Thursday, June 29, 2006

Barack Obama on Religion and Politics

Illinois State Senator Barack Obama (D) recently delivered the keynote address at a conference sponsored by Call to Renewal, a faith-based movement to overcome poverty in America. He candidly expressed his wrestling with the relationship between his politics and his professed Christian faith, including internal turmoil stirred by Alan Keyes's claim toward the end of his 2004 campaign that Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama:
Now, I was urged by some of my liberal supporters not to take this statement seriously, to essentially ignore it. To them, Mr. Keyes was an extremist, and his arguments not worth entertaining. And since at the time, I was up 40 points in the polls, it probably wasn't a bad piece of strategic advice.

But what they didn't understand, however, was that I had to take Mr. Keyes seriously, for he claimed to speak for my religion, and my God. He claimed knowledge of certain truths.

Mr. Obama says he's a Christian, he was saying, and yet he supports a lifestyle that the Bible calls an abomination.

Mr. Obama says he's a Christian, but supports the destruction of innocent and sacred life.

And so what would my supporters have me say? How should I respond? Should I say that a literalist reading of the Bible was folly? Should I say that Mr. Keyes, who is a Roman Catholic, should ignore the teachings of the Pope?

Unwilling to go there, I answered with what has come to be the typically liberal response in such debates - namely, I said that we live in a pluralistic society, that I can't impose my own religious views on another, that I was running to be the U.S. Senator of Illinois and not the Minister of Illinois.

But Mr. Keyes's implicit accusation that I was not a true Christian nagged at me, and I was also aware that my answer did not adequately address the role my faith has in guiding my own values and my own beliefs.
From his address, it seems that Senator Obama's is relativistic when it comes to religious claims. All are valuable and valid to the extent that they offer their adherents community, meaning, and moral guidance. I'm pretty sure that the senator would be quick to add "for me" to any assertion he made about Christianity being true. Nevertheless, his address raises critical issues about how we engage in moral discourse in a pluralistic society and why the demand that religious beliefs be excluded from those conversations is historically unprecedented and practically impossible:
But what I am suggesting is this - 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. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Senator Obama has always struck me as a reflective, intelligent, and judicious man. I'm glad he's thinking and talking about these matters and hope he will continue to do so.

UPDATE 6/30/06: Al Mohler identifies an internal contradiction in Senator Obama's position in his post Secularism With A Smile.


Neil said...

Hopefully Senator Obama will continue with comments such as the "practical absurdity" one. Still, I am highly skeptical that the Left really wants religion in the public discourse. I think it is probably Hillary-type pandering. I always laugh when they try to temporarily pull Jesus into the equation. I want to stop them and ask, "So you want to talk about Jesus? That's a swell idea. Why do you care about what He wants? Let's talk about everything He had to say."

Lady Raven said...

They don't want biblical christians pulled into their base of support, of they'd have to change their ways. Unless of course the Christian right treats them like they do the republicans. Every two years they come groveling back to us and after they're elected we get punched in the face.