Monday, April 28, 2008

Call to Renewal

Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn't the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn't want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.

Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.

And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our bibles. Folks haven't been reading their bibles.

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. 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. 

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.

That is an excerpt from a keynote delivered in June 2006 to the Sojourners at their Call to Renewal Conference, given by Senator Barack Obama. Video in five parts starting here. Note that this was seven or eight months before he declared his run for President - less than a year and a half into his term. He was still just the junior Senator from Illinois. It is also long before he started catching flack-by-association from the media over Jeremiah Wright.

I heard this address as a podcast not long after he gave it - in the middle of June, 2006. This was one of the orations by him that convinced me that this man must be President someday. His conciliatory message, his ability to travel far and wide among various groups and points of view, and his belief (and ability to articulate this belief) that the United States is not merely Red states and Blue states - these are things that the country is in desperate need of. There can be no progress made from the politics of division. 'My way or the highway" - especially when the speaker is the majority - is quite simply un-American in its most fundamental sense. Could one have expected such a speech from Senators Clinton or McCain?

1 comment:

Mark Alvarez said...

Amen, Brother Alex!