Saturday, June 28


I'm beginning to think that Obama's true calling might have been as a philosopher/teacher.

The passage of the speech that prompted Dobson's "fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution" and "lowest common denominator of morality" comments was this: "Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. What do I mean by this? It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, to take one example, 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."

Dobson paraphrased this as "unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe in." But that's not what Obama was saying at all. Rather, he was arguing that in a pluralistic nation like ours, politics depends on people of faith being able to persuade others based on common and accessible ground and appeals to reason -- which sounds entirely reasonable. Christians who oppose abortion can make an effective case by talking about sonograms, fetal development and the moral imperative to protect the most vulnerable. That doesn't mean one's faith shouldn't inform the question of abortion -- or, for that matter, war, poverty and other issues. After all, President Lincoln's argument against slavery was partly grounded in faith. But appeals to the Bible or church teaching aren't sufficient in a pluralistic nation. That's why Lincoln talked primarily about the Declaration of Independence.

There are certainly reasons for evangelicals to have concerns about Obama -- based on his extreme views on abortion, judicial nominees, Iraq (his plans for a precipitous withdrawal would probably trigger mass death and perhaps even genocide) and other issues. But critics of Obama have an obligation to provide a fair and honest critique, and the attacks leveled by Dobson fall terribly short of that standard.

I'm impressed by BO's words here, unlike his usual stump speech themes of "change, hope, unity." In this case, he expounds a distinct, reasonable approach to the church/state conundrum that confounds so many. Man is both a political animal and a religious animal, and resolving the two natures in the civil sphere has proven a challenge to humans throughout history. His contribution to the debate here is not negligible.

The Dobsons and Robertsons have served us ill by trying to impose their interpretation of Biblical principles upon our society, our laws, our institutions. Obama's message is that we humans cannot isolate our spiritual selves when we enter the public sphere; indeed, the words of our founding documents include spiritual references; but the Constitution itself states that there can be no civilly-recognized religion, ergo there can be no law instituted that is based solely on the tenets of a particular faith. While our faith may inform our political philosophy, it cannot be cited as the basis for governance of the larger public. Instead a case must be made to values that are commonly accepted, that is, by groups outside one's own religious circle. That is a precept the religiously authoritarian simply can't or won't accept.

And that is curious to me, since the New Testament is so rife with admonitions to Christians to keep ourselves apart from the world, not to seek power over others but to serve them instead. Political influence is a foreign concept to Christ's teachings. He stood mute before his accusers, when he could have inspired his followers to riot and defy the government.

Perhaps Barack should have been a teacher or minister instead. His personal charisma, his exalted language and powers of persuasion would have served him well. But religious or movement leaders have never made very good civil governors.

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