God's Will in the Public Square
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 believersall we askis 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.
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 Americans of a time when religion did not so bitterly divide the parties and when committed Christians led some of the most progressive causes.
"Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther Kingindeed, the majority of great reformers in American historywere not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause," Obama said. "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."
To this we offer a hearty amen.
Unfortunately, Obama then confused matters. "Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values," he explained. Sounding like Zorn, he said, "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 [invoke] 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."
Yes and no. What Obama fails to see is how often specifically Christian or religious reasoning has been at the core of social movements. He cites Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address as a positive example, but in fact, the speech fails Obama's test: "Yet if God wills that [this war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk," the Great Emancipator said, "and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether'" (Ps. 19:9).