The Further Misadventures of a False Frame
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Jul 15, 2006 at 02:59:23 AM EST
Sen. Barack Obama's recent speech outining his vision of the proper role of religion in political and public life was met, as I wrote at the time, with mixed reviews. But it did not take long for those of us who offered thoughtful critiques to be the subject of, well, less than thoughtful critiques. Now that the dust has settled a bit, I want to respond to some of this, and to restate that the secular baiting emanating from Inside the Beltway is not only unconscionable but politically counterproductive.

But as I said at the outset, there is much in Obama's speech that I think hits the right notes regarding the role of religion in a democratic pluralist society. At the same time, the speech is indelibly marred by propagating one of the central frames of the religious right. (See also Chip Berlet's discussion of the religious right's framing of Christianity vs. secular humanism.) This is a problem that is not going to go away as long as Obama and other leaders continue to frame part of thier argument in this way.

Obama internalized and expressed one of the central the frames of the religious right in his scapegoating of liberals and "secularists" for allegedly driving religious people from public life. Let's go to tape for an example:
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.

This is a crude and unsupported proposition:  unsupported by Obama (and more eggregiously so by Jim Wallis before him). The episodic and annectotal experiences some -- but not all of us -- makes for unfair and outrageous generalizations. For leaders seeking to present themselves as respresenting the "values" of mainstream Christianity, this is a poor start.

Wallis, Obama and their supporters have yet to name one liberal or Democratic leader anywhere in the United States who has ever behaved in the way they describe. Does it happen? I don't doubt it. But I have not witnessed such an episode in 30 years of experience in public life. And I am not alone.  For example, Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, a minister in the United Church of Christ in St.Louis writes in the comment thread on my post here at Talk to Action:

Personally having been involved with the politics of the left for sometime, I must say that never have I been made to feel unwelcome, I have never been silenced, I have never been censored by 'secularists' of any kind. If anything, I have been met with those who were grateful that someone with deep religious convictions broadened the circle of their support.

To be sure, such relationships and alliances require of me that I find ways to speak and act so as not to come across as evangelistic, and to return as much acceptance for those of no faith as they have shown me.

OTOH, my consistent experience has been that the only ones who wish to silence me, to deny even that I have a faith - much less permit me to speak of it - have been the religious fanatics on the right.

Mindless secular bashing only gives strength to the religious right, and divides progressives and democrats against themselves. But alas, Obama doesn't quite get it.  Pastordan raised the matter in a post speech interview, posted at Street Prophets:

Q: I've heard that same kind of critique from people who are secular. What I found a little more compelling was the notion that portraying progressives or the Democratic as being unfriendly to people of faith buys into Republican frames.

Again, if you read the speech, what I said was not that Democrats or progressives are unfriendly to religion. What I said - there were two sentences in particular - primarily our problem is that we feel uncomfortable engaging in a discussion of religious values in the public square, which is very different than the "hostile" quote. I think it's true. We're much more sensitive, in many ways, in a good way. As a consequence of our belief in tolerance and respect for religious diversity, we are much less willing to express religious motivations in our public conversations. I don't think that's a controversial statement. I think it's something that's patently true.

What I did say is that some secularists who believe religion does not have a legitimate place in our civic discourse. You know, I didn't say the majority of Democrats believe that, I didn't say that a sizeable minority say. I said some. And again, I don't think that's a controversial statement.

This idea that somehow - that any time that Democrats or progressives engage in self-reflection we are adopting a Republican frame - the popularity of this George Lakoff critique of everything we do, I think hampers us from being able to improve our game.

You know, I love Lakoff. I think he's an insightful guy. But the fact is that I am not a propagandist. That's not my job. My job and my intent in delivering a speech like this is I'm trying to speak truthfully as I can about what I see out there. If I'm restricted or prescribed in my statements because the media or Republicans - or Democrats - are going to interpret what I say through the Republican frame, I'm not going to spend a lot of time saying very much.

If I understand him correctly, Senator Obama denies that scapegoating of unnamed secularists is a matter of religious right framing, and he is going to keep on secular-baiting.  

Clearly this is a conversation that will need to continue. And so here we are. Again.

Senator Obama and the Democratic Party clearly seek to stand for the best of American traditions of religious tolerance and pluralism; and most of Obama's speech is devoted to expressing that. For that, I could not be more pleased. But here is the rub: The frame that the central struggle in America and indeed, the world, is between Christianity and secularism (and many variants) is specifially intended to attack the American constitutional and cultural traditions of religious pluralism; mutual respect among the vast variety of believers and non-believers; Christians and non-Christians.  The frame is also a central feature of Christian nationalism.

The two frames of Obama's speech, that of the religious right, and that of religious pluralism -- are at war with each other.

But there are others who join Obama in refusing to acknowledge the validity of the concern. One of these, a blogger named Faithful Progressive at the Christian Alliance for Progress issued a lengthy attack on my take on Obama's speech.  While ignoring my actual criticism, he declared that my main argument is based on guilt by association with Jim Wallis. Well, let's review:

Obama actually is associated with Jim Wallis, and it is a not an insigificant or incidental aspect of the context of Obama's remarks and his error in framing. Obama's speech many months in the making, was rolled out at a conference sponsored by Jim Wallis' organization Call to Renewal. With Wallis sitting there, and Obama referring to him as "our friend," the context is signficant. Wallis has been a principal advisor to the Democratic Party on matters of religion and public life since the last election. This relationship has been widely reported. Meanwhile Obama has clearly emerged as the party's designated point man in these matters. His speech and the media outreach flowing from the effort, from an op-ed based on the speech in USA Today, to his interview with Pastordan, to an interview on NPR's Morning Edition, Obama's role is becoming clearer all the time.

But Faithful Progressive looks at the forest, sees a single tree, and accuses me of seeing the forest.  

He then goes on to suggest that my argument -- you know, the one he didn't actually address -- is intellectually intolerant, disproprotionate, and that I "believe that there is only one right way to think--or even one right way to approach a conflict of ideas or strategy." I am further accused of association with liberals and bloggers. (To the latter, I plead, guilty as charged!)  There is much more, but I will address just one more item.

When he finally gets around to discussing my concern about framing, he quotes me as saying that the frame is "Democrats are hostile to religion." Well, that is not the frame, and it is not what I wrote. Yet he puts it in quotes as if it was -- and he proceeds to knock down the strawman.

Finally, lets also note that I am not the only one to notice what Obama and Faithful Progressive want to ignore. My first example comes from a seemingly unlikely source.  The editors of Tikkun magazine, the hub of the Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP) recognized it immediately and enthusiastically agreed. Here is what they wrote:

Echoing the Network of Spiritual Progressives' critique of the anti-religious and anti-spiritual sentiments in some sectors of liberal and progressive culture that see spirituality as flakiness and all religion as irrational and hateful, Obama takes on the elitists in the Left.

Barack Obama Critiques Democrats' Religiophobia Along Lines Similar to the NSP's Analysis

Last month during the Spiritual Activism conference that brought 1,200 Spiritual Progressives to Washington, D.C., Rabbi Michael Lerner met privately with U.S. Senator Barack Obama to discuss the NSP's Spiritual Covenant with America and Lerner's book The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right. What he found was a remarkable level of shared ideas in relationship to the Network of Spiritual Progressives' basic message.

Today, Obama went public on one of those shared ideas: the way that Democrats and liberals have driven away people who support the liberal or progressive agenda but who have been made uncomfortable by the degree of hostility that some (not all) sectors of the liberal and progressive world show toward people of faith (or even to "spiritual but not religious" people). Repeating themes that were articulated by Rabbi Lerner in his book The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Left [sic] and by Jim Wallis in his God's Politics, Obama insists that liberals must stop pushing religious people away and stop demanding that they leave their religious ideas "at the door" when they enter into a liberal or progressive context. ...Let us be clear: we do NOT claim to have influenced Senator Obama, but only to have discovered an amazing resonance with the first two of our three major foci: critiquing the religious right's misuse of God and critiquing the Left's religio-phobia.

David Sirota of the Center for American Progress had a more critical take:

One of the most infuriating behaviors among some Democrats these days is their willingness to create fake straw men that undermine progressives and reinforce false narratives about the Democratic Party? A while back, it was Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) who ran around claiming "some" Democrats are supposedly "afraid" of national security. He, of course, didn't name any names. Why? Because they don't exist - his whole narrative is based on a false straw man. Now, unfortunately, we see the same behavior from Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (D).

The Associated Press reports that in a speech about religion, Obama said "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."

Obama, of course, is trying to portray himself as having the courage to stand up against these supposed Democrats that constitute the "we" in his rhetoric - the "we" that supposedly make this mistake of "fail[ing] to acknowledge the power of faith." Yet, again, he doesn't offer any names to tell us who constitutes the "we." Why? Because there are none. What Democrat of any prominence at all in America "fails to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people?" I can't think of one. It is a straw man - one that might make Obama look like a man of "courage" or "principle" - but one that dishonestly reinforces right-wing stereotypes about supposedly "godless" liberals/Democrats.

Let's be clear: I like Obama. I've written in the past that I think he is one of the most talented politicians I've seen in my lifetime, and that I think his heart is in the right place. I also think his desire to reach out to different religious constituencies is a good idea. But individual high-profile Democrats need to stop regurgitating false right-wing storylines just to promote their own individual ambitions.

False, unsubstantiated storylines like these are the reason the Democratic Party as a whole has such a big image problem.... If Democrats want to do a better job of reaching out to religious voters, they should not tell fables about strawmen or reinforce right-wing lies about supposedly godless liberals.

There are those who hear the many good things in Obama's speech, and only want to revel in their joy at a speech well-written, well-delivered and that (mostly) speaks to their vision of a politics that is rooted in their faith.  Others, like Faithful Progressive, primarily seek to disparage people with whom they disagree.

I gently suggest to those who want to see Obama's vision prevail -- you owe it to  your most deeply held values, (or at least the fortunes of your favorite pols), to recognize the fatal flaw in the demonization of secularism. It is not possible to have an authentic politics reflecting the values of religious pluralism, while using the labeling and demonizaiton tactics of the religous right.

"No matter how religious they may or may not be," Obama said, "people are tired of seeing faith used as a tool to attack and belittle and divide."


We know of an effort that is not based on playing inside the beltway demonization games. A New Progressive Alliance is a remarkable new effort allying secular humanists and religious progressives. What's more, it has been endorsed by the Christian Alliance for Progress.

Good for them!

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Jul 15, 2006 at 03:13:30 AM EST

"No matter how religious they may or may not be," Obama said, "people are tired of seeing faith used as a tool to attack and belittle and divide."

And it seems that is exactly what you and others on both sides (left & right) are doing with what the senator has said.
Both sides should get real, but then that is what seems to be the "real" problem with the religious. No one can get real.
When JC comes and writes the speech then and only then everyone might like all of every word uttered. Guess what people? Ain't gonna happen.
The senator was just telling it like it is, but it would seem that you would rather he "play the game" and only make remarks that are 100% acceptable by the religious left.
I would suggest that is you who needs to take a look around, accept what you know is true, and not try to hide from that truth.
Maybe America would start to grow again if she had more leaders who were willing to "tell it like it is" and weren't afraid that everytime they made any statement there were some waiting to pounce and blow any thing they said to the front of the crowd in order to further their own agenda, be it left or right.

by Donlee on Sun Jul 16, 2006 at 07:57:50 AM EST

that you don't seem to understand the point of my critique.  

And by the way, the topic of the site is the religious right and what to do about it. We are not concerned about anyone's particular religious orientation. We are also non-partisan in our approach around here, even though politics is a central concern.

We agree that no one is perfect. And we also acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes. When a pol claiming to stand for the values of religious pluralism goes around espousing the anti-religious pluralist tactics of the religious right, odds are good that we are going to notice and have something to say about it.

That's one of the great things about democracy, we can all speak up, speak out, and organize politically. We can discuss and debate too. We will continue to do so.

Those who's religious or non-religious views are too cramped to have a conversation about matters that affect how religion and public life interact are part of the problem. That is one reason why debates about religion per se are off topic on this site.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sun Jul 16, 2006 at 01:52:12 PM EST

perspective on all of this published today in the Los Angeles Times.

by Carlos on Sun Jul 16, 2006 at 11:45:41 AM EST

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