There was an interesting story on CNN on Wednesday. It seems that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois) wants his fellow Democrats to court the votes of Christian Evangelicals – who seem to be in the pocket of Republicans more often than not. Such talk causes me to pause because I am waiting for the other shoe to drop. What exactly does Obama mean when he said “Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation. Context matters…”
I happen to agree that not every mention of God in public is a breach of the wall, however I take a more narrow view of what is appropriate. Obama notes:
“Nothing is more transparent than inauthentic expressions of faith: the politician who shows up at a black church around election time and claps — off rhythm — to the gospel choir.”
It is just as transparent as a politician going to county fairs and kissing babies or showing up at a shopping mall and buying a pair of socks. In order to be elected a politician has to look like they are “one of the people” even if they really aren’t. A politician who goes to a church, any church, with the press in tow and poses for photos with the minister afterward is transparent but it is an appropriate public expression of the politician’s religious views.
However it is walking a fine line and in some cases dangerous when a politician says that God told him how to act or a religious leader held more sway over them than an adviser with more expertise in whatever the issue was about.
Obama also said:
“It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase `under God’…”
But that isn’t the reason for the argument against the phrase. It is that school children are a captive audience and need extra protection from overt religion sponsored by agents of the state. Does Obama really think that school children have a real choice not to say it? Who wants the negative attention from being singled out for not saying the phrase? The worst thing in the child’s mind is to be thought of as different.
I would also challenge Obama to prove to me that a child knows what all the words in the pledge mean in the first place. I would bet that the only words they know is ‘under God’. The rest they might have a vague idea at that is all.
Obama also makes the mistake of thinking secularists want to rid religion from “the public square.” We don’t. We just want our elected officials to govern based on the laws on the books rather than their bible.
The whole CNN article bothered me because it would seem that Obama was suggesting that Democrats try to be more like Republicans – so I visited his website and read the full text of the speech. The context was one I could agree with overall. He said:
While I’ve already laid out some of the work that progressives need to do on this, I that the conservative leaders of the Religious Right will need to acknowledge a few things as well.
For one, they need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. That during our founding, it was not the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of this separation; it was the persecuted religious minorities, Baptists like John Leland, who were most concerned that any state-sponsored religion might hinder their ability to practice their faith.
Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America’s population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.
This brings me to my second point. Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, 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.
This may be difficult for those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of the possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It insists on the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime; to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.
We all know the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his only son, and without argument, he takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded.
Of course, in the end God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute, and Abraham passes God’s test of devotion.
But it’s fair to say that if any of us saw a twenty-first century Abraham raising the knife on the roof of his apartment building, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that are possible for all of us to know, be it common laws or basic reason.
I may not agree with some of his statements in the speech but the overall message – that government policy should be as universal as possible – is something I agree with.