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 saw it 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.
hear this constant refrain from our critics that Democrats don’t stand
for anything,” Obama said. “That’s really unfair. We do stand for
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.
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.