Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Non, je ne regrette rien?

I should probably stay out of this, but I have to ask: "Really?" Atrios found only one thing to agree with in this commentary about Barack Obama's speech?

Maybe this part makes him uncomfortable:

Obama's speech, delivered to an audience of the frustrated religious left, was not a tactical plan for electoral success in November or in 2008. It wasn't a "We are too religious!" rebuttal to Republicans. It was, for the first time in modern memory, an affirmative statement from a Democrat about "how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy," as Obama put it. John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Mario Cuomo in 1984 each gave seminal speeches on faith and Democratic politics, but they were primarily concerned with defining their own faith—Catholicism—in terms of what it was not.

Obama's goal was different and larger. The speech worked partly because the senator speaks with easy-going confidence about his faith, weaving spiritual phrases into his speech without needing to announce them to his audience as so many of his colleagues do ("This debate about tax cuts reminds me of that verse from the Book of Hebrews …"). But more important, he doesn't recount the story of his conversion in order to establish his religious bona fides; he does it in the service of a broader argument. And he doesn't defend progressives' claim to religion; he asserts the responsibilities that fall to them as religious people. Americans are looking, Obama said, for a "deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country." He started that conversation. A few others are joining in. It's time for everyone else to catch up.
After all, all political speeches in this post-Rovian age are supposed to be about bashing your opponents, right? Or is this the problem?

If it's hard to imagine a speech like this from George W. Bush, he who in a notorious 2004 press conference could not name a single mistake he'd made, that's the point. Obama used the anecdotes to set up a larger theme, about the nature of faith and doubt. And whatever else pundits and bloggers say about the speech, that may be Obama's lasting message and impact.

For the past six years, the most prominent Christian in America has been the president. His belief is not of the "God said it. I believe it. That settles it," sort that fundamentalists embrace. Rather, Bush subscribes to a syllogistic doctrine of presidential infallibility: God works through Christians; I am a Christian; I have decided to do X; therefore, X is God's will.

Bush is known to start each day reading a devotional from My Utmost for His Highest, a collection of essays by 19th-century Scottish minister Oswald Chambers. As Bob Wright explained in the New York Times a few years ago, Chambers had a very simple—some might say comforting—view of divine will. "The basic idea" Wright wrote, "is that once you surrender to God, divine guidance is palpable." The only questioning involved is whether one carries out God's will, not whether one correctly interprets it.
I don't know about you, but that line of thinking scares me alot. While I certainly don't agree with the conclusion, I do agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Sullivan's analysis.

So maybe it was the opening?

I don't know about you, but I'm not accustomed to hearing politicians admit to making mistakes. At least not without a smoking-gun document, talkative intern, or FBI wire in the picture, and sometimes not even then. And yet that's precisely what Sen. Barack Obama did in his much-talked-about and just-as-much-misunderstood speech about religion and politics last week (you can listen to it here). Amid the uproar about whether Obama was using the occasion to scold fellow Democrats or to advance a possible 2008 candidacy, it's been overlooked that he started and ended the address with incidents he regrets from his political career.
As I argued before, I still think that speech was about diversity of religious opinion in the public square. Which means, yes, there must be religious opinions in the public square. What was that Atrios posted recently about "intolerant atheists"?

"Heh", indeed.

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