Barack Obama Steps In It
The Washington Post reported:
Sen. Barack Obama chastised fellow Democrats on Wednesday for failing to "acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people," and said the party must compete for the support of evangelicals and other churchgoing Americans.
The controversy that has erupted in response to Senator Obama's speech has helped to catalyze some things Talk to Action colleague Bruce Wilson and I have discussed for some time. (He will undoubtedly have much to say about all this as well.)
Obama and Jim Wallis before him are wrong to scapegoat "secularists" for the problems mainstream Christians and others have had in finding their voices. They are also wrong to allege that non-religious people are somehow chasing religious expression from public life. It is long past time to call a halt to this nonsense. Let's start today.
But before we abandon, and begin to more formally oppose the frame, here is how it works: The religious right frames much of how they view politics in America as a struggle in America between Christianity and secular humanism; between faith and no faith; between religiosity and secularism. The words differ a bit depending on who is doing the talking, but the the frame is always the same. Indeed, it has been one of the central features of the religious right's rise to power for decades and has been articulated by every major leader from Jerry Falwell to Sun Myung Moon.
Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst at Political Research Associates writes that the conspiracy theory alleging that Christianity is under attack by "secular humanists," goes back several decades.
The idea that a coordinated campaign by "secular humanists" was aimed at displacing Christianity as the moral bedrock of America actually traces back to a group of Catholic ideologues in the 1960s. It was Protestant evangelicals, especially fundamentalists, who brought this concept into the public political arena and developed a plan to mobilize grassroots activists as foot soldiers in what became known as the Culture Wars of the 1980s.
What is remarkable is that this basic frame has been internalized and propagated by many people who are unaffiliated with the religious right. Indeed it has been actively promoted by one of the leaders of the the revival of what is calling itself the religious left -- Jim Wallis.
But let's start with one of the quotes from the Post's account of Obama's speech:
"Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square."
I am not aware of anyone being asked leave their faith at the door of public life. Are there a few cranky atheists out there who oppose all religiosity, particularly in politicians and public life? Well sure, so what else is new? But there is no evidence that anyone is making any actual headway in reducing religiosity in America. Nevertheless, the influence of Wallis shows in Obama's speech. Let's talk about that influence for a moment.
To listen to or read Jim Wallis, you would think that legions of the Secular Left are rampaging across the land; that the secularity police are billy-clubbing every expression of religion in public life -- especially if it happens to be Christian; and ruthlessly blocking "people of faith" from participation in constitutional democracy and requiring politicians to hide their religiosity.
To offer but one example, (among many) early in God's Politics, Wallis writes, "We contend today with both religious and secular fundamentalists, neither of whom must have their way. One group would impose the doctrines of a political theocracy on their fellow citizens, while the other would deprive the public square of needed moral and spiritual values often shaped by faith."
OK, so who are these "secular fundamentalists" whose "way" is equivalent to the theocratic religious right and must be thwarted? You gotta think that there must be some pretty important people and powerful organizations involved. Right? Think again.
As far as I can tell, from a sampling of his many interviews, and his book, he has never named a single "secular fundamentalist," and has never identified or defined what he calls the "secular left" or specified its impact on religious life and political expression. Never, that is, except on page 69 of God's Politics, where he claims that there are many secular fundamentalists who
"attack all political figures who dare to speak from their religious convictions. From the Anti-Defamation League, to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, to the ACLU and some of the political Left's most religion fearing publications, a cry of alarm has gone up in response to anyone who has the audacity to be religious in public. These secular skeptics often display amazing lapse of historical memory when they suggest that religious language in politics is contrary to the "American Ideal."
Look it up and see for yourself. Wallis does not offer any of evidence in support of his attack on these civil liberties organizations -- all of whom are at the forefront of the protection of religious freedom in America. Indeed, the ADL represents the civil liberties interests of Jews, and the leaders of Americans United have always been predominantly religious. The current executive director, Barry Lynn is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. The ACLU is a network of attorneys of mixed political and religious orientation -- but are fierce defenders of the First Amendment. Are there many people who are non-religious who also populate the Left and these organizations? Well sure. But the same is true for the Right and for that matter, Libertarians. People who advocate for secularity in public life are not usually opponents of religious expression, rather they are proponents of religious freedom and separation of church and state who seek to defend democratic pluralism against the advances of religious supremacism in all of its forms. But Wallis' characterization of these organizations is indistinguishable from the leaders of the religious right.
Indeed, Richard Land, one of the Southern Baptist Convention's point-men for the religious right, had big praise for Jim Wallis, according to a report in the Baptist Press News:
Post-election events demonstrate religious conservatives in America have won the battle over the legitimacy of faith convictions being expressed in the public square, Southern Baptist public policy specialist Richard Land told a Washington audience.All that exists here is a strawman -- relentlessly knocked down by the opponents of religious equality and democratic pluralism in America.
In the United States, thanks to Article 6 of the Constitution, we have a system based on the idea of religious equality. Our rights as citizens are are irrelevant to our particular religious or non-religious point of view. And religious rights, also variously described as the right to think freely; believe as you will; or as the right to individual conscience -- rests with the individual citizen. It is this right to believe differently that is a necessary prerequisite for the right of citizens to speak freely. Citizens meeting in the so called "public square" requires a culture of mutual respect for people's differing, and usually evolving religious or non-religious views. Secularity in public life then, is not the denial of or suppression of religious views, but rather, the perpetuation of a culture of respect for religious difference. This, in turn, requires that we recognize that there are a wide variety of religious views that we may encounter; and that there is no one cookie cutter version of any religious orthodoxy that we need view as necessarily more valid than anyone elses views. In terms of legislation and public policy development -- as Obama puts it elsewhere in his speech,
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.
But when liberals slam secularism, particularly when they do not bother to define the term, it come across more as atheist baiting than as a defending of the rights of people to hold religious views and to express them in a democratic pluralist society.
Meanwhile, Albert Mohler, a leading Southern Baptist theocrat, and I agree that there is a built-in contradiction in Obama's speech. Mohler loved the secular-baiting part -- but he denounces the section on religious pluralism, by calling it secularism!
For Christian theocrats and their allies, denouncing alleged secularism it is a way of framing out of the public square those whose religious views do not conform to their notions of orthodoxy. In the case of religious liberals, the use of the term is a thoughtless reenforcement and amplification of the religious right's favorite frame, while marginalizing the non-religious as if they had no right to participate. The use of the word and idea of the secular as label in a campaign of polarization and demonization, necessarily creates a climate of prejudice and bigotry. In the case of the Christian theocrats, to smear and stifle all those who do not share their particular orthodoxies -- and their desire to install them as the basis of public policy. In the case of Obama, his intention is clearly different, but he undermines his message of democratic pluralism by joining in the secular bashing.
Let's return to Wallis, whose book forms a template for how Obama and other leading Democrats are approaching the question of religion in public life.
One of the flaws in the formulation of his argument is his use of false equivalence. The religious right is a well-recognized and widely accepted and understood tem. The movement has many identifiable leaders and associated organizations and institutions. Newspaper and magazine articles are written about it, even whole books. OK. So who or what is the secular left? What is its agenda? What organizations and institutions are associated with it? Give up? With good reason. It does not exist.
Many Democrats are rightfully weary of claims by the religious right that they are antireligious -- and they are angry at those, like Obama, who echo the claim.
Bloggers have had a lot to say:
Matt Stoeller sarcastically writes:
It's totally true. You can't swing a dead cat in this country without hitting a generic secularist who's all like 'Stop praying, weirdo', before handing out a Democratic voter registration card.
Blogger Atrios adds:
Dear Senator Obama,
Chuck Currie at Street Prophets takes a far more sympathetic view, properly taking to task some people with absurd overreactions, based on news accounts, but apparently not taking seriously Democrats' weariness of the religious right's smear job, made worse by the Wallis-Obama echo chamber.
Currie has the whole Obama speech on his web site and calls it "perhaps the most well thought out speech on the topic since John F. Kennedy addressed the subject during the 1960 presidential campaign." I am not so sure about that, given Obama's Wallisesque blunders, but he does say some important things. Here are some of the good parts:
While I've already laid out some of the work that progressives need to do on this, I that the conservative leaders of the Religious Right will need to acknowledge a few things as well.
That's pretty great stuff. (It is, of course the part that Mohler hates.) Ah but unfortunately, Obama also says this about Democrats:
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.
While we have all encountered some people who are as he describes, can Obama or Wallis name a single Democrat who behaves in the ways he attributes to "some liberals"? I think not. And there's the rub. If anyone of any prominence had behaved in this manner it would be news. It is a false and unfair caricature of the place of religious people and religious expression in the Democratic Party. If Democrats are going to shake off the reputation of being antireligious, they are going to have to stop internalizing and repeating the central frame of the religious right. In my own experience, I must say that for every heartfelt anecdote I have heard from people who have been made to feel excluded, marginalized, or discriminated against for for their religious faith -- I have heard non-religious people say the same thing. Is there prejudice and discrimination against religious people by non-religious people? Of course. Is there prejudice and discrimination by religious people against non-religious people? You betcha. Just ask them.
Is any of this restricted to the political left? Why no. There are lots of non-religious Republicans. And Libertarians are some of the most sneeringly antireligious people I know. All libertarians? Nope. Just some of those in my experience.
The unnamed Democrats; the unnamed liberals; the unnamed secular fundamentalists: Who is this diabolical cabal? We many never know -- at least if we ask Wallis and Obama. But whoever they are, Jim Wallis says they have forgotten recent American history. In an interview with Mother Jones last year, Wallis said:
JW: [Democrats] forget their own progressive history. Every major social movement in our history was fueled in large part by religion and faith. Abolitionism, women's suffrage, child labor law, and most famously, civil rights. Where would we be if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had kept his faith to himself? Here's a party that was vitally connected to the civil rights movement, led by black churches, now has driven so far [away], they're successfully portrayed by the Right as a secular party hostile to religion.
So who exactly has forgotten that Rev. Martin Luther King was a preacher? Who exactly feels left out and why? School children are required to offer more evidence for their views than Wallis has bothered to provide.
In the end, Wallis' view is indefensible. He offers no factual support for his claims that progressives and Democrats have forgotten history; are unbelievers; that faith is "dismissed by the Left," (page 3, God's Politics) or that religious expression is suppressed in public life. Nevertheless, his views are being internalized and accepted as valid by many otherwise thoughtful people. It is time for anyone serious about the role of faith in public life and the meaning of religious pluralism in America, to rethink this aspect of Wallisism.
I say all this with considerable regret.
I appreciate Wallis' leadership in helping mainstream and progressive religious Democrats to find their voice, and to better connect their values with their politics and policy ieas. But Wallis' scapegoating of non-religious people is indefensible and counter productive. If progressive Christians lost their voice it was not the fault of those who do not share their faith and with whom they hardly interact. Or if it was, Obama and Wallis have not shown how that is so.
There is a footnote to this story. It is actually a story that at Talk to Action we have taken out of the footnotes and put it on the front page -- many times. It is a realy story of ruthless suppression and marginalization of Christians in public life.
This effort to drive Christians out of the public square has been led by the rightwing foundation-funded Institute on Religion and Democracy and their henchmen, who have disrupted and sought to divide the mainline Christian denominations affiliated with the National Council of Churches for a quarter century. Those who founded, funded, staffed, and promoted this agency are responsible for the greatest stifling of the expression of mainstream Christianity in the public square in American history.
I wonder what, if anything, Wallis and Obama have to say about that?
Update [2008-2-7 16:42:18 by Frederick Clarkson]: This general subject has been much referred to an discussed on this site since this was first posted. However, Obama himself has long abandoned secular baiting, as I discuss in this post: Taylor March Quotes Obama Out of Context
Barack Obama Steps In It | 74 comments (74 topical, 0 hidden)
Barack Obama Steps In It | 74 comments (74 topical, 0 hidden)