Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Obama, Politics and Faith

I waited for some of the dust to settle before commenting on Barack Obama's remarkable speech to Jim Wallis' Christian Left assemblage last week, but here's a simple summary of the reaction:

1) Some folks praised Obama for calling on Democrats to reach out to people of faith, and for denying Republicans had any natural monopoly on their support.

2) Some folks attacked Obama for either (a) reinforcing "Republican talking points" by suggesting Democrats had a problem with people of faith, or (b) suggesting that Democrats reach out to people who are part of the conservative base, which can't be done without compromising progressive principles.

Among the critics, Chris Bowers of MyDD managed to tie himself in knots by making both negative arguments simultaneously.

Lots of the critics and even some of the fans don't seem to have paid sufficient attention to what Obama actually said. Over at TPMCafe, Nathan Newman, quoting liberally from Obama's remarks, pretty decisively refutes the claim that the Illinois senator was piling onto Republican attacks on Democrats, or calling for any sort of "tilt to the right" on policy issues (beyond the single issue of church-state-separation absolutism).

But uniquely, and not suprisingly, Amy Sullivan, in an article at Slate, noted a very different aspect of Obama's speech that in the long run may make it more significant: an intra-Christian argument about the connection between faith and political commitment that suggests any simple claim that God wants the faithful to vote this way or that is spiritually dangerous. Here's how Sullivan puts it:

This humbler version of faith has been in the shadows for the past few years, derided as moral relativism or even a lack of true belief. Obama stepped up not to defend this approach to religion, but to insist on the rightness of it. That should be comforting to anyone who has been deeply discomfited by Bush's version of Christianity. A questioning faith is a much better fit for a society like ours than one that allows for no challenge or reflection. It also acts as a check against liberals who would appropriate God for their own purposes, declaring Jesus to be the original Democrat and trotting out New Testament verses to justify their own policy programs. Liberals don't have the answer key to divining God's will any more than conservatives do.

In other words, Obama was fighting something of a three-front battle in this speech:

(1) against conservative claims that God's Will is easy to understand, dictates culturally conservative positions, and requires nothing more than obedience;
(2) against Christian Left claims that progressives of faith should simply counter their Law with our Gospel; their sexual moralism with our social-justice moralism; their scriptural authorities with our scriptural authorities;
(3) against secularists of the Left or the Right (encompassing, BTW, most of the political chattering classes) who reduce religious faith to entirely secular political and cultural positions, without having any clue of the ambiguities involved in believing in a transcendent God who reveals Himself in history and human action as well as in scripture.

The political import of Obama's speech is that he is engaging in an intra-Christian debate that is already undermining the Christian Right every day. In essence, the James Dobsons of the religious world have sought to lead their flocks into a prophetic stance that stakes their spiritual lives to a series of specific and highly questionable political commitments. More and more, even the most conservative evangelical Christians are chafing against this bondage, while the less conservative faithful, including the largely apolitical attendees of rapidly growing non-denominational megachurches, never bought into it much to begin with.

This is an enormous potential political constituency that is waiting to hear from Our Side, not with Conservative Lite policy prescriptions; not with Christian Left counter-prophetic-absolutism; but with credible and authentic appeals to the holy fear that the faithful should respect when confronting those who make exclusive claims to represent God's Will on Earth.

This is precisely the appeal Barack Obama made last week, and as a Christian, and as a Democrat, I am grateful for it.
-- Posted at 2:26 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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