Thursday, August 30, 2007

Obama's Solution to Faith and Politics

The intersection of faith and politics is something that is always discussed, and every four years can become something of a hot topic. Barak Obama has made some very interesting comments regarding his views of faith and politics. They are thoughtful, not normal democratic rhetoric, and deserve some interaction. Now in my comments I will ignore his small discussion of his own conversion that mentions nothing of Jesus Christ, sin, and salvation. The avoidance of the words sin and salvation are interesting, but not really the point of this discussion. Instead, I will focus on his discussion of the role of faith and political decision making.

Obama tries to find a balance for Christian morality in "our modern, pluralistic democracy." Further, he tries to find a place for it in the Democratic Party. Obama makes a few admissions that I find startling from any politician and amazing to be coming from a Democrat at all. First and foremost he states,

I also believe that when a gang-banger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody disrespected him, we've got a moral problem. There's a hole in that young man's heart - a hole that the government alone cannot fix.

To that I give a hearty Amen! The government cannot fix the problem of sin. One could argue whether or not the party of expanding the powers of the federal government (think federally funded Midnight Basketball) truly follows this belief, but specific social policies are not addressed in this speech. More important is his second startling admission.

So 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.

It is good to hear a politician admit the plain truth about laws. They are a codification of morality. Obama admits that, and good for him. He also goes on to advocate allowing Christian to use their religious values in their public life referencing Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and William Jennings Bryan and others. This is a step in the right direction. It is nice to see someone admit clear historical facts and carry them over to today’s conflict between religion and politics. Obama thinks he has solved this conflict with a new solution.

But, Obama’s solution is what gets him into trouble. He maintains that the religious must recognize the new truths of the ‘modern pluralistic democracy.’

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.

This is nothing more than fancy mumbo-jumbo that conflicts with his earlier admission that laws are codified morality. It also will not work in the real world. What universal do people of opposite faiths share? What fellowship does Christ have with Belial? The Temple of God with the Temple of Baal? Or Light with Darkness? Let us just look at a few examples to see exactly how Senator Obama’s solution is a false one.

Homosexual marriage might be an example. What universal can those of different faiths agree upon? Will evolutionists agree with Christians on the principle that they do not produce offspring, and thus should not be allowed to marry? Or will they decide marriage itself is an institution that can evolve? Obama says Christians simply cannot point to their faith and say ‘God created marriage, it is what he says it is.’ Right now all marriage laws are codified Christian morality, but according to Obama that cannot be one of our arguing points. Now we have to find a universal that all agree with. What of the Muslims? They may want the marriage laws changed because it allows only one man to marry one woman. Mormons may also follow the Muslim suit because they wish their standards codified. What common ground is there?

More to the point is abortion. Christians believe life begins at conception, but now have to find an universal principle accessible to all people. Evolutionists often believe infanticide is acceptable because it increases survival possibilities for others. See Peter Singer if you don’t believe me. They would especially want to have abortions in the case of the mentally retarded or physically handicapped because they pollute the gene pool. Muslims do not even think murder is wrong if the person dying is an infidel, so what is the big deal about abortion. In other words there is no common ground here either.

Let us see how this revolutionary principle Obama puts forward plays out in his own thinking. The following is taken from an interview about his position on infanticide because of a bill he opposed while in the Illinois Senate. This quote is explaning the existing Illinois law with regards to children born after a failed abortion.

Obama: On the state level that says if there is a fetus that is determined viable and there has to be a second doctor who assists in determining that that fetus is viable- they are required by current Illinois Law to provide that fetus with assistance to make sure that they can live outside the womb. The law already exists. That’s not what Senator O’Malley’s law was about. What Senator O’Malley’s law was about was identifying all fetuses as human beings as a way of going after the right of women to choose to have an abortion pre- viability and that’s the reason that I, like a number of other senators, including Republican senators, voted either present or against it.

Note here what Senator Obama has done. He has found his universal principle to which all can agree. What is it? It is apparently refusing to recognize a baby as a human being or even a baby, but rather simply calling it a fetus. Notice that the fetus is not internal to a mother in her womb, but rather this is an already born baby that was supposed to have died in the womb, but for some reason did not. Senator Obama refuses to recognize that the child born is anything other than a fetus, and it is not even worth saving unless a second doctor comes along and pronounces it a child. So, in finding a universal point that people of all faiths and non-faiths can agree upon, he comes up supporting calling born children fetuses until multiple doctors decree otherwise. I am not sure about anyone else’s experience in giving birth, but I have not seen multiple doctors for any of my three kids, and I bet multiple doctors never work in abortion clinics. Thus, this law is a way to ensure botched abortions still end in death. Yet, Obama finds it the best way to go about things, and poor Senator O’Malley is the transgressor for trying to get personhood given to all children. When is a fetus a person in Obama’s mind?

If you are like me you are probably thinking that Mr. Obama’s Christian informed position sounds an awful lot like abortion on demand because babies are not people. You are probably also asking yourself exactly what did the evolutionists like Peter Singer give up to compromise with the people faith who oppose evolution in Obama’s position? It sounds an awful lot like translating the Christian faith into universal principles that all can access is just a new way to say the same old thing. ‘Leave your faith at the door when it comes to making laws.’

Obama understands laws are codified morality, he just refuses to codified a Christian morality instead choosing for the lowest common denominator morality. Obama has identified the problem by seeing this is a culture war about whose morality will govern the land, he just comes to the wrong solution. Obama’s solution is nothing less than a complete surrender. He sounds a lot like he is taking a new approach to religion and politics, but in reality he just found a new way to couch the old message of keeping the Christian faith out of politics.


Jay said...

I'm glad you found Obama's speech worthy of interaction. I'd like to comment on a few of your points and try to dig a little deeper into what both of you are saying.

I think your focus on the "Democracy demands" passage is right on target. It seems to me that is the key point in the speech. But I disagree with your characterization of it as "mumbo-jumbo" that "conflicts" with Obama's earlier statements about law being codified morality.

Obama does not say that religiously-motivated people have to abandon their morals when they step into the public sphere. Rather, he says, they have to communicate their "values" in a way that people who do not share their specific faith can still understand. So, rather than saying abortion conflicts with RCUS teachings, a religious person should try to explain to everyone why life is so beautiful and valuable, even before birth. I don't think Obama would preclude discussion of specific faith--indeed, he talks about his own faith during the speech. He is simply suggesting, I think, that there must be a broader dialogue among people of different faiths.

Whether you accept this suggestion depends on several things. One of them is your acceptance of the idea that we live in, as Obama puts it, a "modern, pluralistic democracy." Setting aside the potentially pejorative use of the term "modern," and the fine distinctions between a "democracy" and a "republic," I find it hard to disagree with this notion. There may be as big a variety of faiths in the United States today than there were in ancient Rome at the time of Paul. But unlike the citizens of the Roman empire, most of the people in the US are entitled to vote to elect their leaders. If a Christian candidate for office wants to win votes, doesn't he or she have to speak in a language that more people can understand?

Perhaps this all comes back to one's view of common grace. Not all evolutionists believe that abortion, not to mention infanticide, is morally acceptable. I suspect that anyone who has had the experience of being a parent has some inkling of the value of an unborn life. Shouldn't a Christian politician appeal to these people's sense of the value of life, rather than insisting on using "religion-specific" language (as Obama puts it)?

There is a lot more that could be said about all of this, but I'll leave off here and give you a chance to respond. We'll see where it goes from there.

Lee said...


I think Obama’s idea of codified morality and a modern pluralistic democracy are at odds with one another because of the insertion of ‘pluralistic’. Obama does not believe in a modern democracy at all, he only believes in a modern pluralistic democracy. If he believed in a modern democracy then if the Christians got the most votes there is nothing to complain about, nor if the Evolutionists got the most votes. Whoever got the most votes would codify their morality into law. Obama believes laws are codified morality, he just does not think that Christians or any religion ought to be able to codify their morality into law. That is the whole purpose of inserting the ‘pluralistic’ point into his phrase about Democracy.

Pluralistic does not mean ‘lots of different faiths are present’, but rather pluralistic means ‘all faiths are equal. None of them can claim truth’ This is why his pluralistic democracy runs contrary to his codified morality in laws. I think you are misunderstanding Obama. He is not saying you cannot use religious language. In fact, he directly states that we ought to use it and he cites examples such as Martin Luther King Jr. What Obama is saying is that religious minded people ought to make sure they realize pluralism is king and be willing to change their beliefs. Read this from Obama again, I think it is his main point of application.

"This brings me to my second point. 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. . . . Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing."

This is my point about Obama. He sees the problem. Religion does not let you compromise fundamental beliefs, and Obama respects living your life based on such beliefs. However, he thinks that is inappropriate in government. Government should not be based on uncompromising principles. Pluralism. All is equal, and thus there is no basis for anything. In my opinion the Christian Politician does not have to run around saying ‘The Bible says . . .’, but he does have to believe in a ‘higher law’ that is not changeable

Jay said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I think you're right about Obama seeing the problem of religious believers' participation in public life. But I'm not sure you've got him right on pluralism. In opposition to your definition, I found this one in the American Heritage Dictionary: "A condition in which numerous distinct ethnic, religious, or cultural groups are present and tolerated within a society." I could be wrong, but I think that's what Obama means by pluralistic.

In this condition of pluralism, compromise is a necessity because no one group holds a majority. The distinction I think Obama is trying to draw between personal obedience to God and public policy is that you can conform your own life to God's law without passing laws that would require other people to conform their lives to the same law. That does not deny the existence of a higher law, it just denies that the human government should enforce every aspect of it. The hard question for Obama is what parts of God's law should also be codified in the laws of the United States, and what parts can be left to private adherence.

To put it differently, I think Obama would like Christians to say, at least in some cases, "I know that adultery is against God's law, but I do not think it is good public policy for the state of South Dakota to pass a law punishing it." The public policy question takes into account both God's law and the realities of a pluralist democracy.

Lee said...

I think you are wrong about the way Obama is using pluralism for a couple of reasons.

The first is because he is stating that values must be translated to 'universal values' based on 'common aims' and more importantly they must be 'amenable to reason' and 'subject to argument'. In other words, Obama is not saying that your religious values are tolerated. He is saying that religious values must be held as something less than 'reason' and only those things that can be commonly agreed upon are allowed. That seems more like my definition of pluralism that your definition.

Second, if pluralism is toleration of religions then the whole point of his talk goes away. Christians ought to be allowed to do whatever they want. They are tolerated. The same would be true of Islam and Judaism. They can get up and say, 'God told me to outlaw pork chops' because their religious view is tolerated. If enough people hate pork chops and they pass a law outlawing pork chops, then so be it. The whole point of Obama's speech is to say, 'Some aspects of Christianity (or any religion) are not tolerated in government'. Only those things which have universal value to common goals of all are tolerated.

Third, the problem of Christians enforcing their religious code on everyone does not exist. What religious/political leader is calling for adultery to be illegal? What Christian leader is asking that Jesus Christ be the only God allowed in the United States? Who is outlawing Isalm? Who is even trying to require School prayer for all? Not a one. In fact, most of the time those leaders are only asking prayer be tolerated or that their Christian symbols for the holidays be allowed. Not one serious Christian/political leader is asking for every aspect of the Chrsitian moral code to be made into law. Thus, I don't think Obama is making a speech asking Christians to back off their adultery demands or warding off a threat that does not exist.

For those reasons, I think Obama is using pluralism to mean 'no religion has a claim on the truth'.

Jay said...

A few thoughts in response to your points. You may be right, but I don't think it's clear-cut.

(1) Obama isn't saying that religious values must be amenable to reason per se. Rather, he says that "democracy demands" relgious values be translated into "universal values." In other words, if Christians want to participate effectively in a pluralist democracy, i.e., a democracy in which people of many different faiths have equal standing under the law, they must communicate in ways that are understandable to those who do not hold to the truth of the Bible or the teachings of the church. Thus, Obama says, opponents of abortion, if they want their views to prevail in a pluralist democracy, must explain their position in a way "accessible to people of all faiths." This does not mean that all faiths are equally true, just that all have equal power to vote.

(2) I don't think Obama is saying that only some religious values are tolerated. The point of the talk is how Christians can and should participate in politics. Instead of completely rejecting religion and values as a source of policy (as many on the left have done), Obama suggests that religiously motivated people should argue for policy based on their values and beliefs. But if they want to make such arguments in a pluralistic democracy, they should use language that everyone can understand. I don't think that "should" comes from an underlying belief that all religions are equally true. Rather, it comes from the practical necessity of communicating to people who do not share the same beliefs.

(3) In the end, Obama's speech is primarily directed at "progressive" Christians, and even more at atheist/agnostic progressives. He's telling the former not to abandon values language in the public arena, and the latter that they should accept values language, and not view it as the exclusive property of conservatives. So I agree that he's not addressing the fringe conservatives who may want to outlaw adultery. But he's envisioning a world in which all religious believers, conservative or progressive, can say things like "it is wrong to treat life in the womb like it is less valuable," or "it is wrong to treat the life of a poor person like it is less valuable." This is a step forward, in my view, from the world in which all public policy must be justified by some sort of economic or empirical analysis (as now happens quite often).

Lee said...

I think our main disagreement is about how Obama is using the word 'pluralistic'. If he is using the phrase 'a pluralistic democaracy demands' in your way, then perhaps Obama is saying something new. But I also think if he is using pluralistic to mean simply tolerated and treated equally, then his speech has no real point. Christians would not have to translate their values to sway others, they simply would have to out vote others. I also think if he means a tolerant democracy then he has no need to bring up the 1st Amendment, which he does in his speech. I think the evidence points to a use of pluralistic to mean 'no religion has a claim on truth', which gives his other suggestions a much more sinister and traditional flavor.