Mild kerfuffle in the blogosphere and elsewhere these days after Barack Obama's keynote address at the recent Call to Renewal conference - a progressive religious bunch - and it seems like a good chance to think about thinking about religion in public life.
Matthew Yglesias, a smart young blogger and American Prospect editor, says on his TPMCafe blog (which should be a regular stop on your morning blog-tour!):
More publicly funded nativity scenes and allowing "voluntary student prayer groups use school property to meet" (as Obama proposed) isn't going to put us on a slippery slope to a theocratic dystopia. Some concessions need to be made to public opinion, and it's smart to make them on basically symbolic issues (I would add the flag burning pseudo-issue to my list) rather than on consequential things like reproductive rights, gay and lesbian rights, and who runs the economy.
Shorter Yglesias: this isn't a slippery slope, people. Shorter meta-Yglesias: maybe we worry way too much about slippery slopes.
Predictably, his commenters aren't too happy. But the more serious TPMCafe discussion is in response to Nathan Newman, who calls out what he terms a 'kneejerk response' by liberal bloggers:
Obama did not suggest changing progressive positions on abortion. Obama did not suggest changing progressive positions on gay rights.
He suggested changing progressive positions on expressions of faith within public institutions such as schools.
That's the concrete proposal he made, criticizing those who hold out for a stronger version of separation of church and state.
That's a pretty small subset of what he said, but the fact that some people treated his speech as even suggesting a weakening of progressive commitments to gay rights or abortion is exactly the equation of religion with rightwing views that Obama was challenging.
Obama's speech is excellent - he's a fantastic public speaker, moving with grace from religious rhetoric to populist chest-pounding to jes'-folks personal anecdotes - and you should read it. This is what he says:
Conservative leaders, from Falwell and Robertson to Karl Rove and Ralph Reed, have been all too happy to exploit this ['Red/Blue'] 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, some liberals 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.
Such strategies of avoidance may work for progressives when the 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 the lives of the American people, and join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.
Sensible, a little broad-brush but more or less correct. I'm not sure it's necessary argumentatively speaking to resort to an 'at worst' case talking about liberal rhetoric on religion, but as monologue it's concise and effective. Then:
It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.
That's beautiful writing and a lovely sentiment - one that I don't share but can fully appreciate. He's talking about a commitment to a life of good works in the name of an organized moral system to which he feels a personal connection, which manifests itself along 'progressive' lines. No wonder people flip for this guy.
He sums up his message this way:
[I]f we don't reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, Jerry Falwell's and Pat Robertson's will continue to hold sway.
This is what people seem to be misunderstanding about Obama's speech, and what's most thrilling about it. He's not talking about ceding ground to the Christian Right on policy issues, he's talking about transforming the nature of politicized Christianity itself. People of progressive cast should be praising this vision: he's talking not about conceding to an exclusionist, bigoted morality embodied by the religious fringe most vocal at this moment, but rather about a dual reframing of both progressive causes and the Christianity he espouses. If American Christianity has been reduced to a caricature in the public eye, Obama is arguing that the caricature can be replaced with a rejuvenated vision of active and activist communitarian Christianity grounded in liberal tolerance. In other words: he's seeing a possible future for religious politics in this country that's not in a straight line from how things are (moving) right now. And that's stirring.
More importantly, that can stir the hearts of nonbelievers as well as religious people. Matthew Yglesias points out that the status quo, in terms of church/state interactions, isn't actually that bad, it just seems that way because of who's running the show. But Obama knows that Bush won't be president forever, and the next president won't be as zealous or moronic as Bush. So the point of not worrying about prayer in school - and note well that in his speech he talks only about voluntary student prayer groups and not mandated school prayer, an essentially pluralistic and democratic vision - the point of giving ground here is to show good faith on the part of secularists and liberals, to offer a positive example of religious faith flourishing within a liberal framework.
In other words: he wants to teach the other side how to compromise. It's not just the Democrats that Obama wants to transform - far more, it's the Republicans. The Religious Right's ascendancy won't last forever either, he's saying, and the reaffirmation of principles of liberal tolerance for all faiths will bring about that change - while sticking to positive statements of progresive policy rather than ceding ground in that regard. Shift the center to the 'left' a little bit and the Republicans, so strongly polarized right now, will find common cause. Blood pressure will return to normal levels.
This is tactically shrewd and morally upstanding.
Obama finishes his speech by talking about the possibility of a public discourse grounded in acceptance of religious beliefs that nonetheless maintains the wall between church and state. Is that reasonable? Obama thinks it is - but then he has the luxury of being a believer in an omnipotent omnipresent Creator, just like most everybody else in this country (nominally), so he doesn't have to worry about limitations on his liberty to believe as he likes. The question is: will such compromises just serve a (frankly crazy, we may as well admit) Religious Right agenda for this country? Rove et al. have demonstrated a willingness to give all kinds of ground to anti-intellectual ideologues, and the rest of the GOP has happily abetted such behaviour (frighteningly happily indeed). So is Obama naive to question the 'slippery slope' vision of theocracy? I don't think so.
(His speech has moved me. Moved: from where I normally stand. Of course. And so I'm writing from someplace else this morning.)
As Nathan Newman points out in the above-quoted passage, Obama isn't talking at all about giving ground on issues like the right to abortion/contraception. Here's part of the last section of his speech:
A few days after I won the Democratic nomination in my U.S. Senate race, I received an email from a doctor at the University of Chicago Medical School that said the following:
"Congratulations on your overwhelming and inspiring primary win. I was happy to vote for you, and I will tell you that I am seriously considering voting for you in the general election. I write to express my concerns that may, in the end, prevent me from supporting you."
The doctor says that...
[H]e had read an entry that my campaign had posted on my website, which suggested that I would fight "right wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." He went on to write:
"I sense that you have a strong sense of justice...and I also sense that you are a fair minded person with a high regard for reason...Whatever your convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering on women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded....You know that we enter times that are fraught with possibilities for good and for harm, times when we are struggling to make sense of a common polity in the context of plurality, when we are unsure of what grounds we have for making any claims that involve others...I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words."
In response, Obama changed the language of the website to recast his support of abortion rights as a positive affirmation of individual liberty rather than a political maneuver.
(Obama is pro-choice to the point of favouring the legalization of partial-birth abortion; the 'Issues' page on his website no longer lists an abortion position - nor for that matter does it mention Iraq.)
What's moving about this anecdote is that it's more a celebration of the strength of progressive principles - their moral rigor and generosity - than a tale of realization through/of faith. If I sound a little fannish and wishy-washy here, it's because Obama's overall point, that the language of progressivism and the many languages of religious faith share much common ground yet to be staked out by Democratic politicians, is both complex and clarifying. As a social argument it's more complex than condemnations of Obama's apparent 'sop to the Right' approach imply; as rhetoric it's an elegant negotiation of the tricky straits between political constituencies. Obama is talking about giving birth to a new constituency here. That's an impressively forward-looking vision for American politics, especially from a junior Senator. Perhaps what's most appealing about his speech is that I find myself reacting strongly to its moral content and not its religious content. That is to say: I don't believe right now that God made the earth, or even that He exists. (I value the convention of capitalization of deity pronouns but for poetic/cultural reasons.) The idea seems silly - but then the idea of True Love seems silly as well, and yet it has its place as an organizing principle for people in relationships. There's a provisional truth to both notions. And that truth is compatible with principles of social justice and liberal pluralism - I'm doing my best to avoid the nauseating, equivocating language of 'tolerance' - in a way that leftish politicans tend not to acknowledge. The big social points underneath Obama's invocation of a religious center-left, specifically about politicians' fears of engaging religious language and religious audiences, are strong and illuminating.
The cynical employment of religious rhetoric by the previously-fringe Right is disgusting, and some of the principles themselves are equally disgusting. (Pandering by liberal politicians isn't worse - but it's sickening too.) But Obama's up to something else. There is much to admire in his speech. And, it would seem, in the man himself.