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Every once in a while, a national leader delivers a speech that outlasts the afternoon talk shows. Barack Obama did it in 2004 for the Democratic National Convention. He did it again with his June 28 address on religion and politics. "It was, for the first time in modern memory, an affirmative statement from a Democrat about 'how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy,' as Obama put it," Amy Sullivan wrote in Slate. She contrasted Obama's remarks with landmark speeches delivered by John F. Kennedy and Mario Cuomo, which mostly explained how Catholic faith did not affect their decision-making.

Yet others on the Left felt their feathers ruffle. Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn balked at this Obama sound bite: "Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square."

Zorn blogged, "Speaking as a secularist … what we ask of believers—all we ask—is that they not enter the public square using 'because God says so' as a reason to advance or attack any political position."

Unfortunately, later in this otherwise exemplary speech, Obama ended up agreeing with Zorn, and this suggests a continuing blind spot for many in their understanding of how religion relates to politics.

Reforming Religion

Obama's humility cuts through the cynicism many Americans feel when politicians begin talking about religion. He speaks about his faith and religious values with earnestness and with ease.

In the black church's "historical struggles for freedom and the rights of man, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death," Obama said. "It is an active, palpable agent in the world. It is a source of hope."

He reminds ...

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In the Magazine

September 2006

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