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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Obama and the Challenge for People of Faith

June 28, 2006, 1:57 pm | Posted by

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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A Special “Blog Con” Round Up

June 27, 2006, 11:20 am | Posted by

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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