witness and "divisiveness," the latter often serving to try to silence those who have moral objections to the status quo. Here’s his conclusion:
All sides have their demagogues, those who exploit division and fear for political gain, but the mere fact of division is not proof of demagoguery. If Obama disagrees with his some of Christian brothers on this or that issue, pray let him discuss like a brother. Instead he has chosen the route of the politician, playing on the worries and fears of the secularist liberals in his party for his own political gain. How divisive of him.