A Patriotic Action for the 4th Weekend

June 30, 2006, 4:25 pm | Posted by

Feeling patriotic this weekend? Take some action to ensure that all of your fellow citizens have equal access to the vote. The Voting Rights Act is among the most successful pieces of civil rights legislation in our nations’ history. It enjoys broad bi-partisan support, but is being held up in the House by a determined group of GOP legislators. Check out this page to see how faith leaders are speaking up to break this Congressional logjam before the VRA can expire. For more info, check out www.renewthevra.org. Happy 4th!

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Why Sen. Obama Offers Hope to Atheists (and People of Faith, too)

June 30, 2006, 3:49 pm | Posted by

Apparently some in progressive Blogistan appear troubled by Sen. Obama.

You can see some of that at Hotline where the National Journal catches the confusion; as does MyDD:

Is it Bill Clinton’s fault? Or Lieberman’s? Or is it just common confusion over the demographic, best expressed at Pam’s House Blend whose term slippage in her title “Obama: Dems need to court the fundies” reveals the all too common broad generalization of faith in America?

Pam, what was that AP story title again?

But the most interesting debate occurs over at DailyKos spin off Street Prophets. Because many of the people leaving comments were actually present, and liked it. Chuck Currie posts:

“These days there are a lot of people on the political left who recoil at the mention of religion. Sadly, people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have defined for many what it means to be Christian. Secularists, said Obama, “are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause.”

Here is Sen. Obama the next day, “So my point was that we need to have a more complex, more nuanced conversation about religion. And if we do that, then I think the whole country benefits.”

Oh, wait, a politician calling for nuance, is that how they usually court fundamentalists? See McCain in Lynchberg. By the way, Atrios et al, more nuance and complexity will only help with building a good wall of separation of church and state.

Here is Sen. Obama exhibiting some of that nuance:

“the history of the separation of church and state is what has allowed religious freedom to thrive in this country, and that when we talk about issues, it’s also important for us to recognize that there are folks who are non-believers, who are of different faiths, and we’ve got to translate whatever moral concerns or religious concerns that we have in a universal language that all Americans can talk about.”

Courting Destiny expresses that usual knee-jerk fear, writing, “Take away one little little piece of The First Amendment and the door opens for the entire First Amendment to be looked at and revised. Do most Evangelicals and other church going Americans want The first Amendment to be tampered with (sic)? I doubt it.”

As The Green Knight points out: “What he is doing is talking about long-term strategy for winning and for making positive change in the country.”

And I would add that the political chessboard doesn’t get smaller just because one disdains much of it. Over 250 million Americans believe in God and most of them even affiliate themselves with organized religion. The key to making America better for more people is to capture and control more the rhetorical ground. What Obama articulated is a progressive openness toward religion that will reduce the amount of value language available to the religious Right.

But most importantly, analyzing the rhetoric of Sen. Obama’s speech reveals that some folks are not reading it carefully. Read it again, he is on your side.

In fact, Sen. Obama, who admits to doubt, works to recontextualize the usual shibboleths.

The secular world needs to distinguish between means and ends. Usually, “separation of church and state” is their term, but Obama allows sharp evangelicals to see it as their term as well, raised as an historical wall against majoritarian pressure.

And now to the point that has many Kossacks boiling: “It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase `under God.’”

What Obama is really saying is that kids repeating “under God” is essentially meaningless, which is exactly what a good atheist believes.

Of course the state shouldn’t force us to say what we think is metaphysically meaningless, but on a functional (and tactical) level, the strict separationist actually infuses the phrase with meaning by directly attacking it. Much wiser to treat the term as meaningless, not just believe it. Instead, progressives win when they avoid making symbols out of what the Right can use to appeal to broad swaths of Americana.

Better to argue from the positive, by saying let’s mix mangers, dreidels, and sleighs because we are a diverse people and we respect everyone, etc., rather than pushing no mangers and crosses period. By diffusing the meaning of symbols, progressive pluralism brings the battle to our turf along with a foundation of values which appeals to the other 90% of people. I hate to argue from historical determinism but it is clear that the evangelical mind is opening and finding common ground with the rest of the world. Poverty, AIDS, the environment–if you are not aware of this, read more widely here!

Most of these kids graduating from Wheaton, Azusa, Westmont, BIOLA and Hope are bored with the old fights, and so are a new generation of Catholics. I know because I just sat in a room with several hundred of them, one of whom has been living on the Arizona boarder bringing water to migrants as they cross. She received a lot of applause. She may say “under God” but frankly her actions speak much louder than what those words symbolize to those on the far Right or left. Something is changing in the battle, and real liberal hope–an American government for the common good–just might materialize if we continue to welcome folks like her and Senator Obama into our “Democratic” process.

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Two Speeches a World Apart

June 30, 2006, 9:31 am | Posted by

EJ Dionne in the Washington Post is almost always worth one’s time, and this morning is must read material. He calls Sen. Obama’s Wednesday speech,

what may be the most important pronouncement by a Democrat on faith and politics since John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech in 1960 declaring his independence from the Vatican.

High praise, and almost certainly not the last time that the junior senator from Illinois will be compared to the man who was once the junior senator from Massachusetts.

It’s telling to contrast what made those two speeches groundbreaking. Kennedy was set to run for the presidency, to become our nation’s first Catholic president. Worried about anti-Catholic attacks on his loyalty to country like those that hampered Gov. Al Smith of New York in the presidential election of ’28, Kennedy delivers an address to Southern Baptist leaders that underscored the limits of his faith. It essentially boils down to, ‘I’m a Catholic, but I’m not going to take orders from the pope.’ Imagine that, a Democrat needing to convince voters that his faith wouldn’t matter TOO MUCH.

Fast forward almost fifty years to Wednesday at the Call to Renewal conference in DC. A lot has changed in the party of Kennedy, so much so that conservative Catholics like to make the near-blasphemous claim that JFK would have run as a Republican today. Sen. Obama delivers his address not to assure Americans that he’ll maintain the separation of church and state, but to reassert that progressives don’t need to advocate a public square stripped of all faith and values.

There’s a lot to say about the particulars of Obama’s speech, but the contrast between these two historic speeches makes it crystal clear how necessary the senator’s words were on Wednesday. If his call for fairminded dialogue is heeded, America and all working for the common good will be stronger for it.

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Inaugural FPL Board Member Post: “We May Have Become Tone Deaf” by Rabbi Steven Jacobs

June 29, 2006, 12:29 pm | Posted by

The headline in the Los Angeles Times screams at us, “War’s Iraqi Death Toll Tops 50,000.” But we may have become tone deaf. At least 50,000 Iraqis have died violently since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion! The toll is devastating. The documented cases show a country descending into violence, as the headline article elaborates. The tone deafness on our part to others’ suffering is due to the fact that we only focus on our own 2520 U.S. deaths. It’s only our blood that matters. This is a war to save the civilization, and damn those who oppose this administration, while the most threatened and hated Americans are Muslims.

It is not only death, but it is the fact that untold numbers of civilian lives are broken and fractured. There is a loss of the sanctity of life.

We in the religious community must stop courting death. We must sanctify life with our own weapons of respecting all and reaching out to our enemies, not destroying them. We must fight hatred for the rest of our lives. We must not be silent or indifferent to the intricacies and manipulations of government leaders, whether Republicans or Democrats.

Our religious vision of revenge must be in fighting hatred with the power that we bring in the interfaith community. We must lower the walls of ignorance that have allowed hatred to ferment to such heights. We must stand up to the rising cultures of hate, accusation, and deceit.

Finally, the sacredness of life was best articulated by the father of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal journalist beheaded and killed in 2002. Judea Pearl, sharing lunch with me last week, spoke of hatred. “Military battles,” he said, “are won in two parallel ways: by making your enemy weaker, and by making your troops stronger.” The same applies to battles of hatred. In addition to curtailing ignorance in the world at large, we must empower the troops of peace here at home, and our children and grandchildren to be the elite forces of these troops.

This is what the sanctity of life must be! There are powerful voices in our community who are speaking out against the immorality of war. It is time we come together to speak out.

Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs, Faith in Public Life Board Member



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Barack Obama Hangs the Right’s Rhetoric on a Prayer

June 28, 2006, 2:25 pm | Posted by

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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