Thursday, June 29, 2006

Which started the whole world crying...

So Sen. Barack Obama gave a speech which has started left blogistan shrieking. The gentler disagreement is exemplified by Atrios and MyDD (to whom Atrios links). The more virulent responses are simply and bluntly anti-religious (Chuck Currie has a round up of those). Why? Apparently because Obama had the temerity to say this:

For me, this need was illustrated during my 2004 face for the U.S. Senate. My opponent, Alan Keyes, was well-versed in the Jerry Falwell-Pat Robertson style of rhetoric that often labels progressives as both immoral and godless.

Indeed, towards the end of the campaign, Mr. Keyes said that, "Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama. Christ would not vote for Barack Obama because Barack Obama has behaved in a way that it is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved."

Now, I was urged by some of my liberal supporters not to take this statement seriously. To them, Mr. Keyes was an extremist, his arguments not worth entertaining.

What they didn't understand, however, was that I had to take him seriously. For he claimed to speak for my religion - he claimed knowledge of certain truths.

Mr. Obama says he's a Christian, he would say, and yet he supports a lifestyle that the Bible calls an abomination.

Mr. Obama says he's a Christian, but supports the destruction of innocent and sacred life.

What would my supporters have me say? That a literalist reading of the Bible was folly? That Mr. Keyes, a Roman Catholic, should ignore the teachings of the Pope?

Unwilling to go there, I answered with the typically liberal response in some debates - namely, that we live in a pluralistic society, that I can't impose my religious views on another, that I was running to be the U.S. Senator of Illinois and not the Minister of Illinois.

But Mr. Keyes implicit accusation that I was not a true Christian nagged at me, and I was also aware that my answer didn't adequately address the role my faith has in guiding my own values and beliefs.

My dilemma was by no means unique. In a way, it reflected the broader debate we've been having in this country for the last thirty years over the role of religion in politics.
I should mention here that Sen. Obama is a member of Trinity UCC in Chicago, the largest UCC church in the denomination. What he is claiming is that he is entitled to bring his religion into the public square. What left blogistan seems to be saying is: no, he isn't.

It's a curious stance. I can only imagine that these same people think well, at least, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But they must also think Dr. King was just a man with a dream who really, really didn't like racism. They have, in other words, never read Taylor Branch's excellent three part history of Dr. King's movement. They don't realize how it came out of, was nurtured by, and was almost entirely a product of, the black Christian churches. They don't seem to know that Andrew Young, as much a part of the movement as Jesse Jackson, is an ordained UCC minister. They don't understand how Dr. King's activism was inspired by people like Reinhold Niebuhr, and Dr. King's religious convictions.

In fact, the very idea that religion inspires people to compassion and activism is almost anathema to some in left blogistan. On that thread at Atrios's site I was pulled into an argument when one commenter quoted a claim that religion gives rise only to all manner of foul and debilitating ignorance. When I mockingly said that my religious beliefs had engendered my compassion, which must mean compassion was foul and debilitating, another commenter joined in to decry my implication that only religious people were compassionate. I never, of course, said any such foolish thing, nor have I. But in the knee-jerk anti-religious world of left blogistan, religion is all bad, and no good can ever be allowed to come of it. As I say, apparently these same people think Abraham Lincoln was the sole reason slavery ended in this country. The abolitionist movement was a church centered and Christian one, but don't tell them that.

What we are up against here, with Sen. Obama's speech, is quite simply the limits of tolerance. (Hmmm. Does that sound familiar?) It is a matter of boundaries, of who is allowed in, and who must be excluded out, of the blessed community. And I don't mean "blessed" in the exclusively religious sense, but simply as the community which has the "right" answers and so must be defended as vigorously as possible against corruption from "wrong" thinking. One of the commonplaces of modern thought has become that religion is a private matter. It is an idea that arises in part from the work of Soren Kierkegaard, but more and more it has come to mean religion must be relegated entirely to the household; in some cases, clearly, preferably the cellar, from which it should never be released. Just mention religion at Eschaton and you will spark a discussion as nasty and intolerant as the one still up about Sen. Obama's speech. I don't blame Atrios for this, of course, but his response to the speech presents another issue, one that is, quite simply, irreconcilable, and the problem of religion in the public square.

Any discussion or presentation of Christianity is, at least, a presentation of judgment. This cannot be avoided or ignored. When Sen. Obama says:

This is why, if we truly hope to speak to people where they're at - to communicate our hopes and values in a way that's relevant to their own - we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.

Because when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations towards one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome - others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.

In other words, if we don't reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, Jerry Falwell's and Pat Robertson's will continue to hold sway.
Atrios reads it as a critique of Democrats, and the law of politics all politicians are expected to obey is: Thou shalt not speak ill of thy fellow party members. It is this kind of lock-step unity which is supposed to have made the GOP the political juggernaut it is today. And, of course, Will Rogers' quip about not belonging to an organized political party because he's a Democrat, is now the sign that Democrats will never regain power until they, too, can ape the GOP in all matters except...well, politics. So we're back to the question of tolerance. I can tolerate you, but only if you tolerate me; and "tolerate" here means "Agree with me in everything I hold essential." That's a problem for the Anglican Communion. That's a problem for political parties. Politics doesn't like judgment, unless the judgment is used against one's political opponent. Which means politics doesn't like discernment; and despite its shining assessment of itself, left blogistan is very bad at discernment.

What did Sen. Obama say in that speech? The Democrats had to seek the support of evangelicals like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson? No. He was making a larger point, a point about religion for the rest of us, for those of us who are both religious and tolerant:

In other words, if we don't reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, Jerry Falwell's and Pat Robertson's will continue to hold sway.
That is not a call to appeal to evangelicals who look to Falwell and Robertson for guidance; that is a call to Christians who don't look to Falwell and Robertson for guidance, but who have been told that their religious beliefs are not tolerated in the public square. In other words, irony of ironies, the intolerant positions of those in left blogistan who do not want religion, by which they invariably mean Christianity (as if no other religion existed in the world) mentioned in the public square, have helped create the very condition they now decry. Sen. Obama does it with statistics, but the simpple fact is, religious practice is as human as seeking food and shelter, as natural as reproduction, as much a part of the human experience as culture, and just as ineradicable as any of those things. It is the blinkered arrogance of the European Enlightenment, the intolerance of the most intolerant, which insists religion (by which, again, these critics most commonly mean Christianity) must be expunged from human history once and for all. It isn't going to happen and in fact insisting on that is part of the reason the atmosphere surrounding religion in the public square is now so poisonous. And you know what? Christianity teaches us just that lesson. It is the lesson Nietszche described: the man who fights dragons too long, ends up becoming a dragon himself. Except the fight against the "dragon" of Christianity, is a fight against a dragon of our own creation. Again, as Christianity teaches, once you lay down your arms and embrace your enemy, once you make yourself wholly vulnerable and love your enemy, you become more than conqueror. You adopt and accept and engage the power of powerlessness. And no, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson don't teach that lesson. But Christianity does. And that is precisely Sen. Obama's point: we have to tell evangelical Christians and religious Americans what we, as Christians, stand for in the public square. Not argue with them, not persuade them to our point of view, not oppose them in a final apocalyptic battle which will establish truth, justice, and the American way in one nation under God, world without end, Amen. But we simply have to stop letting them be the face of religion in America, the public voice of Christianity in America.

And this is a call to religious people; that's another point left out of the discussion in left blogistan. Sen. Obama speaks as a Christian; so do I. But that doesn't mean I would exclude the Buddhist who I knew through my last church, because his wife and children were members there, and he attended regularly with them. That's doesn't mean I would exclude DAS, who regularly comments here with deep and humane wisdom from both his education and his background in Judaism. That doesn't mean I would exclude atheists and agnostics, even as they would wish fervently to exclude me (some of whom I still count as on-line friends, despite their vitriol). But for me, the money quote is here:

I am not suggesting that every progressive suddenly latch on to religious terminology. Nothing is more transparent than inauthentic expressions of faith - the politician who shows up at a black church around election time and claps - off rhythm - to the gospel choir.

But what I am suggesting is this - secularists 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. 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.

Moreover, if we progressives shed some of these biases, we might recognize the overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country. We might recognize that the call to sacrifice on behalf of the next generation, the need to think in terms of "thou" and not just "I," resonates in religious congregations across the country. And we might realize that we have the ability to reach out to the evangelical community and engage millions of religious Americans in the larger project of America's renewal.
I think he's right. We really have two choices: reflect the intolerance of those we have labeled our enemies, or reach out to them despite the fact they slap our hands away. The first would be a political response; the second would be a religious response. In America, which has prompted more positive change: religion (abolitionist movement; civil rights movement) or politics? Would it help here to mention that Sunday School began, not as a time for churches to teach children doctrine, but as an attempt to educate poor children who otherwise had no schooling at all? "The idea of the Sunday School caught the imagination of a number involved in evangelical churches and groupings." (although 'evangelical' there does not mean what we mean today; that's another problem of not discussing our religion in public). The religious response of intolerance that has come to exemplify the followers of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson is not the only religious response possible, and it is time for those who are religious, whatever their belief system, to be more public in support of tolerance.

There are many reasons to tolerate religion in the public squre; not least of which is, it is already there. As I mentioned before, it was religiously motivated people who started, and continued, the movement against slavery. Schools for freed slaves were started by religious people. The civil rights movement was primarily a movement of religious people. We ignore that history at our peril. And the more we decry religion in the public sphere, the more we cede that sphere to the intolerantly religious. And in doing that, we all lose our public space as a space for all persons.

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