In his speech, "A Politics of Conscience,"-- delivered to his own progressive denomination the United Church of Christ at its General Synod in Hartford, Connecticut on June 23-- Obama holds up a vision of liberal and conservative Christians working together for political ends, but he glosses over differences that ultimately divide the two camps.
Obama made several statements that conservatives and liberals can both affirm:
The lie ... that the separation of church and state in America means faith should have no role in public life...Some secular progressives contend that all religious morality should be kept out of politics. But let's be honest: everyone dips their bucket into a moral well. For some, that well is religion. For others, it's the "collective wisdom of humankind." No one should be kept out of the public square because of the source of their morality.
People are coming together around a simple truth – that we are all connected, that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper. And that it's not enough to just believe this – we have to do our part to make it a reality.
...Our values should express themselves not just through our churches or synagogues, temples or mosques; they should express themselves through our government...
My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want, but I won't be fulfilling God's will unless I go out and do the Lord's work.
Obama supports his belief that faith belongs in politics with an illustration that surprisingly mirrors recent radio advertising on Rush Limbaugh's radio program by the conservative Alliance Defense Fund:
Imagine Lincoln's Second Inaugural without its reference to "the judgments of the Lord." Or King's "I Have a Dream" speech without its reference to "all of God's children." Or President Kennedy's Inaugural without the words, "here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own."Appeals to history is a vital source Obama uses to urge on Christians today:
But my journey is part of a larger journey – one shared by all who've ever sought to apply the values of their faith to our society. It's a journey that takes us back to our nation's founding, when none other than a UCC church inspired the Boston Tea Party and helped bring an Empire to its knees. In the following century, men and women of faith waded into the battles over prison reform and temperance, public education and women's rights – and above all, abolition. And when the Civil War was fought and our country dedicated itself to a new birth of freedom, they took on the problems of an industrializing nation – fighting the crimes against society and the sins against God that they felt were being committed in our factories and in our slums.
And when these battles were overtaken by others and when the wars they opposed were waged and won, these faithful foot soldiers for justice kept marching. They stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as the blows of billy clubs rained down. They held vigils across this country when four little girls were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church. They cheered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. King delivered his prayer for our country. And in all these ways, they helped make this country more decent and more just.
With a big brush, Obama paints a broad picture of Christians long united in political struggles-- and it's this history that Obama's uses in his call for unity today--and support for his candidacy.
But this is a romanticized view of American political history. It glosses over the very real faith differences that separated our Christian ancestors.
I'm not saying that every opinion is equally good. Hardly.
My point is that throughout the history of American politics, a difference of opinion-- rooted in religious conviction-- has always existed among Christians. Sure, there's been unity at different points among Christians of different stripes, but the fact remains:
There has always been political differences among Christians-- differences rooted in faith.
So when Obama makes his well-publicized statement, it's based on an inaccurate portrayal of history:
But somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and started being used to drive us apart. It got hijacked. Part of it's because of the so-called leaders of the Christian Right, who've been all too eager to exploit what divides us. At every opportunity, they've told evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design. There was even a time when the Christian Coalition determined that its number one legislative priority was tax cuts for the rich. I don't know what Bible they're reading, but it doesn't jibe with my version. Faith didn't get "hijacked."
Because faith never belonged exclusively to liberal Christians.
Indeed, change did happen "somewhere along the way." Here's a more accurate account of the last 30 years:
Conservative Christians-- primarily made up of evangelicals-- entered the political arena as a religious force. The movement started with Jerry Falwell's "Moral Majority" in the 80's and continued in the 1990's with James Dobson. These people got involved in politics for the very reasons that Obama himself states: To put their faith into action and make a difference. And with no apologies, spoke of political issues as faith issues.
Meantime, liberal Christians, whose politics were much like liberal secular progressives, failed to articulate their political values in terms of faith. To do so was embarrassing. They believed in "separation of church and state." And so, mimicking their secular allies, they kept religious references out of politics. Consequently, they abandoned their moral voice.
But now, led by professed Christian and Democrat Jim Wallis of Sojourners, whose blog is boldly titled, "God's Politics" (golly, now is that "hijacking" God's name?), liberal Christians are playing catch up-- and making the case that their political beliefs are rooted in religious ideals. Obama's speech is significant because he's the first presidential Democrat in years to reassert the link between faith and politics.
In Obama's view, one role of faith in politics is to unite. And so, Obama closed his speech with an appeal to unity, not just between liberal and conservative Christians, but people of all faiths:
So let's rededicate ourselves to a new kind of politics – a politics of conscience. Let's come together – Protestant and Catholic, Muslim and Hindu and Jew, believer and non-believer alike. We're not going to agree on everything, but we can disagree without being disagreeable. We can affirm our faith without endangering the separation of church and state, as long as we understand that when we're in the public square, we have to speak in universal terms that everyone can understand. And if we can do that – if we can embrace a common destiny – then I believe we'll not just help bring about a more hopeful day in America, we'll not just be caring for our own souls, we'll be doing God's work here on Earth.
It's quite a vision. It's a nice idea.
But I'm not sure it's not earthy enough. If politics is one thing, it's earthy-- mired and muddied by sin and the human predicament.
And I'm not sure it takes sufficient account of the fact that religious people live by strong convictions.