Post by Jim Newman
Bits and pieces excerpted from President Obama’s 2006 speech, on faith and religion, are floating around recently. It is worth reading in its entirety. It is a full discussion of his gripes about liberals, conservatives, and their inability to come together based on faith; how and when does a person interject their religion or not into politics. Here is the entire most-quoted section in his “Call for Renewal”:
“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 paragraph is slammed as renouncing bringing faith into politics. Religious folks do not want to consider whether their politics are good for everyone. It is as if they want Kant’s categorical imperative to be the realm of personal choice: “I believe the bible and so should everyone else and if I can’t make everyone believe the bible everything I believe in because of the bible should also be believed by all.” By this standard any personal choice could be universalized as insistence: I believe everyone should read Darwin and let’s make it law. Darwin is certainly more relevant than the bible. If I were stranded on a desert island I would bring Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and only because I don’t know of a more comprehensive single volume history; perhaps for you it would be Shakespeare or the Engineer’s Handbook, maybe a guide to rural technology?
“Now this is going to be difficult for some 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 what’s possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It’s the art of 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, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.
Unfortunately these pretty words are an assertion and not a description. By hesitating to use the word pluralism in the previous paragraph he missteps and by the time he gets to the second it’s too late. Obama misses a huge political framing. Pluralism is not liberal. Pluralism is constitutionally conservative.
“Democracy in its purest or most ideal form would be a society in which all adult citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives.”
We weren’t a democracy until indentured servants, slaves, and finally women in 1920 were given the vote. Democracies are by definition pluralistic. Pluralism does not even require democracy. Obama is supporting the secularist James Madison, and it would have been nice had he noted this. Madison feared factionalism and wrote such in Federalist paper #10. A faction is:
“a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
Madison defines the most serious source of faction to be the diversity of opinion in political life which leads to dispute over fundamental issues such as what regime or religion should be preferred.
Furthermore from Madison:
“the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” … ”A pure democracy can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party.”
Dang, Madison sounds like a materialist, Marxist even. From Wikipedia:
Madison particularly emphasizes that economic stratification prevents everyone from sharing the same opinion. Madison concludes that the damage caused by faction can be limited only by controlling its effects.
He then argues that the only problem comes from majority factions because the principle of popular sovereignty should prevent minority factions from gaining power. Madison offers two ways to check majority factions: prevent the “existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time” or render a majority faction unable to act.
Republic and minority rights. Obama’s point on pluralism would more fairly be aimed at representatives who’s job it is to mediate the self interest of the voter. In the following statement he should be saying he would rather have representatives, grounded in morality and ethics.
“In fact, because I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality, I would rather have someone who is grounded in morality and ethics, and who is also secular, affirm their morality and ethics and values without pretending that they’re something they’re not. They don’t need to do that. None of us need to do that.”
“But 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.”
Whew, did your head spin? Mine did. He tries to mollify this contrasting approach, of a religious citizen and a secular representative, by appealing to what John Rawls in the major point of his rewrite of A Theory of Justice Political Liberalism calls overlapping consensus.
“Thus, to repeat, the problem of political liberalism is to work out a political conception of political justice for a (liberal) constitutional democratic regime that a plurality of reasonable doctrines, both religious and nonreligious, liberal and non liberal, may endorse for the right reasons…
“Yet the outcome of the vote is to be seen as reasonable provided all citizens of a reasonable just constitutional regime sincerely vote in accordance with the idea of public reason…
“Some may, of course, reject a decision, as Catholics may reject a decision to grant a right to abortion. They may present an argument in public reason for denying it and fail to win a majority. But they need not exercise the right of abortion in their own case. They can recognize the right as belonging to legitimate law and there fore do not resist it with force. To do that would be unreasonable:… That the Church’s nonpublic reason requires its members to follow its doctrines is perfectly consistent with their honoring public reason.”
Obama seems to be trying to forward this without calling it liberal, or more accurately constitutionally conservative, but ends up not recognizing that most pubcons wish to change the country period to promote their own cause and are unwilling to stop until there is a theocracy founded not in reason but biblical authority. It’s almost like he has to chastise secularists to make it look like he is beating everyone equally. Pubcons must shed some of their absolutism at the door and secularists can’t expect them to do so.
“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.”
In a way I think this is cowardly and in another way I see him desperate to get mutually hating people to come together. Really, the Koran does list Jesus as a prophet. Really, the Mormons do believe Christ was a prophet. Really, the old, Jewish testament did predestine Christ’s sermon on the mount. Really, the Thetans of Scientology are the sins of humanity. It is appealing to try to cut through the Gordian knot of life-defining differences with the sameness sword but at some point you just can’t. The most egregious act is not secularist but theocratic. Secularism is the house and theology is the guest.
Obama then decides he needs to bash progressives a bit and support minority, democratic political input by saying how religious folks are self-correcting as if atheists and agnostics were not the real movers and shakers of change–bet the founding fathers, white-boy plantation owners, are rolling in their graves having given up fortunes to help develop a country in which they believed with all of their pocket books as travels absentia and war ruined them. In a republic it is the job of our politicians to moderate these interests as secularists in office; that it may be our wish that citizens could be informed enough for a direct democracy but they also may not or even wish not. Of course, when a representative votes or speaks as a citizen they can vote or blather for whatever they want. While pretending to chastise conservatives he actually goes for secularists.
“While I’ve already laid out some of the work that progressive leaders need to do, I want to talk a little bit about what conservative leaders need to do — some truths they need to acknowledge.
“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. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn’t the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn’t want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it”
Once again he disses those late, great plantation owners who gave up their fortunes to support this great Republic. Religious freedom was more in response against Episcopalianism which was legally mandatory and monarchical. Our founding citizens were most motivated by Calvinistic Presbyterianism which was the second most popular church in America at the time of the revolution and certainly the most activist of them all.
“Only the Presbyterian Church lined up solidly behind the colonists, and without them independence would not have been possible. Oh, and that Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson? It came along a full year after Scots-Irish Presbyterians in Charlotte, North Carolina, wrote their own declaration of independence. The Mecklenburg Declaration, written on May 20, 1775, “by unanimous resolution declared the people free and independent, and that all laws and commissions from the king were henceforth null and void.”
I really want to believe in Obama. I really want to think we elected him for a reason and not equal opportunity. He does a great speech for the most part and is intelligent and has been thwarted at every angle but he just can’t get religion right in spite of his notion he is an anthropologist studying religion.
“I was not raised in a religious household. For my mother, organized religion too often dressed up closed-mindedness in the garb of piety, cruelty and oppression in the cloak of righteousness. However, in her mind, a working knowledge of the world’s great religions was a necessary part of any well-rounded education. In our household the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology.
“On Easter or Christmas Day my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites. In sum, my mother viewed religion through the eyes of the anthropologist; it was a phenomenon to be treated with a suitable respect, but with a suitable detachment as well.
Detachment? Do you see much detachment about religion? This is as hypocritical as saying he is not going to have a war on drugs and then condoning more arrests than ever before. In 2007 before the national meeting of the United Church of Christ Obama asked for evangelicals to abandon their faith-based principles by denying they were really, truly faith based.
“Somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and faith started being used to drive us apart,”
This is simply silly. Faith was used to bring people together against others, as a source of power. Exclusion is the other side of inclusion. In some cases it was against oppressors. In others it was to maintain status quo. In others to oppress. I find it difficult, if at all, to find examples where it was to bring everyone, and I mean everyone, together, unless they were willing to follow their particular faith universalized.
Even today in so called interfaith meetings, why is it not intrafaith, they do not even try to address secular issues, they are incomprehensible. Islam is about peace, my ass. Christians turn the other cheek, my ass. Jews seek solace in gentiles, my ass. That their exclusion is somehow divorced from their inner humanness has no evidence or ideology. This is as ridiculous as my 17 year old son exemplifying George Orwell’s deservedly paranoid fear by saying war is peace because you have to have war to have peace.
“Faith got hijacked, partly because of the so-called leaders of the Christian Right, all too eager to exploit what divides us.”
They are eager to fight not for division but principle of faith. Evangelicals truly believe you must go through Christ to get to heaven and the world would be a better place if everyone followed their faith to the letter. Without faith, chaos reigns, and the end is coming soon. Faith didn’t get hijacked, absolutism is the logical result of their faith.
“At every opportunity, they’ve told 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.”
“There was even a time when the Christian Coalition determined that its number one legislative priority was tax cuts for the rich.” “I don’t know what Bible they’re reading, but it doesn’t jibe with my version.
What? I appreciate rhetoric but the bible is so mishmoshed that, for example, abortion folks can use “thou shalt not kill” for fetuses but can also justify killing people being heretics, apostates, and fellow killers. Nevertheless, unless he wishes to discuss hermeneutics between the Greek testament and the Hebrew Pentateuch they are, for the most part, reading some bastard version of the King James. In any case any translation, devoid of hermeneutics, cannot deny the specific statements concerning slavery, gay bashing, and misogyny. I am not being facetious here. As a lawyer knowing the constitution is interpreted through legal precedence Obama shouldn’t demean a crowd by being folksy. Bush got away with it because he was a fool, a shrub. Obama should be too smart to role model folksiness.
The problem is while reading the same damned sacred text people won’t come to a coherent conclusion and it’s because it is a bad book. That is the entire issue. That is why Catholics don’t even read it as a whole and rely on a priest and pope to cherry pick phrases and extrapolate broadly–a dead baby is really saved because it shouldn’t have to remain in purgatory and so doesn’t have to really receive Christ. While I appreciate the postmodern aspect that every reading is a writing, and every interpretation is a misinterpretation, when it comes to bible talk this is the equivalent of saying those disagreeing aren’t good Christians. What arrogance. Of course they are reading the same version. I say get rid of the accursed book, as Jefferson hoped in 1821:
“that the human mind will some day get back to the freedom it enjoyed 2000 years ago. This country which has given the world an example of physical liberty, owes to it that our moral emancipation too.”
Pubcons truly and deeply do believe in the covenant of the 10 commandments and truly and deeply believe that the abortion issue, the gay issue, and intelligent design issue cause the big problems like war, theft, and utter economic collapse. It is really simple to them. That’s why you don’t see pubcon intellectuals right now and why they are aggressively and openly anti intellectual. A cow can clearly follow the sacred text.
In their mind analysis, reason, and deep thought take away from the utterly simple and clear truths available to everyone. The purity and value of individual interpretation was not so much democratic as a deep belief that everyone should arrive at the same conclusion, if they follow the bible, and if you don’t we’ll make our own sect and try to universalize that. The rhetoric is done, the argument over, let the final judgement begin. That is why they are called fundamentalists, nuances and intelligence are as valuable as zits on a kid.
Jim Newman, bright and well