Barack Obama and the case for faith in the public square

I most often vote Republican for a number of reasons. One is that as a whole, the positions taken by the Republican Party line up better with my own beliefs. Another, however, is the frequency with which the Democrats nominate people I find it hard to respect. Thankfully, that isn’t the case in our congressional district, the 2nd of Colorado; unfortunately, it’s all too often the case at the presidential level. I don’t expect the national Dems to nominate someone I could be happy voting for, but I wish they would at least nominate someone I could respect. They’re out there, politicians like Virginia’s Mark Warner or New Mexico’s Bill Richardson—or, perhaps most intriguingly (though not for 2008), Illinois’ Barack Obama, who showed why in his recent keynote address to the Building a Covenant for a New America conference.

As Slate’s Amy Sullivan writes, “Obama’s speech, delivered to an audience of the frustrated religious left, . . . was, for the first time in modern memory, an affirmative statement from a Democrat about ‘how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy,’ as Obama put it. . . . [H]e doesn’t defend progressives’ claim to religion; he asserts the responsibilities that fall to them as religious people. Americans are looking, Obama said, for a ‘deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country.’ He started that conversation. A few others are joining in. It’s time for everyone else to catch up.”

I appreciate this speech (and Obama for giving it) because I consider the increasing secularization of the Democratic Party—and its concomitant effects on the Republican Party—unfortunate for the health of our nation. The increasing identification of our political parties with a sacred vs. religious split marginalizes the Christian Left (and while I may not agree with them on many points, that’s unfortunate for the democratic process), while turning the demands of folks like the Chicago Tribune‘s Eric Zorn for a thoroughly secularized public square into a fundamental plank of American liberalism. Which, in my point of view, it shouldn’t be, because that privileges one religious outlook over all others. That’s religious discrimination, which we all know is a Bad Thing.

Of course, Zorn and others would deny that. When he writes, “Speaking as a secularist—I don’t like that word, really, but it’ll do for now—and presuming to speak for them, what we ask of believers—all we ask—is that they not enter the public square using ‘because God says so’ as a reason to advance or attack any policy position,” he doesn’t believe he’s “asking believers to abandon their values or beliefs as a prerequisite to engaging in political debate”; indeed, he writes that “the idea that this demand is hostile to religion is a common and popular strawman . . . it’s also completely wrong. ” Clearly, he understands his own secular presumptions as religiously neutral, rather than as a set of presumptions which compete with religious ones.

With this, I cannot agree; where Zorn writes, “Whatever beliefs or philosophies shape your values or guide your personal conduct are of no nevermind to us,” I have to say that he’s wrong. As any mathematician or philosopher could tell you, it’s not just your conclusions which matter—your reasoning, which provides the foundation for those conclusions, matters just as much, and it really is significant if you get to the right place for the wrong reasons. It’s significant because it means you’re right as much by accident as anything, and that getting one point right is no indicator that you’ll get anything else right. As such, the “beliefs or philosophies [that] shape your values or guide your personal conduct” do matter—they matter a great deal—and for people like Zorn to insist that people like me pretend otherwise is precisely to “ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square,” as Sen. Obama put it.

So what’s the alternative? Sen. Obama is completely correct when he says, “Frederick Douglass, 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. So 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.” The problem, though, as any preacher knows, is application: what do we do with that? That’s the tricky part, and I think the senator himself wobbles in saying, “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.” I understand his concern here, “their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason” (and on a side note, shouldn’t that be “our proposals”?), and I agree with that; but who gets to define what values are “universal”?

The fact of the matter is, requiring religious folk to make arguments only on grounds of “universal . . . values” will be translated right back into saying “that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates.” As a recent Christianity Today editorial noted, “What Obama fails to see is how often specifically Christian or religious reasoning has been at the core of social movements,” and how often his test would invalidate precisely those reformers whom he praises. There needs to be room for people of all stripes to make arguments for their positions on the basis of their own values, rather than restricting them to arguing on the basis of values pre-approved by others. It should no more be necessary for Christians, Muslims, and Jews to pretend to be secularists than for secularists to pretend to be Christians, Muslims, or Jews. We should all be free to make our arguments on the basis of who we really are and what we truly believe.

Of course, if we do so without trying to establish common ground with those who stand in different places—if, for instance, Christians make political arguments without trying to connect them to values held by at least some secularists—then we wind up only preaching to the choir, building very narrow movements, and that’s not a good thing. From a pragmatic point of view, then, while I don’t think it’s wrong to “enter the public square using ‘because God says so’ as a reason to advance or attack any policy position,” if that’s our only reason, we ought not expect to get very far. Christianity Today addresses this point in its editorial, arguing that “what Lincoln, King, and others did . . . was use a variety of reasons—some religious, some pragmatic—to motivate social change. Thus, listeners with or without a religious bent could find some reason to buy into the cause.”

To be sure, there are those on the conservative end of American Christianity who would object to such an approach; but their objection, I believe, rests on their failure to take seriously Augustine’s insight that all truth is God’s truth. When we as Christians approach political issues from that perspective—and when we understand that God is not capricious, that he hasreasons for everything he tells us to do and not to do—then we come to understand that “pragmatic” arguments which appeal to values we share with those who don’t share our faith aren’t merely pragmatic, but are in fact theological. We are never called to say, “Thus says the Lord,” without explaining why “thus says the Lord”—what the reasons are, as best we understand them, for the commands God has given us—and this is no less true in the political realm than anywhere else. It isn’t our place to “defend the ways of God to man,” as Milton put it, but it’s certainly our responsibility to explain them as best we can. To do so is both good theology and good politics; to fail to do so is arrogance, and nothing makes for worse politics—or theology—than arrogance. May God be glorified in our lives.

Posted in Barack Obama, Faith and politics.

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