Barack Obama – Religion And Politics

It may sound strange to start off by saying that I don’t think I understand enough to fully discuss Barack Obama’s Keynote Address on religion and politics last week – but it is the truth. I suspect some of the debate about Obama’s words involves people talking past each other – such as secularists who believe there should be no establishment of religion in America with an emphasis on “no establishment” and secularists who believe there should be no establishment of religion in America with an emphasis on “religion” arguing about secularists who believe in the establishment of no religion in America – when the first two are largely on the same side.* In my own limited experience in DuPage I have encountered activists fitting all three descriptions. In one poignant experience I had an evangelical Lindy Scott supporter (6th Congressional District) thank me after a debate I ran for being fair to Lindy (who is an evangelical) – and the supporter said it in a way indicating his sincere surprise.

I have now read Barack Obama’s Call to Renewal Keynote Address a few times. Each time I read it with mixed thoughts and feelings. It is a subject I am still working out. Hopefully what I lack in comprehensive argument I will make up for by pointing to the important ideas of others in my reactions below.

One of the first things I thought of while reading Obama’s speech is what my professor at Rutgers, Cary McWilliams, referred to as “The Alternative Tradition” in American politics. It is well worth reading and while I don’t think that Barack Obama was making the same argument, there are certainly strains of The Alternative Tradition ideas in his speech:

“Each day, it seems, thousands of Americans are going about their daily round – dropping off the kids at school, driving to the office, flying to a business meeting, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets – and coming to the realization that something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough.

They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They’re looking to relieve a chronic loneliness, a feeling supported by a recent study that shows Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than ever before. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them – that they are not just destined to travel down a long highway towards nothingness.
And perhaps it was out of this intimate knowledge of hardship, the grounding of faith in struggle, that the church offered me a second insight: that faith doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts. You need to come to church precisely because you are of this world, not apart from it….”

I also thought about professor McWilliams’ suggestion (elsewhere) that offering Bible as literature classes in schools would be a positive development in America.** The reflective thought one gets (or can get) from studying the Bible (and I would guess this true of other religious texts) is positive for our democracy. It is in Obama’s word the “doubts” and coming to terms with the human limitations, seeming contradictions and other lessons that provide growth and a form of preparation suitable for American democratic politics. In an era of ‘instant intelligence’ and a culture of ‘unlimited possibilities’ something cultivating wisdom and recognizing limits deserves a seat at the American table. Reading the Bible would also have the positive effect of making Americans better able to comprehend their country’s history and literature.

I also thought about civil religion and communitarian thought – I am an expert in neither, but have read and thought a little about both.

None of this addresses Barack Obama’s strategic position on Democrats not ceding religion to Republicans, but I suspect in some ways this may be the least controversial aspect of his discussion. Most would likely argue that if more people want to enact more pro-environmental policies that progressives should encourage and welcome their help. I certainly do. I imagine the same could be said for most if not all policy positions.

There is a standard saying in “polite” company that the two subjects you don’t talk about are religion and politics. It may be that America today would be better off, morally, socially and materially, if we were less polite in that respect. If Barack Obama can forward the discussion of American religion and politics, one that involves in his words “a sense of proportion” where “context matters” then I welcome it. Like all other conversations one need not agree with all that others have to say to participate – nor do you need to agree with others to learn from them. I look forward to the education.


* I acknowledge a difference of opinion between the linked blog entries – but I think this disagreement hides what is really a fundamental agreement between Eric and Larry (ArchPundit). After improper and likely illegal relationships between Republicans and the religious right on the one hand, and the feeling of religious believers that popular culture and politics slights them on the other, it is easy to understand where each “side” is coming from. When one looks at the fundamentals, however, of appealing to reason in political debate whatever else (including religion) may inform it and against the establishment of state religion in the United States, I believe Eric and Larry are on the same side.

** It is important to make clear the distinction between reading the Bible and practicing religion. As David Plotz’s recent example at Slate Magazine shows – not everyone who considers themselves religious (here in the Judeo-Christian tradition) has read the Bible, and not all people who have read the Bible consider themselves religious.

Comments 1

  1. Greg Smith wrote:

    I, too, must confess to not being an expert on the subject of religion and public life but I am glad to see someone else exploring the topic as well (actually a few people counting yourself and Sen. Obama). I finally read the Keynote Address today after hearing so much about it for the last week. Much of what was said about the speech was, I believe, unfair and missing the point. Obama was pointing to the similarities between Americans and saying “enough” to those who wish to use politics as a wedge issue. I don’t know what the answer is when it comes to the relationship between religion, public life and morality. But I’m sure of the fact that only one party should have a monopoly on the conversation. Not all on the left will be happy with this fact but we need to at least begin the discussion and stop pretending there is no elephant in the room.

    In addition, I highly recommend “Habits of the Heart” by Robert Bellah (you linked to his site in the post) for an in-depth look at religion’s impact on American society as well as the larger issue of individualism and how it affects “civic virtue,” as he puts it. This book was required this past semester in my political science course and was an invaluable resource in continuing the never-ending journey toward answering the question “What is politics?” I’m eagerly awaiting my fall course in Foundations of American Political Thought with the same professor in the hope that I can absorb as much of his knowledge on the subject, much like your experience with Professor McWilliams at Rugters.

    Posted 06 Jul 2006 at 10:17 pm