Thursday, July 20, 2006

Taking Obama's Challenge ... Further

On July 10, 2006 Barack Obama spoke the truth when he proposed that politicians need not abandon religion. Obama must be commended for what is a politically incorrect attempt to allow faith a serious place in the realm of political discourse. It is a vitally important topic that has, as Obama notes, unnecessarily driven a wedge through our society – a wedge that needs to be extracted. In the face of political leaders who treat religion as the new third rail of politics, Obama should be applauded for his challenge. He takes a political risk in making it. But, if his challenge is to be taken seriously, there are a few holes in it that need to be plugged.

Obama appears to be letting subsidiary political issues and stereotypes override the foundational presuppositions from which they flow. He does this to the detriment of the goal he is honorably pursuing and, in doing so, threatens to lose credibility with his traditional opponents when he says things like:
the single biggest gap in party affiliation among white Americans today is not between men and women, between red states and blue, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don't … This gap has long been exploited by conservative leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who tell evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their church, while suggesting that religious Americans care only about issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
Beside the ad hominem nature of this statement, it is wholly unfair to characterize Msrs. Falwell and Robertson as “conservative leaders.” To do so is an obvious attempt to disparage the conservative voice by equating it with some of the outrageous public comments that have come out of the mouths of these two gentlemen. This cannot be accidental. Mr. Obama knows that Robertson and Falwell do not represent mainstream Christian thought. When it comes to reconciling faith and politics, it would be a much more constructive if he would avoid defining the debate from the fringes. Surely Mr. Obama would not allow his political opponents to claim that his point of view is fairly represented by “liberal leaders” such as Jesse Jackson or Louis Farrakhan.

In fairness, however, Mr. Obama does accurately call extremist “liberals” to account for their equally harmful tendency to …
dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, thinking that the very word “Christian” describes one’s political opponents, not people of faith.
… but then offers a backhanded slap in the face to those very political opponents when he says …
If progressives (emphasis mine) shed some of these biases, we might recognize the overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the direction of our country
I would digress if I were to delve into the questionable practice of labeling those who strive to uphold the status quo in terms of specific policy issues (Social Security education or medical insurance reform etc.) as “progressive,” while those who seek 21st Century solutions to such problems are belittled as Neanderthal conservatives. That is not the issue. The issue is the project of bridging the so-called division between “religious” and “secular” people. I would contend that there is no such division because there are no secular people.

Everybody has a religion. Even the most antagonistic, in-your-face atheist subscribes to a religion that defines his worldview – that gives him a means for understanding the human condition and the methods he proposes to improve it. The so-called secularist’s religion is a human-centered one that proposes humanistic solutions to society’s problems. In that sense, it accepts no transcendent deity. It is a religion in which man becomes the final arbiter of all questions of value. This is the great obstacle in striving for respectful political debate where it comes to the question of values and faith. Those who dare call themselves “religious” today have subscribed to objective moral realism while the “secularist,” by definition, must subscribe to subjective moral relativism. Acknowledging this leads to the realization that secular values, because they have no objective foundation, become moving targets – the personal choices of those who offer them. Any attempt to offer rational support for why others must subscribe to these values demands that those who propose them borrow objective moral standards from the very religious folks they so deplore. Both believe in the separation of church and state but understand it in different ways. When Obama proposes that …
the separation of church and state in America has preserved not only our democracy but also the robustness of our religious practice. After all, during our founding, it was not the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of this separation; it was the persecuted religious minorities concerned that any state-sponsored religion might hinder their ability to practice their faith.
… he must recognize this conundrum. The secularist wants to keep God out of the discussion altogether. Religious folks simply want to keep the government out of their church. But neither can avoid the practical reality that they both allow their religion to inform the policies initiatives they propose.

It follows that the conflict that arises is not one about allowing faith and values into politics. We’ve already done that. The controversy becomes one about whether or not we will allow objective moral realism to inform the debate. American culture, steeped in modernity and the Enlightenment mindset on which it is based, defines faith as a purely personal matter that is, and must remain, totally disconnected from the realm of reasoned political discourse. Mr. Obama’s rejection of this mindset is spot on. The question is, how does he intend to mend the rift? Based on his comments, it would seem that he has tacitly accepted the philosophical tenets that have led to the very breach he aims to repair. Mr. Obama proposes an acceptance of objective moral realism in offering a view of faith that …
shapes [his] values, but applying those values to policymaking must be done with principles that are accessible to all people.
Or that …
… democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons but seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.
It is interesting the Mr. Obama uses abortion as his example here. I would suggest that he visit the Life Training Institute to do just what he suggests. There he will find an intellectually rigorous defense of the pro-life position that bears no dependence on the teaching of any specific church. But to return to his argument: If Mr. Obama is consistent with the position he proposes here, and if those who share his political views are to join him in accepting his challenge, they must all realize that the invocation of “universal values” demands that accepting their existence entails an admission that, by definition, they cannot be compromised. This is the definition of “universal.” They apply to everyone. Instead, Mr. Obama retreats from his own proposal by suggesting that …
religion does not allow for compromise. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime; to base our policymaking on them would be dangerous
Why is this “dangerous”? If we admit that such values are universal, it is intellectually inconsistent to suggest that subscribing to those values is somehow dangerous. Mr. Obama wants his objective realism without the logical entailments that descend from it.

Mr. Obama’s call to action is noble and long overdue. Politicians who claim that religion is not already informing their policy solutions are kidding themselves into believing that, whatever their worldview, their religion is not mightily at work within their politics. Mending the faith/reason split in our country is a task that can readily begin with an acknowledgment that every Christian, Jew and Muslim in this country accepts the validity of major portions of the Old Testament (including the Pentateuch and the Psalms) as the inspired word of God. Within those Biblical books we find an anthropology that defines the origin and nature of our humanity and the purpose for the creation in which we find ourselves. Therein lay the universal foundations for which Mr. Obama is searching. I applaud him for taking the first step toward allowing them an open voice in the political arena. I hope that he, and others, will find the courage to hear what that voice is saying.

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