Two years ago, Barack Obama gave a keynote address at the Call to Renewal conference about the role of religion in politics. It was recently found and discussed among the media. The whole speech is worth reading, but he's said a couple of especially interesting things. First, here is his comment on morality and "leaving religion at the door".
In fact, because I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality, I would rather have someone who is grounded in morality and ethics, and who is also secular, affirm their morality and ethics and values without pretending that they're something they're not. They don't need to do that. None of us need to do that.
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.
However, the Religious Right is turning rabid at this part of his speech:
Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.
And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our bibles. Folks haven't been reading their bibles.
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. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.
James Dobson, the crackpot head of Focus on the Family, reacted by verbally smacking Obama in the face. Here are some of Dobson's quotes:
“I think he’s deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology”....
“… He is dragging biblical understanding through the gutter.”“What the senator is saying is that I can’t seek to pass legislation that bans partial birth abortion because there are people who don’t see that as a moral issue,” ...“Now that is a fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution. … We don’t have to go to the lowest common denominator of morality which is what he is suggesting. Am I required in a democracy to conform my efforts in the political arena to his bloody notion of what is right with regard to the lives of tiny babies?”
When asked the next day about Dobson's attack, Obama responded gave as good as he got:
"Either he didn't read the speech, or he's just trying to score political points," Obama said. "Somebody would be pretty hard-pressed to make the argument" that he was distorting the Bible.
“I think you’ll see that he was just making stuff up, maybe for his own purposes.”I must say, I admire Obama's take on religion in American politics. Of course, he can't realistically call on everyone to leave their religion at the door. But he did give us secularists the best acknowledgment I've seen from a politician.
I'm also impressed that Obama seems to be holding his own in this presidential race against such bizarre attacks.