Acton Institute Powerblog

Obama, Where Art Thou?

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From Barack Obama’s speech to Jim Wallis’s Call for Renewal (worth the read, if for nothing more than to gain an insight on how he sees his crowd. Study one’s rhetoric and style and you’ll know how they view their audience):

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.

(Quickly: regarding Sen. Obama’s implication that religious policy arguments do not have the apparatus per se to debate in a pluralistic society: I suggest he ask his denomination, the United Church of Christ, to reexamine the concept of Natural Law — perhaps read some of our own good Dr. Grabill’s work on the matter.)

I would rather, however, discuss how Sen. Obama characterizes the players in religiously-grounded policy debates. But while there are those who, rightly or wrongly, base their policy decisions and opinions on what they say “my Bible tells me” (Obama’s words), Obama implies in his speech that all policy arguments from the religious right are of this type of argument: I advocate such and such a policy because the Bible said so.

On the contrary, the most substantive arguments in the policy market at present are firmly rooted in reason and yet still resonate with faith. (Faith and reason, as has been pointed out, are certainly not at odds.) And if we are fair, we will grant that there is a huge wash of arguments in the political arena that, while held by religious people, translate themselves particularly well to our common sense of law and liberty. I think Sen. Obama betrays either his ignorance or rhetoric by not engaging the arguments of, for example, George Weigel or Michael Novak, and instead repeatedly naming Pat Pobertson and Jerry Falwell as representative of religious policy commentators. Such ignorance (or rhetoric) makes me strongly suspicious of whether Sen. Obama truly hopes that we will “refuse to treat faith as simply another political issue with which to score points.”

HT: Catholic Educator’s Resource Center

David Michael Phelps

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