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Obama on religion and politics

I’m late to this party, but Barack Obama’s 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 don’t think I’m 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. I’m going to give some more thought to it and write something formal for one of my publication venues.

In the meantime, here’s an example of what’s interestingly confused:

over the long haul, I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in people’s lives -- in the lives of the American people -- and I think it’s time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.

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.

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 that’s 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 they’re 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. They’re 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? Here’s his (sort of) answer:

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.

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 weren’t 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. There’s more that I need to chew on.

Discussions - 11 Comments

I’ve always like Barack Obama. He can dance and move, and he has a style all his own. He comes off as a man of integrity with a genuine sense of and concern for justice. These qualities reflect a strong character, and I believe that is the first trait that qualifies a politician for the possibility of being a statesman. However, these are not good enough on their own; integrity and a concern for justice has little value if you start from the wrong premises or get confused along the long walk to consistent policy measures. But, in our political system, a man need not remain on the same path in order to learn the tools of gaining a significant constituency.

I read the speech and Wood’s article. I would say this, Wood is right to say that Obama is walking a tightrope, and I think Professor Knippenberg is incorrect when he says the structure and rhetoric of Obama’s speech is not strategically planned for the purpose of walking that tightrope (Note the intricate differences in delivery when “remanding” the Dems as opposed his “remanding” the Republicans, as well as his “saving” paragraphs that follow statements seriously bringing Democratic policy and social positioning into question).

Where I depart from Wood is with his apparent acceptance that any attempt to bring religion and politics (in this case, the Democratic party) into line within the formation of our democratic Republic that requires tightrope walking automatically disqualifies or undermines that attempt. As I understand our Declaration and Constitution, beginning with “all men created equal” and accepting the First Amendment (a logical consequence of democracy) necessitates that a tightrope be walked; and not to the detriment of society. It seems to be part of the very basis of a democratic society that a secular government be formed, yet still seek the good. Obama refers to this when he says,

“I would rather have someone who is grounded in morality and ethics, and who is also secular, affirm their morality and ethics and values without pretending to be something they’re not (referring to ministers claiming a level of moral authority and justifying policy positions only by quoting the Bible). They don’t need to do that. None of us need to do that.”

We must accept the notion that the good can be sought through secular justifications and/or political models, not without the assistance of faith and God, but within a smaller framework. That’s why natural law, established in our political framework as the foundation of our society by our founding document, is a useable avenue. It is also why progressivism, as expressed by Wilson, is a formidable political foe. It is certainly why the letter sent to Obama by a doctor critical of the way he expressed a political position, and Obama’s resulting discussion of fair-mindedness, is the right approach to religion and politics.

So the source of Obama’s problem is not his attempt to implement Christianity within the Progressive model, nor is it the Machiavellian use of religion as a political tool (all Republicans should know this, here’s calling Duke Cunningham, Pat Robertson, et. al.). It is not even his invocation of diversity (Wood doesn’t do that aspect of his piece justice because he refuses to articulate that diversity is a contingent value, as a reflection and result of the practice of the principles that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights). Rather, it is his endorsement of his own assumptions. His speech is riddled throughout with condescension towards Christians who claim their faith leaves them with different conclusions than his own, and Wood correctly points out that his speech seems to cast the Christians as “them” and the secular Dems as “we.” As a result, his discussion of fair-mindedness (the part of his speech worth reading) seems disingenuine, and leaves me questioning whether or not different words (not quite so eloquent) than those of the doctor, yet with the same meaning, would have mattered much to him at all. Not so fair-minded afterall?

The passages quoted tell us nothing more than that Obama sees value in a certain type of religion. It is reminiscent of Eisenhower’s comment that "I don’t care what type it is."

It does not mean that Obama sympathizes with theologically conservative Christianity, that he is a Christian in any real (theological) sense, or that he sympathizes in any serious way with those who see our civilization losing its moral bearings. He basically believes in the Sermon on the Mount and wants to impose it through statist means. He also recognizes, like any semi-intelligent person, that religion tends to make people feel good and that this is a worthwhile thing.

All this means that Obama is less likely to alienate swing voters than certain other Democrats who are obvious cultural leftists. It does not mean that he has anything substantive to say about religion, let alone that he’s an indicator of any real change in the Democratic party.

If Obama were white and less articulate and charming, we wouldn’t be talking about his vague musings on religion. We would dismiss them as trivia.

What I found most interested about the Obama piece after first reading it was not any sort of deep or inspiring polictico/religious thought, but the way in which he said things. That is to say, if you didn’t think about the content, but merely listened to it (that is, reading it aloud to oneself, it was stirring and appealing. It reminded me of another smooth talking democrat, Bill Clinton.

Sounds like Bellah, HABITS OF THE HEART, left Tocquevillianism (a terrible heresy from the point of view of true Tocquevillianism). There’s something, if not that much, admirable in this rather out-of-touch effort to find an antidote to creeping libertarianism from the left. If BO were actually to start to mix devotion to the policies of the old (pre-Clinton) Democratic party with social conservatism in the manner of Carey McWilliams I’d stop yawning. To be fair, there’s more beef in this speech than in most of Clinton’s.

You want to watch out for Obama. He is charming, well-educated, articulate, charismatic--and most likely a fake. I live in Illinois and I voted for him. I also voted for Bush. I thought they both had character.

Obama has since disappointed me in the Schiavo matter and, especially, by sitting on his hands during the Roberts and Alito confirmations despite the fact both were qualified beyond dispute. That was needless and cynical. It wasn’t the right thing to do, but the one calculated to have the greatest political impact later. The guy’s a fraud.

I agree with bothAllan’s observation of the "it goes down smoothly" rhetorical skill, and Peter’s that there is, in contrast to Clinton, beef here. I’m also convinced of its sincerity on the key points. I’m interested to hear what Joe further says regarding the content, but what strikes me first about the whole is the scent of prudent fear. Fear that his fellow Dems are increasingly embracing a stance rhetorically akin to that of 19th century anti-clericalism, and what that would mean for Dem’s election prospects, not to mention the smaller issue of keeping the black churches comfortable enough with the Dems. It’s sort of signal to his fellow Dems that they’ve got to reign in their obsessions with theocrats and religion-free public discourse, lest his position with his key constituency gets too tricky, not to mention the white Catholics he needs large slices of for future presidential runs. I’m sort of shooting from the hip here, so those who know their Obama or their black church politics should feel to school me.

A final point--Joe is right that it is telling that his becoming a Christian was prompted by his realization that faith in Jesus was an active (read: social justice) force in the world; nonetheless, what prompts one into the faith doesn’t necessarily set the agenda for one’s life in it.

A final final point--Wouldn’t you rather read/discuss a speech like this than anything Hillary might come up with?

Summing Carl up, here are our choices: As President: A fairly moderate, smart, charismatic "old Democrat" African American (who, as such, does not share the white, "European," sophisticated prejudice against Christian faith and anthropology--African Americans are easily the most genuinely Christian Americans who vote Democratic) who would restore discredited economic policies, is suspect, at best, on foreign policy, and finally would be no bulwark against social liberalism, promiscuous "diversity," etc. OR a fairly moderate, smart Bobo feminist with sound (Clintonian, free market) views on the economy and fairly responsible views on foreign policy--but who would unleash feminist, political correct, anti-orthodox, hyper-narcissistic socially liberal nuttiness on the country through the bureaucracy, the judiciary etc. If you vote peace and prosperity, go HC. If you vote sanity and moral flourishing, go BO. They are the two best Democrats, in fact, and may well form a TICKET that would be very, very hard for the rhetorically and even IQ challenged Republicans to beat at this point. I actually think they are both relatively sincere (compared with, say, BClinton) and either might surprise us as president in a good way. To avoid confusion, let me end by saying that I won’t be voting in any Democratic primary and hope a great Republican candidate emerges from somewhere.

But Peter, ahem’s cmnt suggests Obama’s ’moral sanity’ will be mainly rhetorical, and that on the issue most conspicuously missing from his speech, the Supreme Court, he’ll be almost as bad as Hilary. The first part of your post hints at this--’no bulwark’ against social liberalism, and such liberalism includes, I would think, almost unqualified support of the privacy doctrine in jurisprudence. In one part of his speech he distingishes core faith commitments, the ten commandments, Jesus’ divinity, trinity, etc., from contraceptive issues, gay-marriage, and implicitly, abortion, and suggests that the liberal positions here are necessary modern adjustments that are peripheral to the core of the faith. Such compartmentalization of Christian ethics, sincerely and artfully articulated, will be a balm to many a Dem beleiver squirming in the present situation. A false balm, alas.


Obama "would restore discredited economic policies, is suspect, at best, on foreign policy, and would be no bulwark against social liberalism, promiscuous ’diversity,’ etc." However, he also represents "sanity and moral flourishing."

Shrillery "would unleash feminist, politically correct, anti-orthodox, hyper-narcissistic socially liberal nuttiness on the country."

Either "might surprise us as president in a good way."

But given the (correct) indictments you’ve drawn against these two, the latter observation doesn’t seem very significant. Even if Obama or Shrillery "surprises us as president in a good way," that wouldn’t outweigh the damage.

All this talk about who the least-bad Democrats are strikes me as waste of time. Yes, America would be safer -- security-wise and otherwise -- if the Democratic party were sincerely saner.

But what is the evidence that this might really happen? Obama’s awareness that Christianity, if properly neutered and spun, can be an effective propaganda device for the statist agenda? His no-duh observation that faith makes a lot of people feel good?
Shrillery’s calculated pandering ("As you know, I am strongly opposed to illegal immigrants")?

The best medicine for the Democratic party, if that’s a big concern, would be for it to lose a few more elections, not by squeaker margins as in 2000, 2002 and 2004, but decisively.
Otherwise, it is the party of Ned Lamont, Schmuck Schumer, and Howard Dean.

Nothing particular to add to the analyses of Carl and Peter on the next Democratic Presidential ticket. Distrust and verify is my inference, I guess.

"Relatively sincere": another fine Lawlerian coinage. Close to, but not the same as 99% chaste.

Does anyone have an idea or opinion on any differences between their Supreme Court nominees?

Carl and David, of course, are right. BO would be less in-our-face but basically little better on the Court appts. His "executive branch" or bureaucracy and the general tone he would set for the country wouldn’t be as bad. But his Christianity is emasculated, I agree. If it weren’t for the social-cultural issues (the big issues, finally), HC wouldn’t be all that bad. BO, to speak libertarian for the moment, would clearly have much more of a "statist agenda," and he would make should sure the Creator endorses it. But as I said before, it’s not my job to choose between them, and I’ll be voting for the other guy.

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