December 7, 2006
Obama's Religious Challenge
— Jerome Eric Copulsky
Last Friday, Barack Obama, the charismatic junior senator from Illinois and possible Democratic presidential hopeful, made news by speaking at an AIDS conference at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, one of the flagships of contemporary evangelicalism. To an audience of more than 2,000 evangelical leaders, the senator spoke movingly of his experiences in Africa, and set forth his vision for AIDS prevention and care in terms shaped decidedly by his Christian faith. Although Obama received a standing ovation, his invitation to Saddleback was met with hostility by some conservative Christians, who rebuked Warren for sharing his pulpit with a supporter of abortion rights.
Senator Obama's appearance at one of the most "mega" of American megachurches and his emphasis on his own religious convictions is not surprising. Back in June, in a spirited address to "Call to Renewal," a progressive faith-based movement, Obama testified to his own conversion and faith. Complaining that for too long Democrats have been uncomfortable with the conversation about religion, "fearful of offending anyone" or "dismiss[ing] religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant," Obama called for progressives "to acknowledge the power of faith in people's lives," and to "join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy."
Some Democrats hailed Obama's eloquent display of his faith. Others sharply criticized the senator for giving credence to Republican allegations that the Democrats are allergic to religion, or condemned him for pandering to the prejudices of the religious right, or claimed he was undermining the Democrats' commitment to secular governance.
Such praise and condemnation do not get to the heart of the matter. The question is not whether religious motivations are considered licit in the public sphere. The question is: How does one use religious arguments in the to-and-fro of democratic deliberation and policy formation? And it is here that the senator powerfully illuminates the Democrats', and liberalism's, religion problem.
After recognizing the "crucial role" that the separation of church and state has played in defending American democracy and fostering the vitality of religious practice, Obama remarked, "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 .... Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality."
Obama rehearses a classic modern liberal stratagem to grapple with the persistence of competing "comprehensive theories" or conceptions of "the good": All preferences must be "translated" into a universal, rational idiom if they are to compete in the public square. The invitation to take part in political life is extended to "the religiously motivated," so long as they are willing and able to explain their particular views in terms accessible to those who don't share their revelation or insight. They may not have to "leave their religion at the door," but they will have to bring a translator along with them.
This sort of translation, however, is no easy feat. If one maintains that his religion is universal, he may not see how his values are to be regarded as merely "religion-specific." How do you translate into secular terms religious truths that are not accessible to unassisted or unreformed human reason? If faith has the transformative effect that Obama and others claim that it does, wouldn't some reasons be opaque to those whose hearts have not yet been turned? Who determines the "common reality" that we all share? Indeed, the very notion of a "religiously neutral" common reality is subject to serious contention.
While Obama rightly stresses the political virtue of compromise, appealing to a shared rationality and the necessity of compromises may alleviate, but will not solve, the problems that religion raises for politics. Indeed, Obama's speech exposes the fundamental tension between certain kinds of religious faith and a serious commitment to the untidy practice and inevitable compromises of political life, particularly in an increasingly pluralistic, liberal democracy.
Yet, Obama helps us remember that the distinction that we need to be aware of is not between religious and secular Americans, but between those who believe that political life will require certain concessions and those who have contempt for Enlightenment principles such as religious liberty upon which this nation is founded, who see democratic procedures as only the means by which to impress their vision of the common good on the rest of the country. This is a distinction between different kinds of religious attitudes, which does not conform to a simple distinction between religious conservatives and religious liberals.
Democrats don't need to get more religion; they need to learn more about it. They can present their positions in moral terms, without feeling compelled to cite chapter and verse or make appeals to what Jesus would do. They should know that being more comfortable employing religious language or making public confessions of faith will not persuade those who are already otherwise convinced. And they should recognize that, despite their best efforts, they will still have to contend with their less scrupulous opponents denouncing them as "godless."
Obama, whose appearance before the evangelicals received both applause and fierce condemnations, already knows this.
Senator Obama's "Call to Renewal" keynote address can be found here:
http://obama.senate.gov/speech/060628-call_to_renewal_keynote_address/index.html. His remarks at the 2006 Global Summit on AIDS and the Church at the Saddleback Church Campus can be found here: http://obama.senate.gov/speech/061201-race_against_time_-_world_aids_day_speech/index.html.
Jerome Eric Copulsky is Director and Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies at Virginia Tech.