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Barack Obama: Religious Citizens Must Sit In the Back of the Secular Bus

In a June 28, 2006 keynote address to a group called "Call to Renewal," Senator Barack Obama offered his thoughts on the relationship between politics and religion. This speech has been getting a lot of air play within the past 24 hours because of the critique of it by Dr. James Dobson on his June 24 radio broadcast of Focus on the Family. Although Dobson makes some important points on Senator Obama's reading of Scripture and his equating of Dobson with Al Sharpton, I find these comments far more troubling:

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.

Juxtapose that with this:

Now this is going to be difficult for some 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. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.

I see two problems with Senator Obama's reasoning:

(1) The first quote is inconsistent with the second. The senator states that "Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values." Then he says that "at some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise... To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing." But Senator Obama in fact is claiming that his policy is based on the uncompromising commitment of what "Democracy demands" of its religious citizens. Thus, Senator Obama, on his own reasoning, is suggesting a "dangerous thing."

On the other hand, if he is willing to concede that even what he believes about what "Democracy demands" may be legitimately called into question by thoughtful religious citizens, then he cannot, on his own grounds, require that these citizens embrace his view unless he can provide to them unassailable reasons. If, according to Obama, democracy "requires" that the policy proposals of religious citizens "be subject to argument, and amenable to reason," we should expect the same from him. But he does not provide such reasons or arguments. He merely stipulates. Unless he is a prophet or the son of a prophet, that's not good enough.

(2) I have no quibble with the first quote, if all that Senator Obama is saying is that religious citizens if they want to persuade their non-religious neighbors on a particular issue, as a matter of prudence the former would be wise to offer arguments that the latter may find persuasive. But that's not what the Senator seems to be saying. He seems to be telling us that in order for religious citizens to fully participate in our democratic regime they must use the language of those who are hostile or indifferent to their faith. Notice that the senator does not say that democracy demands that the secularist translate his policy proposals into the language of theology so that his religious neighbors could be appropriately convinced and thus not be marginalized from the public conversation. For Senator Obama it is a one-way street: the religious citizen must acquiesce at every turn to the rules provided to him by the secularist. And if he objects to this arrangement, he must offer arguments in the language and grammar of the secularist. For Senator Obama, we should, in the words of Jesus, "Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's and given unto God what is God's," but with one small caveat: the authority who has absolute discretion over the two spheres is Caesar, who may only be spoken to in the language of Caesar.

Comments (27)

Don't worry, the day Obama signs FOCA into law(Mother's Day would be a nice touch), he'll be surrounded by some heterodox clergy, well-known "Christian" public intellectuals and some obscure bloggers. Hope they enjoy the photo-op, because history is never kind to collaborators. Eternity, even less so.

While I abhor Obama's entire stance in general, he has a point, I think. This is a very difficult thing to debate without sounding evil in religious circles, so please bear with me if what I say is not as clear as I would like.

The easiest example I can give to illustrate the point I want to make is a religion which demands that we sacrifice children to Moloch.

Clearly we who know Christian principles do not want Moloch-worshipers to murder children. But in order to use the STATE to put a stop to this action, we have to use an argument that makes sense on the level of the STATE. Well, in our state we have rules about religious freedom. Generally the state does not interfere with a religious activity.

Of course, that "generally" has limits - namely, when those activities interfere with the rights of others. But that is just where religious freedom rubs up against something else - the supreme demand religion makes on us to transcend the natural. If Moloch-worship was a true religion, then child sacrifice would not REALLY be violating the rights of the child (which is just what the Israelites said to the Canaanites as they killed them off).

In a state, as a society which must perforce regulate actions of citizens sometimes at odds with each other, the state must be able to adjudge when a religion is not to be treated like one, not to be accorded the deference we normally give to religion. The only mechanism available to the state in a multi-religion society is reason. It cannot resort to religious faith to settle a difference between the religions. But it can resort to reason, because reason is accessible (in theory) to everyone, regardless of their faith. A person who rejects sound reason based on "faith" is adhering to false religion.

Of course, I recognize the irony in that: such a view of the compatibility of reason and faith is itself a fruit of Christian doctrine. Moloch-worshipers probably don't accept that view.

In the final analysis, a truly religion-neutral state is simply not possible, except one which suppresses all religion equally - but then it sets itself up as a false god. Obama does not seem even remotely aware of the real character of the plan he is outlining, or the fact that what partial validity it could have comes solely from the success of Christianity in paving the way for reason in molding society.

The religious sensibility is impossible to suppress without it morphing into a substitute ideology or program. The messianic rhetoric, rising sun imagery, slain by the spirit fainting at rallies, and multi-racial narrative - he arose the flesh and blood embodiment of all of humanity - of Obama, is just another manifestation of this phenomenon. So too, McCain's heretical claim that America is mankind's last and best hope. Either way, Chesterton was right; once we cease to believe in God, we believe anything. Modern America's strange Gods would be funny, if they weren't so insatiable in their demand for human sacrifices.

"Either way, Chesterton was right; once we cease to believe in God, we believe anything. Modern America's strange Gods would be funny, if they weren't so insatiable in their demand for human sacrifices."

Is everybody overlooking the obvious here (perhaps, in an attempt to avoid the unpleasant?)?

The human sacrifices being demanded and so accommodated are not by non-Christians but by Christians (i.e., if you consider Obama & McCain Christians)!

It's amazing that it is not the followers of Moloch (or any other pagan religion you may likewise so despise) who end up being the threat to Christianity; it's the Christians themselves!

Tony M, you might be interested in this "old" (not that old) post of mine here on religion in the public square:

http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2008/03/religion_in_the_public_squareh.html

It seems to me to address your questions, albeit perhaps a bit indirectly. It is also relevant to Obama's statements.

I love the shallow way he puts "uncompromising" at odds with "reason." Is reason not sometimes uncompromising? Is it not sometimes the most rational thing in the world to be uncompromising? Yep, it sho' nuf' is. How can people be impressed with this guy? (Never mind. Maybe I don't want to know.)

I am unpersuaded on that account, Tony. Did the British in India proffer elaborate and recondite philosophical treatises concerning the integral goods of the human person, when opposing those maintaining the ancient and sub-barbarous custom of settee? To the contrary, they pronounced it wicked, and threatened to hang those who persisted in its observance. In other words, some things are simply so monstrous, so perverse, that those who believe them licit are not owed rational argumentation, but rather coercion and proscription.

The Christian doctrine of the compatibility, indeed, intertwined inseparability, of faith and reason, is the source of much confusion: because this is a peculiarly Christian doctrine, the assumption of the secularist will be that no recourse can be made to this tradition, or any arguments arising therefrom, in the resolution of public disputes, or the settlement of public policy. We have subtly shifted grounds; secularists and leftists generally do not believe, functionally, in the universality of reason, which, to the extent that it finds any defenders, is upheld mainly by Christian and natural law philosophers. Rather, secularists and leftists uphold particular and reductive conceptions of reason, and endeavour to delegitimize alternative conceptions of reason; their conceptions of reason, or intellectual traditions, are largely instrumental: methodological substructures for concrete social goals. Hence, what secularists are doing when they impose mandates for arguments expressly articulated in secular terminology, and with reference to secular goals or goods, is not insisting upon some form of rationality which adjudicates between religions or rival claims, but insisting that one accept their premises in order to prove one's conclusions. In other words, they expect their adversaries to accomplish the impossible, to, say, prove that an unborn child has a right to life, and his parents a duty to preserve that life, while accepting, say, the notion that degree of sentience is determinative of personhood, where this latter is the basis of rights-claims. It is for this reason, among others, that sensible arguments for the personhood and dignity of the unborn are typically confronted with bogus claims about ensoulment, direct creation, and so forth. They're not working with logical definitions of "religious" and "rational"; they're defining "rational" as "what I want to be so" and "religious" as "what I do not want to be so".

The religious sensibility is impossible to suppress without it morphing into a substitute ideology or program.

Apropos of this indispensable observation, I give you the following:
Trotsky slaying the dragon of reaction." It is an obvious, sacrilegious parody of the iconography of St. George and the dragon.

The human person is intended to function as an integral whole, and not as the intermittent inhabitant of discrete, and conflicting, identities. The attempt to pursue such unnatural existences leads to spiritual dissonance, which is resolved by rendering the boundaries between the oppressive boxes permeable, which in turn results in all manner of blending, hybridization, and bogus resacralization.

Maximos, you're right on there. Absolutely. I've been saying this for a long time. If you define "rational" as "utilitarian" or something ridiculous and invidious like that, you can cut out a lot of ethics. I forget which numbered possible interpretation of the naked public square thesis this was in my post. #4, I think.

Only tangentially related to this post, but worthwhile reading for all WWWtW blog habitués, is this recent very long post on "critical thinking" by Roger Kimball:

http://pajamasmedia.com/rogerkimball/2008/06/20/162/

Enjoy!

P.S. I second Lydia's right on for Maximos and Kimball's comments on Mill and Rorty speak directly to the point Maximos is making.

Aristocles, the fact is Christianity has been supplanted by a politicized derivative that retains much of it's symbolism and language, even as it mocks it.

Maximos thanks for sending, what could be the new logo for National Review, or the New Republic. Blasphemy is the lingua common of our political class.

I shd. add that while I liked Maximos's second comment, we posted at the same time, and my "right on" was in fact directed to his immediately previous comment about rationality.

Kevin,

Aristocles, the fact is Christianity has been supplanted by a politicized derivative that retains much of it's symbolism and language, even as it mocks it.

That being the case, such can no longer be called "Christianity"; on the contrary, it is an affront to it!

Only tangentially related to this post, but worthwhile reading for all WWWtW blog habitués, is this recent very long post on "critical thinking" by Roger Kimball:

http://pajamasmedia.com/rogerkimball/2008/06/20/162/

Thanks! I've only got about a quarter into it, but it packs a wallop so far. When he sites David Stove and the “They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus” argument, as a Catholic, I recognize it's dissident's variant, "The Church once believed the Earth was the center of the universe" argument. :)

Obama simply does not understand the American republic. At all.

Look at what he's saying:


"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."

No, it does not. Our representative democracy provides, in the form of votes and representatives, the means by which individuals who do not agree can arbitrate which of them gets to affect what matters of government. The arbitration takes place as the agents of different points of view attempt to garner votes for their candidates, and support for their representatives' positions once they've elected a representative to the legislature.

There is no point in the process that requires that individuals be able to negotiate at all with any member of the opposition, except to the extent that it's necessary to garner votes.

Then he says,

Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality.

No, it does not. Our political system works just fine if different groups don't persuade each other; it always has. The political system allows any group that is able to garner sufficient votes for their proposals to pass whatever legislation they manage to pass. If they're not capable of persuading enough people, their legislation does not pass. It's that simple.

And here's the part he simply can't fathom:

It doesn't matter what sort of reasoning they use. If they decide on what legislation to propose by taking spectral samples of the penumbras of lunar eclipses, and they get enough people going along with them, the legislation passes -- and it should.

Barack Obama is an incipient tyrant. He's pursuing what the secularists have wanted to do for decades -- make religious reasoning illegal in the public square.

Lydia (because I want your reaction),

Obama claims to be Christian, but his understanding of his own faith seems to me diabolical. - "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." - This is to say that those who, for example, are "concerned" about abortion (pre-natal homicide) are expressing a "religion-specific" value rather than upholding a universal moral precept against murdering the innocent. In other words, he denies that the moral teachings of his own faith have universal value, which quality, of course, is the only thing that makes it worth believing.

And this: "...religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible." Isn't this taking a saying straight from Christ's own mouth and spitting it back in His face?

I'm not sure which saying of Christ's you have in mind, Bill, but I'm probably just not thinking of it.

But isn't this the same-old same-old from Obama? I mean, we all know he's talking about stuff like abortion and same-sex marriage. He'd be furious if someone tried to tell him that opposition to racial segregation is a "religion-specific value" and that nobody has presented a "universal" or "public" reason against segregation.

So it's just an arbitrary attempt to tell pro-lifers and conservatives to shut up. We've heard it all before so often: Something the liberals disagree with = a religious proposition = an irrational proposition on a par with entrail reading = something nobody should listen to and nothing that should affect public policy. Ergo, conservatives should shut up and go back to their caves. No, he doesn't say that. And no doubt when it comes to, say, Muslims demanding footbaths in every public facility he suddenly becomes unable to remember why we shouldn't be scrambling as fast as we can to accommodate _that_ religious observance unsupported by any public argument.

He's just a typical, arbitrary, condescending leftist of a sort we've all met way too often before. Unfortunately, he may be our next president, and then we'll see what he starts doing to put his stupid ideas into practice.

And I hope I'm not the only one who wishes he'd stop everlastingly saying he's a Christian. It gives me the creeps. But then, I wish Tony Campolo would also stop saying that _he's_ a Christian...

Aristocles
"That being the case, such can no longer be called "Christianity"; on the contrary, it is an affront to it!"

Indeed it is. However, the temptation to tailor our faith to meet our own social, political or economic interests is a perennial one. Mastering the tension that exists between the City of God and the City of Man may always remain just out of reach, but relief is not found in either abandoning the attempt, or by constructing a sweet sounding Lie. I think this election cycle were witnessing a lot of people adopting the latter stratagem.

I wonder if Obama is not just following Rawls on this point?

I mean, Rawls took it as a given that the modern nation-state is pluralist. Therefore, for an argument to be made in the public sphere, there has to be a public reason behind it. He did concede that a person advocating a certain position could be religiously motivated, but that the only legitimate reason for a particular policy are secular. Of course, this also meant that his theory of justice would be instituted too.

Yes, of course there is a whole literature on this. It's been bandied about for a long time, and Rawls is one of its exponents. That doesn't make it any more reasonable, given esp. the implicit invidious notions of "religious" and "public" reason.

Dr Beckwith Great post

As soon as you wrote this a lightbulb wnet off in my head as to what a prominent European atheist philosopher Jurgen Habermas on the role of religion in the public sphere. He of course was involved in a great debate with Cardinal Ratizinger where thye found themselves agreeing more than in disagreement.

I am having trouble finding links to the direct text but this blog quotes him on the five major points that relate to what are saying and how Obama's view is not a very good view to have.

THose points start under the heading of
Habermas on Religion in the Public Sphere

http://aimeemilburn.typepad.com/my_weblog/2007/01/jurgen_habermas.html#_ftn28

This election will provide no shortage of humorous material, but much of it is beyond parody;

"Obama's representative Carolyn Sauvage-Mar on Tuesday received a gold-plated two-feet-high idol which she will pass it on to the Obama after it is sanctified."

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/India/Hanuman_idol_for_Obama/articleshow/3160730.cms

Catholic already means universal, so Obama is just saying we should all make Catholic arguments, right?

Maximos writes:
"the assumption of the secularist will be that no recourse can be made to this [Christian philosophical] tradition, or any arguments arising therefrom, in the resolution of public disputes, or the settlement of public policy. We have subtly shifted grounds; secularists and leftists generally do not believe, functionally, in the universality of reason, which, to the extent that it finds any defenders, is upheld mainly by Christian and natural law philosophers."

Quite true. I recall one exchange between a pro-lifer and Obama wherein the former made a non-religious argument for her position, which Obama immediately tried to dismiss as a religious argument.

It's like a child who, when facing something he dislikes, covers his ears and shouts "I can't hear you."

Come to think of it, the universality of reason appears to be quite a mystical concept when one starts from a naive Darwinism that asserts human thought is simply a survival adaptation to contingent circumstances.

"With God, all things are possible," or something like that.

We live in a democracy, not, I thought, a pluralistic democracy, which is a euphemism in Obama speak for political correctness. In Obama speak, religion has been silently overruled by secuarlism, undoubted and undefined. It leaves anything like our laws or Constitution in the dark, while casting pleasing vocables to those who feel you can make up values and politics as you go along: the Carter left, for instance, of which Obama is to the left. I hope Obama keeps talking: if he persuades a majority to vote for him they will get what they deserve. Four years of unrelieved misery and failure.

There is no point in the process that requires that individuals be able to negotiate at all with any member of the opposition, except to the extent that it's necessary to garner votes.

Were that true, there would be no point in allowing "debate" on the floor of a legislative institution.

In some way, each state in the Union, as well as Congress, gives lip service to the notion that talking about a law with the opposition can result in better laws being passed (or changed or repealed, as the case may be.)

I don't get it. I don't understand what's wrong with his point of view on this.
We should all engage in public debate about public values/laws. In order for us to all engage in a debate about our public values/laws, there is little point in engaging in rhetoric. You need to have a reason that people from other denominations, from other religions, and non-believers can understand.

I don't want the Government telling me what religion is 'allowed'. I want to have that freedom. This means that the Government can't just make laws that fit with their religion. I cannot engage in a public debate if the Government argues "no one should ever be able to do 'a' because it says so in our religion". I simply can't engage in that issue because my religion doesn't have that belief. The only way I can engage is if we all agree that laws won't be justified solely by faith. If they were solely justified by faith, public debate would simply be who could rhetorically yell the loudest (or, which had the most power). Now if that's the case, then the majority decides on the law. If they do so using only religion as justification, then I don't have freedom of religion.

I'm sure I'm missing something there, can you explain? He explicitly, in that speech, explicitly says he is fine with religious references - he in now way wants to remove religion from the public discourse - he just doesn't think one can engage others if you only use rhetoric. And I believe he's right.

Further: I don't think he'd be 'furious' if told there was no 'universal' argument against segregation, he'd completely disagree (and so would I). Everyone wants to be treated equally, I think that is universal. You can argue that 'everyone' includes the unborn, and therefore abortion is wrong (and so would I). But do so knowing you're engaging in a debate with reasons, not solely religion.

Finally: Regarding "We live in a democracy, not, I thought, a pluralistic democracy" - I think once you have freedom of religion, the latter is almost guaranteed. At the very least, if you have genuine freedom of religion, you are unconcerned between the two.

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