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.