Obama, Values-talk and God-talk
Charley Blandy printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri Jul 07, 2006 at 09:42:49 AM EST
Originally posted at Liberal Oasis. You might also see a productive comment thread at my home blog, Blue Mass. Group.

So, Barack Obama got some plaudits and some harsh words for holding forth on religion -- his own, and the role of religion in public life. Like others who have waded into these deep waters, Obama and his critics both seem rather klutzy dealing with a sensitive topic. Obama may well be guilty of reinforcing the trope that Democrats have been "insensitive" to religion, but he's not the first or only one to do so -- here's more -- and certain of his critics seemed pretty eager to prove his point for him. (And are we really going to tear him apart for implicitly criticizing Dems -- as if we lefty bloggers don't all do that? Gosh, defensive much?)

First, let's get some things straight: AP's headline says "Obama: Democrats must court evangelicals". "Evangelicals" is not  synonymous with "Christians," "fundamentalists", or even "Christian rightists".  Jimmy Carter, for instance, comes from a "Peace and Justice" evangelical tradition. Should Democrats bother to appeal to those folks who voted for Jimmy Carter, who won Mississippi and Alabama in 1976? Of course (although I doubt it will help us win those particular states).  But will it be based on an assertion of religious kinship, as Obama seems to have made -- "I go to church just like you!" -- or rather, an assertion of shared values: compassion, honesty,  justice? I tend to think the latter.

Now, Obama was speaking to a room full of Christian activists, and it's perfectly natural for him to talk about his spiritual journey before them. Some politicians will be comfortable with this; some will not. I would hope that most voters would not apply a religious litmus test to candidates -- although some obviously do. That being said, candidates must understand that voters do indeed bring their religious views into the voting booth with them. And all Democrats -- candidates and grassroots -- should understand that given the right encouragement, some people might vote Democratic because of their faith. So the political question is how to appeal to that group, honestly, with dignity, without playing the religious right's game of litmus tests, and with respect to our secular constitution.

Above all things, the Democrats have a problem of message clarity. To my mind, it's a mistake to imagine that any particular set of policy positions will place the Dems in the midst of the largest clump of voters, and that therefore they'll win 50%+1. That's because wonky stuff, however nicely polled and focus-grouped, doesn't work on a national level: No one is smart enough to be able to evaluate policy positions one by one. And even if the proposals are popular, character (in the broadest sense) trumps all. All voters use professions of morality as a shorthand to evaluate how a candidate will act in office in general. Most importantly, Democrats have yet been unable to square the circle of providing moral leadership on issues of class (poverty, health care) -- which have a religious overtone, but are portrayed as crypto-Marxist by the right  -- while still of necessity playing the game of campaign finance: What do you prioritize, kids' health care or a capital gains tax cut? Therefore Democrats find it difficult to run campaigns on broadly shared values -- or even to define what those values are, unlike the "God, Guns, and Gays" Republicans.

So that creates a vacuum for morality-talk that the Right is happy to fill, however ill-fittingly.  In some areas, proclamations of faith are a good enough proxy for a particular set of values -- and indeed, a political agenda, much of which may have nothing to do with faith issues whatsoever. For instance, one often hears that certain voters support Bush because "He's a Christian man" -- and that's good enough for them. Another respectable Christian man, Tom DeLay doubtless prayed loudly with clenched fists and weeping eyes before signing off on slavery in the Mariana Islands -- and we know he meant "beaver" in a strictly Biblical sense. Now, it may be that the Dems will never get those most of the Bush/DeLay-type voters. But certain faith-motivated voters could well vote for a Democratic agenda that was built upon values of compassion, justice, and honesty.

After all, religious belief has played a central part in America's progressive tradition. Abolitionism was fueled by religious feeling, as was the civil rights movement. The religious strand of liberalism has provided an essentialist view of justice that runs counter to the evidence of the free market -- that all human beings have dignity. This has been a moral partner to the more materialist strand of liberalism, which has stressed a quality-of-life agenda, such as the labor movement, the New Deal and Great Society programs.

I am not saying that secular people are somehow excluded from recognizing such morality: Nonsense. But religion is the means in which many, if not most people have come to understand justice and morality. Ignoring that would seem to be folly. If adherents to a particular religious group believe XYZ consequent to their faith, and a candidate believes XY but not Z, he should feel free to appeal to those voters by citing XY. Folks can work in coalition, and overlook some differences in order to realize gains on shared goals.

When it comes to tossing around biblical verses to show that a candidate is hep to religion ... this should obviously be used with extreme caution, if ever. No one wants to see Democrats use Jesus as a sock puppet, the way Pat Robertson does. And such transparent pandering would go over quite badly in most places that have a chance of electing a Democrat, anyway.

Rather than buying into the easy stereotyping that polling encourages, Democrats should keep an ear out to religious folks, and actively seek to build coalitions. Secular folks have absolutely nothing to fear from creating coalitions with non-theocratic religious folks -- in fact, they both have everything to gain.

Our discussions of Obama and religion, politics and religion, the left and religion, etc. will continue to be a muddle until we stop using the term "religion" as if it is one thing.  Individual "religions" don't have essences or unchanging cores, as scholars have repeatedly shown (despite claims to the contrary by most of their adherents), and, just as important, "religion" itself is not one thing.  So what kind of religion--what kind of Christianity, what kind of Judaism, what kind of Buddhism, Islam, etc.--are we talking about when we try to figure out the relationship of religion to political discourse?  We certainly know there are forms of Christianity, for example, that are inimical to democratic pluralism because we have been deluged by them during the past two decades.  But there are other forms of Christianity that, for reasons rooted in historical Christian thought and practice, express their values without totalitarian claims of privilege, including the values of fallibility, tolerance, and diversity.  They are not isolated or marginal.  We find them now, not only in major segments of historic Christian denominations but also in many grassroots Christian and interfaith initiatives (The Progressive Christian Witness, Progressive Christians Uniting, Christian Alliance for Progress, The Center for Progressive Christianity, Faith Voices for the Common Good, etc.).  The same is true of other religious traditions--they have, and have always had, tolerant as well as intolerant forms.  The compelling arguments against their totalitarian and absolutist forms don't apply to their forms that favor pluralism and fallibalism.  Legitimate debates still remain about how such religious positions can properly be introduced into our pluralistic public discourse and brought to bear on democratic decisions, but they cannot be ruled out simply because they have totalitarian cousins.       

by doubtisdivine on Fri Jul 07, 2006 at 07:18:18 PM EST
Doubtisdivine is talking about something we can use as a point of departure and that is to call the Religious Right out on what they mean by "the truth." I have always believed that when the Religious Right speaks to the mainstream the communicators and commuicated to have different meanings of "the truth:" the Religious Right is specifically theocratical in their definition, but many in the mainstream believe what they mean is the truth is nothing more than Nativity displays on public property and store clerks saying Merry Christmas.

Our job is to force the hand of the Religious Right. We have got to get the mainstream press to keep asking what they mean by "the truth." Is it a Dominionist version of 'the truth" or an ultra-orthodox Catholic version ? The idea is to drive the obvious wedge into their fragile alliance. Once done, some of their mainstrem supporters will come to understand how messy things will become if these dueling versions of "the truth" are positioned to conflict with each other. Then a significant portion of their mainstream support will begin to erode.

At the same time we must better explain the pluralist notion of a consensus morality. Tolerant Athiests, Christians, Jews, etc., all share common notions of right and wrong with the mainstream--and in fact, better reflect those notions of morality. For example, we all believe it wrong to kill a person or rob a bank. It is when the truth becomes subjective--stem cell research, birth control, etc., that is when the conscience, not govenment calls the shots.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Jul 08, 2006 at 04:46:21 PM EST

One angle we sometimes forget is that when religious displays on public property and prayer in public places are contested many folks who support these things don't just see they issue as being constitutional in nature, but more as a personal assault on their ways and customs. What many religious folks may not realize there is a significant secular element involved in their passionate reactions.

Perhaps put of the answer for us is to talk more about the cultural dimension of faith. That cleary is behind much of the Christian idenity feelings folks like John Gibson and Bill O'Reilly are trying to tap into.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Fri Jul 07, 2006 at 07:44:30 PM EST

Barack is dead on accurate - I'm a living example that evangelicals are leaving their posts in the Religious Right and defecting -

I was a hard core Republican till 2000, mostly based on issues the Religious Right harpied on to me - now in 2004 I voted Democratic and I'm considering myself an independant -

evangelicals ARE looking for someplace where they're aren't lied to their face by their leaders and a place where the leaders are working for ALL of America, not the richest 1%,

we're not trying to take over the party - just find a place where we can cast a vote without blood on our hands - Hopefully the Democrats will welcome us with open arms - we'll fight harder then anyone to resist the dominionists because we've been there first hand -

we've had the gospel taken from our grasp and replaced with the legalism and judgementalism of the modern day pharisees that make up the Religious Right.  I for one will not allow that to be taken from me again and I won't allow them to take away my freedoms or anyone else's regardless of their religious affilation.

so I liked what Obama said - I look forward to maybe being able to cast a vote for him in a national election someday - he hit the nail on the head -


by whiskeytown on Sat Jul 08, 2006 at 04:30:01 AM EST

It is heartening to read your comments. Welcome to our side, the side of common dreams.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Jul 08, 2006 at 04:28:53 PM EST

My basics are very similar. I heeded the advice of my union and voted for Gore in 2000, but didn't really fully convert from republican until around 2003. Of course voted for Kerry in 04.
After reading a lot on the subject I became convinced that Jesus was a liberal (in all the good ways), and so I am now proud to call myself a liberal.
I like Obama, I just don't think he stands a chance against the swift-boat tactics from the right that you KNOW are coming.

by Tin Soul on Sun Jul 09, 2006 at 12:34:00 AM EST
To the extent those so concerned become politically involved.

by Bruce Wilson on Sun Jul 09, 2006 at 01:43:04 AM EST

I read your story, and I too was Republican for most of my life.  I railed against the (VERY REAL) taxes that small business owners were saddled with, and thought that it was all the Democrat's fault.  I also (I confess) believed a lot of the Religious Right's statements, although I have never been a biblical literalist.

Having chronic health problems that worsened, and then being fed into the conservative side of the Disability/health system taught me a painful lesson about where the Republicans really stood.  Then I returned to school and REALLY learned the truth.  I am now a confirmed LIBERAL DEMOCRAT!

My life has taught me that the decisions people make have serious (sometimes profound) consequences for the people around them.    If a greedy person is asked by God to help another, and they respond with preaching instead of aid- it compounds matters instead of providing healing.

Likewise, the profit motive (which is not evil in itself) has lead many a so-called "Christian" to harm others for their own greed.  After all, making a living is one thing- wrecking the lives of people for "just a little more profit" is another!

Welcome to "the club".  I'm glad that you saw where the Repubican party is headed!

by ArchaeoBob on Sun Jul 09, 2006 at 07:33:06 PM EST

I watch TBN.  A lot sometimes.  It scares me.  And I'm convinced the Black vote (excuse my 60's-ness) is going to go to the Republicans.  

by tribalecho on Sat Jul 08, 2006 at 02:32:50 PM EST
But, the next step involves working to change things for the better.

by Bruce Wilson on Sun Jul 09, 2006 at 01:45:16 AM EST

Wilson is right, that we must just move ahead, and take the next steps.  But one, I am convinced, is to become acquainted with, support (as we are able), and join (to the extent that we can do so honestly) with the grassroots progressive religious groups popping up all over everywhere.  They have a lot of energy and they have connections to the religious communities (they are "embedded") even though most are not official arms of established religious institutions (denominations).  The progressive Christian groups have the most potential for the liberal cause, simply because it is right wing Christianity from which most of the hard right poison comes.  In an earlier posting I mentioned 4 such groups--the best of those I know about.  We can help these groups, at the least, by checking out their websites and then spreading the word about them.  One of those I mentioned--the "Other Voices" section of www.progressivechristianwitness.org--has an annotated list of well over 50 such groups.  And I just discovered another website--www.faithinpubliclife.org--that is mapping all progressive religious groups.  These groups are a gold mine of energy for our cause, and most of them are genuinely a part of the left political and social perspective.  Helping them gain more visibility, and thus the potential for greater effectiveness, is the best antidote we have to the venom of right wing religion in this country.

by doubtisdivine on Sun Jul 09, 2006 at 10:41:49 AM EST
But where will such groups go ? In what direction ?

There is something which has previously lacking but for a few voices - now, voices such as Jim Wallis' and Rabbi Michael Lerner's - specifically in terms of trying to rekindle the spirit of the Christian social justice tradition, and it's counterparts in non Christian faith traditions - have been very important.

But there is one aspect, one realm that desparately now needs voices of moral clarity :

The growing climate of hatred and political polarization in America. Where are the voices of moral authority that condemn hate speech, threats, and the targeting of individuals whether by the left, the right, or by any persons or groups ?  

Where are the leaders with voices of strong moral clarity to denounce both the targeting of the Dobrich family, in the Indian River incident, by both pastors and bloggers, and also threats made against the conservative blogger Jeff Goldstein ?

Moral authority only arises to the extent its judgements are levelled with impartiality. Hatred knows no left or right and must be condemned wherever it is found.

The time has come, I believe, for a national conversation on this. Who will lead it ? Few have not fallen into the easy, alluring trap of demonizing and hate speech.  Who is not tarred with that or - among the many who are - who will admit that, make amends, and reassert a newly envigorated moral clarity ?

by Bruce Wilson on Sun Jul 09, 2006 at 12:08:42 PM EST

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