At the recent Call to Renewal conference, sponsored by Sojourners, a “Christian Left” organization, Barak Obama gave the keynote address (streaming audio), and said some things about faith and politics which were excellent. Now, Al Mohler doesn’t agree, but I was so mad at Mohler’s treatment of the subject on his radio show that I sent him a letter. Here’s the stuff that Obama said, which echoes what I have often said, which I think was very good.
On Liberal Intolerance of Religion
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.
Now, such strategies of avoidance may work for progressives when our opponent is Alan Keyes. But over the long haul, I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in people’s lives — in the lives of the American people — and I think it’s time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.
On Asking People of Faith to Leave their Faith at the Door
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….
On Appealing to the Laws of Nature, not Religious Authority for Legislation
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 last point is the one that Mohler disagrees with, but I think Obama is right. And of course, for the issues that scripture condemns which we can’t really make a compelling argument for or against with common reason and ethics, legislation should remain neutral, as I stated clearly in Legislating in the Moral Gray Zone.
On the Move to Completely Secularize Public Life – Separation of Church/State
But 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.
My one big complaint about Obama is that he is pro-choice. Even worse, Al Mohler argued that there is no non-religious reasoning that can be used against abortion – he was trying to argue that we must be able to point to religious authority in making laws. So I wrote to him something of this order:
Are you kidding me? No non-religious arguments against abortion? I expect more from you than such simplistic anti-intellectual arguments. How about arguing that the child has a right to LIFE? How about arguing that they are a human life in the same way that we argue human life at the end, heartbeat and brainwaves. When you argue that the embryo is a life because of it’s genetic uniqueness, you are not making a religious argument at all.
Not only do I think that appealing to the bible as your authority for lawmaking is wrong, I think it is dangerous. What happens when the Muslims start quoting their book? Is it now an argument about whose book is more authoritative? The book of nature and nature’s God is common to all of us. Besides that, the danger of appealing to scripture is that we will be tempted to try to legislate religious laws (like women wearing head coverings) if we fail to distinguish between common wisdom contained in our book, and religious practice.
Obama may be wrong on Roe v. Wade, but I have to stand up and cheer for these other principles he has so eloquently outlined. Wow, maybe I’m becoming evangelical left? I’d have to give up my stances on abortion and homosexuality to do that, so probably I should not worry.