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


  • Carl Van Valkenburg

    Perhaps elsewhere in this speech Obama referred to Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, but his quoted words seem to me to be a more dispassionate (and not particularly partisan) echo of intellectuals such as Ronald Theimann, Paul Weithman, Douglas Hicks, Stanley Hauerwas, and others.

  • Jack Walton

    I wonder if Senator Obama has ever seen “A Man for All Seasons”.

  • The urge to dominate,
    the urge to influence

    by Jim Boushay and Rickey Sain
    Resources Unlimited Foundation

    In reply to both Carl Van Valkenburg and Jack Walton: From a careful reading of Sen Obama’s Call to Renewal Keynote Address, there are clearly affirmative and reasonable connections between the separate but interdependent–and complex–spheres of politics and religion. Nothing new there.

    Many individuals and institutions—-in Illinois and throughout the nation—-are privileged to work with Sen. Obama and his office. He stays in touch with them and they with him and his senatorial office. He seems to want to follow in the long line of distinguished Illinois legislators (Paul Simon, Adlai Stevenson, Paul Douglas, Everett Dirksen, Abraham Lincoln, others). And citizens seem okay with that kind of distinguished practical leadership. We certainly can all help his office stay informed.

    What is new perhaps of late is that he, a card carrying Democrat, has been quite sensitive to the legitimate concerns of the evangelicals, in Illinois and the rest of the U.S. That word evangelicals does not here refer to the dogmatic fundamentalism of the radical right. The Call to Renewal Keynote Address is but the most recent example, writ large to a national audience.

    Along with other unapologetic Democrats, Obama continues insisting in letters as well as in other speeches that religion and things spiritual must necessarily be incorporated into the thinking and actions of the Democratic Party. Everywhere one goes religion seems to have a persistent and understandable claim on nearly everyone’s attention. The percentage of religion topics in the print and broadcast media has increased at least two-fold in the last ten years, and for many reasons. The Acton Institute is one among more than several good examples of the increase.

    One reason for the increase? Because there is nothing better to do with our time? Hardly. Because it’s clear that religion informs politics and politics informs religion. There’s a certain electricity in that exchange, as there might be in any authentic exchange of perspectives. That obvious fact of interdependent life is not in danger of going away anytime soon.

    Nowadays few deny the reality of that interconnection. Religion and politics each seem to need each other. What is the difference in our culture of bedeviling pluralism between the robust desire to influence people and the robust need to oppress people? Or, what is the difference between STUDIED moderation of purpose and EXACTITUDE of dogma? No easy answers there, clearly.

    Differences make a difference because, well, they are different. While both politics and religion are uniquely distinctive spheres of knowledge and action that must be honored as separate, one of the jobs of integrated thinking–and the action that flows from integrated thinking–is to draw the connections between politics and religion. In a manner of speaking, both those spheres of knowledge are about the art of influence in everydayness. Politics influences immanent and existential things. Religion (or the spiritual) influences the transcendent, especially those imaginative things that enlarge the capacity to somehow see the good and purposeful beyond the pressing present, including seemingly the omnipresent oppressions of self and others.

    Ultimately both politics and religion are about affirmations of the human spirit—-and about getting good things done through the affirmation. You know-—saying YES when social cynics and cultural cynicism seem to demand a knee-jerk NO.

    In one sense, politics stresses the secular social, and religion stresses the moral social. Each has in common the social, meaning each has in common how citizens treat other citizens as neighbors, how we engage genuinely, how we learn from each other as citizens of awareness. What both good politics and good religion seem to have in common is ethics—-meaning, those principles, ideas, and practices that ultimately, if necessary, one is really willing to die for. Generally one hopes of course that things won’t have to go to that extreme. Both politics and religion must remain flexible, open, vibrant. Each needs to remain culturally sensitive to the realistic urgencies of the other.

    Both good politics and good religion ask for studied compromise (politics) and studied reconciliation (religion) in ways that can benefit all. That’s a form of moderation that is always hard to accomplish, always in today’s times of urgent identity politics that often separates out in the name, ironically, of democratic unity. Why does separating out happen? Among many reasons: Because all we are human, flawed, full of self-interest, and preoccupied with getting what we think we need to survive in an intensely competitive system of haves and have-nots. But there’s help and hope here. All is not lost—-undoubtedly.

    Studied compromise and studied reconciliation means each of us doing those things of mitigation and amelioration in the name of realism and-—in important practical terms—on the basis of a common, higher good. And that higher good is to achieve a little more harmony than has seemed possible in tumultuous times of confusion and change. One day at a time, one person at a time, one legislator at a time, one religionist at a time.

    Both the practice of good politics and the practice of good religion bring about improved harmonies of purpose and improved practices of the robust virtues of persistence, patience, toleration, kindness, and even forgiveness of each other’s peccadilloes of personality as well as of our own manifest character weaknesses. More of that forgiveness, please. After all, seems to us, in our society we have each played unique roles in creating the problems, perils, and promises of our political and religious enmeshments, to echo a prevailing theme of democratic realism in religious liberty, as delineated in both John Courtney Murray’s WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS (1960) and more than a half-century earlier in Jane Addams’ DEMOCRACY AND SOCIAL ETHICS (1902).

    No question that there are even MORE compelling ideas here worth more studied engagement. But for now that MORE must be left for another table conversation and perhaps to someone else. We two need to go eat, an action both political and religious in the breaking of the bread. A big warm smile!