Tuesday, July 04, 2006

 

Have a little faith

If you are looking for way to honor the spirit of July 4th, take a few minutes to read Barack Obama's inspiring speech from last week on the meaning of one of our most cherished freedoms, the freedom of religion.

E.J. Dionne's column Friday called it the most important speech about faith and politics since John F. Kennedy's famous address in Houston during the 1960 campaign declaring his independence from the Vatican, and this is one of those rare cases where you can believe the hype.

Speaking at a conference of progressive religious leaders sponsored by Call to Renewal, Obama talked with great insight and candor about the various ways that Democrats and Republicans alike have misused and misunderstood this first freedom and in the process made religion a point of division in our country rather than the source of unity and strength it traditionally has been.

For some time now, there has been plenty of talk among pundits and pollsters that the political divide in this country has fallen sharply along religious lines. Indeed, the single biggest "gap" in party affiliation among white Americans today is not between men and women, or those who reside in so-called Red States and those who reside in Blue, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don't.

Conservative leaders have been all too happy to exploit this gap, consistently reminding 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.

Democrats, for the most part, have taken the bait. At best, we may try to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that - regardless of our personal beliefs - constitutional principles tie our hands. At worst, there are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word "Christian" describes one's political opponents, not people of faith.


Not surprisingly, Obama targeted the bulk of his message at his progressive brethren. In particular, he warns Democrats that it would be a mistake to not acknowledge the powerful role that faith plays in the every day life of most Americans, and to cede the field of religious discourse to conservatives.

Because when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations towards one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome - others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.

In other words, if we don't reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, then the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Alan Keyeses will continue to hold sway.

More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem here is rhetorical - if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.

Imagine Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address without reference to "the judgments of the Lord." Or King's I Have a Dream speech without references to "all of God's children." Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible, and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.

Our failure as progressives to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical, though. Our fear of getting "preachy" may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems.

After all, the problems of poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed, are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten point plan. They are rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness - in the imperfections of man.


Perhaps the most daring point Obama made was about the nexus between religion and morality -- terrority that my old boss Joe Lieberman tiptoed into in 2000 and got his yarmulke handed to him -- and the folly of trying to denude the public square of faith.

What I am suggesting is this - secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, 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.

Moreover, if we progressives shed some of these biases, we might recognize some overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country. We might recognize that the call to sacrifice on behalf of the next generation, the need to think in terms of "thou" and not just "I," resonates in religious congregations all across the country. And we might realize that we have the ability to reach out to the evangelical community and engage millions of religious Americans in the larger project of American renewal.


Obama punctuated the speech by calling on progressive and conservatives alike to show a greater sense of proportion in creating a safe space for faith in the public square. This passage stood out most to me:

. . . [A] sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation - context matters. It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase "under God." I didn't. Having voluntary student prayer groups use school property to meet should not be a threat, any more than its use by the High School Republicans should threaten Democrats. And one can envision certain faith-based programs - targeting ex-offenders or substance abusers - that offer a uniquely powerful way of solving problems.

Obama managed to pull this off without sounding self-righteous or holier-than-thou. In fact, if anything, the power of Obama's message was multiplied exponentially by his humility, both as a Christian and as a politician.

My favorite part was the closing, which helps explain why Obama has risen so far so fast. Obama recounted the story of a pro-life constituent who sent him a gracious congratulatory note after his election in 2004, in which the author quite respectfully complained about the shrill pro-choice boilerplate Obama had on his campaign website, and asked Obama to use more "fair-minded words." After reviewing the language on his website, Obama said he felt "a pang of shame."

It is people like him who are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country. They may not change their positions, but they are willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in fair-minded words. Those who know of the central and awesome place that God holds in the lives of so many, and who refuse to treat faith as simply another political issue with which to score points.

So I wrote back to the doctor, and I thanked him for his advice. The next day, I circulated the email to my staff and changed the language on my website to state in clear but simple terms my pro-choice position. And that night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own - a prayer that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me.


Of course, fair-minded seem to be an endangered species in the blogosphere, and true to form, Obama's speech was condemned by a number of liberal bloggers. Typical was this post by Chris Bowers at MyDD, who denounced Obama's inconvenient truths as "dangerous":

One of the reasons there is so much angst over what Obama said about Democrats and religion today is that, in Peter Daou's formulation, Obama's comments lend tri-partisan support (Democrats, Republicans and the media) to a narrative that Democrats are hostile toward people of faith. This tri-partisan support will result in a "closing of the triangle" against Democrats where it become conventional wisdom that Democrats are hostile to people of faith. This has been how the DLC has managed to reify ever anti-Democratic narrative it likes within the national discourse. So thanks Senator Obama, for reifying this Republican-driven talking point about Democrats. Now almost everyone will think that Democrats are hostile to people of faith. Well done. Your mentor, Joe Lieberman, would be proud.

The only conclusion one could reach after reading Bowers' reaction is that the DD stands for Delusional Democrats. I spent 11 years on Capitol Hill and top ranks of national politics, from 1993-2004, and the condescension and hostility towards religion and people of faith within the party was palpable.

That was even apparent within Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000. I will never forget the day that Lieberman was formally unveiled as Gore's running mate at a ceremony in Nashville. Lieberman said a few prayers in Hebrew to express his joy and thank God for this historic opportunity, and I overheard more than a few campaign staffers make disparaging marks, along the lines of, "enough with the God stuff." This discomfort with Lieberman's religion peaked later in the fall, when the Gore campaign leadership repeatedly tried to stifle Lieberman from giving his own meditation on the role of faith in public life. Lieberman ultimately delivered the speech at Notre Dame to rave reviews.

So I would respectfully suggest to Bowers and his peers in the ostrich wing of the party that they open their eyes and ears, and their minds for that matter, and stop shooting the messenger. The electoral math here is simply undeniable. Democrats are getting crushed in the competition for faith-based voters, and because our base is considerable smaller than the Republicans, we simply don't have the luxury to ignore (or God forbid insult) this considerable bloc any longer if we want to become a majority party again. To acknowledge that deficit and work to fix it is not giving aid and comfort to the enemy -- it's taking common sense to its logical conclusion.

Comments:
Hi, i was looking over your blog and didn't
quite find what I was looking for. I'm looking for
different ways to earn money... I did find this though...
a place where you can make some nice extra cash secret shopping.
I made over $900 last month having fun!
make extra money
 
Hi, i was looking over your blog and didn't
quite find what I was looking for. I'm looking for
different ways to earn money... I did find this though...
a place where you can make some nice extra cash secret shopping.
I made over $900 last month having fun!
make extra money
 
Hi, i was looking over your blog and didn't
quite find what I was looking for. I'm looking for
different ways to earn money... I did find this though...
a place where you can make some nice extra cash secret shopping.
I made over $900 last month having fun!
make extra money
 
Hi, i was looking over your blog and didn't
quite find what I was looking for. I'm looking for
different ways to earn money... I did find this though...
a place where you can make some nice extra cash secret shopping.
I made over $900 last month having fun!
make extra money
 
Post a Comment



<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?