Today, the man President Bush calls “the pope” delivered an incisive speech articulating a principled way forward in the American debate over faith and public life. I sat four rows away, and it was good.
Speaking at the First National City Church, to a packed audience of mainline, evangelical, and Catholic progressive activists, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) began with a story familiar to many–having his religious bona fides questioned because he wasn’t conservative enough. Pushing past both the Right’s patently parochial rhetoric and the secular stammer of the left, the senator swung back with a vision for American values rooted in his hopeful prayer that “reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all.”
The only African-American in the U. S. Senate, and only the third since reconstruction, Obama pointed out that the “single biggest ‘gap’ in party affiliation among white Americans today is not between men and women, or those who reside in so-called Red States and those who reside in Blue, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don’t.” And thus it follows that “we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people.”
While this might seem like easy words for the crowd, already the DailyKos community contains some prickly posts worried over the senator’s recognition that “under God” is not the most difficult or stultifying aspect of a child’s school life. Read their posts here as well as some Obama defenders who urge people to read the whole speech, not just the AP MSM angle.
But Obama is no religious ideologue, sharing in the speech about his own secularist upbringing, and even after joining the Trinity United Church of Christ he recognizes the value that doubt plays in the search for meaning. He points out that one American’s doubt shouldn’t force another’s awkward silence. In fact, the Left’s religious sotto voce leaves it unable to call the country to high ideals.
Not long ago Hendrik Hertzberg at the New Yorker noted the junior Democratic senator joking at the Gridiron dinner.
“You hear this constant refrain from our critics that Democrats don’t stand for anything,” Obama said. “That’s really unfair. We do stand for anything.”
Listening to today’s speech it’s clear that Barack offers progressives (and the Democratic party) a new religious principle on which to stand.
He opposed CAFTA, has called for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and even in a skeptical The Nation article entitled “Mr. Obama Goes to Washington,” David Sirota notes the junior senator’s “rare flash of defiance when he unsuccessfully pushed legislation this year to create an Office of Public Integrity.” Obama has even blogged on DailyKos, addressing the sphere’s two dominant topics: troops out of Iraq and into Darfur.
“They are exactly right to be fired up about Darfur, he writes. “It is in our national interest to stop states from failing, and to stop genocide. But they also have to recognize that if we are willing to engage militarily in those circumstances, then there certainly are situations that call for direct military engagement in defense of our national interests.” He adds, “we are less equipped to deal with Iran because of the Iraq war.”
But Obama’s short record and today’s speech reveals more than progressive ideals and sharp political timing. He also envisions a way forward that eschews the Right’s solipsistic rhetorical grip on American values. He sees that the solutions to gun violence, poverty, war and failed immigration policy lie in our ability to turn personal ideals into broad movements for the common good:
“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. 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 evoke 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.”
By saying to the faithful and the secular of all varieties that the American conversation should always be privately honest and publicly plural, today, Obama leads a party hung by others’ prayer to a new vision for faith in public life.
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I first heard then-State Sen. Barack Obama speak during his 2004 campaign in my home of Kankakee County, Illinois. Before the Democratic Keynote Address, I shook the hand of the “skinny kid with a funny name,” and he hooked me for life with his stump of “a campaign and politics that recognizes a common decency of every human being.” I listened and thought that Obama’s words could have been taken from a pamphlet on Catholic Social Teaching, but this universal message attracted both secular and religious individuals.
For the past several years, religious conservatives have given members of the progressive community plenty of reason to distrust people of faith in pursuit of justice and the common good. This morning, U.S. Sen. Obama, the Golden Boy of the Left, offered an account of his own political convictions grounded in faith and identified the challenge for faithful people whose faith compels them to seek social, economic, and racial justice.
On the final morning of Sojourners’ “Pentecost 2006″ Conference, Sen. Obama took to the podium this morning at National City Christian Church in Downtown Washington, DC. After being awarded the Joseph Award for his commitment to combat poverty as a community organizer and elected official, Obama delivered a thoughtful address on faith in the public sphere.
Obama described the contemporary polity in which a Religious Right has claimed a sole ownership of moral values and a Secular Left often relegates faith to absurdity. He affirmed the importance of a barrier between church and state, as a protection for both. According to Obama, people of faith can and have invoked monumental social and political change, but they do carry an extra duty. He explained, “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.”
Obama demonstrates that faith and reason are not mutually exclusive, rather that their rightful integration can be a powerful force to do good.
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The Progressive Faith Blog Con looms less than three weeks away. To give you a sense of who will be there, all the bloggers listed below will be attending.
Of course, Velveteen Rabbi has been instrumental in organizing the conference. Here she addresses the practical reality of what interfaith worship and fellowship means when we actually get together.
Left coaster, Pearlbear, raises questions about the scare tactics of some liberal advocacy groups:
“The truth is always far more complicated and nuanced, but complicated and nuanced feels like it doesn’t lead to either action, or to contributions. But the continued process of ignoring complicated and nuanced realities leads to more divisivenss, and more fragmentation – and these are the things that are, ultimately, the enemies of social change.”
Even the Devils Believe confesses to being “angry and upset. . . over the Episcopal Church’s convention and the gathering of the PC-USA. It has been a very difficult time to read blogs (and I’ve been less behind than I expected, because I had a hard time setting limits). It is difficult to see people working well within the Christian tradition, including employing feminine names and imagery for God, tarred as heretics by people who don’t seem to understand the tradition outside a very narrow section of Scripture.”
Last week at the Faith in Public Life Blog, Dave Baron addressed church and state issues after attending a congressional hearing. Read it here. The Air America State of Belief blog also noticed the legislation and writes:
“. . .it’s clearly the intention of our Congressional leaders to make it impossible to legally challenge conflations of church and state. Next bill on the docket: if you successfully prosecute a Congressman for corruption, you get a hundred lashes.”
Blogging from the UUA General Assembly in St. Louis, MO, Philocrites points readers to a good Hallmark Channel TV program by Forrest Church called “The American Creed.”
CrossLeft hosts a blog that reflects on a recent post by Talk2Action. Pointing out that “Many of Us Don’t Know the Real Nature of the Beast,” he wonders: “Have we yet succeeded in framing a way to discuss their theocratic agenda so that the average American, that vital mainstream voter understands what drives our advocacy?”
And finally, Islamicate shares a paper presented at Harvard’s Islam and the West Conference. It is titled, “Moslems on the Internets.”
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Another stained glass ceiling was shattered last week when Katharine Jefferts Schori became the Episcopal Church’s first female Presiding Bishop. Many of our rejoiced.
Unfortunately the joyful sentiment was not universal. Faith and Policy inducted the Rev. H.W. Herrmann into its Hall of Shame for his disgruntled response to Bishop Schori’s election. His own words do the talking:
“Just like we can’t use grape juice and saltines for Communion, because it isn’t the right matter, we do not believe that the right matter is being offered here,” Rev. Herrmann said in an interview on Sunday.
The Rev. makes the all-too common mistake of mixing the right-wing matter with the right matter of scripture. Fortunately, as demonstrated by a recent Washington Post article, “Religious Liberals Gain New Visibility,” the monologue of the Right is no longer satisfying the spiritual appetites of those who desire solutions that benefit the common good on issues of homelessness, poverty, and injustice.
As the Rev. Tim Ahrens of We Believe Ohio stated, “The wind is changing,” and the Right no longer gets to decide on its own what matters. We at Faith in Public Life seek to ensure that the media takes notice of this changing spirit.
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As many of you noted, we had a bug that asked for a password when people tried to post comments. All fixed now, so let the open commenting begin!
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