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This I Can Go With

November 14th, 2008

A lot of non-theistic or theo-phobic Democrats have been kind of worried about Obama and his religion; some felt that he was putting on a show, and others were concerned that his support of faith-based organizations signaled that he was a closet Christian waiting to continue Bush’s legacy of merging church and state. I think both were wrong.

From an interview Obama gave in March 2004, before his famous speech at the Democratic convention–this is pretty much what I want to hear from a Christian President of the United States:

Alongside my own deep personal faith, I am a follower, as well, of our civic religion. I am a big believer in the separation of church and state. I am a big believer in our constitutional structure. I mean, I’m a law professor at the University of Chicago teaching constitutional law. I am a great admirer of our founding charter, and its resolve to prevent theocracies from forming, and its resolve to prevent disruptive strains of fundamentalism from taking root ion this country.

As I said before, in my own public policy, I’m very suspicious of religious certainty expressing itself in politics.

Now, that’s different from a belief that values have to inform our public policy. I think it’s perfectly consistent to say that I want my government to be operating for all faiths and all peoples, including atheists and agnostics, while also insisting that there are values that inform my politics that are appropriate to talk about.

A standard line in my stump speech during this campaign is that my politics are informed by a belief that we’re all connected. That if there’s a child on the South Side of Chicago that can’t read, that makes a difference in my life even if it’s not my own child. If there’s a senior citizen in downstate Illinois that’s struggling to pay for their medicine and having to chose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer even if it’s not my grandparent. And if there’s an Arab American family that’s being rounded up by John Ashcroft without the benefit of due process, that threatens my civil liberties.

I can give religious expression to that. I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper, we are all children of God. Or I can express it in secular terms. But the basic premise remains the same. I think sometimes Democrats have made the mistake of shying away from a conversation about values for fear that they sacrifice the important value of tolerance. And I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive.

This is not someone who says that god told him to invade Iraq; this is not someone who is trying to make religious dogma into law, whether it comes from true belief or pandering to a constituency. This is not someone who believes that you can only be moral if you are religious. This is someone who understands and upholds the Separation of Church and State.

Bush, I would be suspicious of, precisely because of his record: he was unabashedly willing to turn Christian law into U.S. law, Christian dogma into federal policy. When conservative Christian politicians talk about faith and religious values “informing” their official actions, they usually mean something else. Even when they pretend that religion is just showing them a moral way, the end result is usually an unacceptable intrusion of religious rules into public law. That’s how we get the whole abortion debate; that’s how we get bad family planning rules; that’s how we get judges willing to allow courtrooms to become display rooms for religious ornamentation. This is more than religion “informing” policy and law, it is religion dictating policy and law.

But what Obama is talking about is something else. He’s not talking about transferring the end product of religious faith into public policy and law; he’s talking about using the basic moral lessons, the beginning of religious faith–not the church doctrine–acting as a guide to making decisions. There’s a huge difference there.

For example, “love thy neighbor” is a moral principle; it tells us to show compassion to others, a general rule which addresses our own actions and from where our moral direction should come. But “homosexuality is bad” is something completely different: it is not a moral principle directing our own actions, it is a political interpretation of scripture written in primitive times, which proscribes the actions of others. Not a direction, but a conclusion. What Obama refers to as “religious certainty.” Night and day.

Obama’s take is the former: to learn lessons from the Christian faith which set a moral compass, which speak to our own feelings and compassion, which guide our hearts. This is completely different from someone taking the end product of organized religion and its political process and trying to implement it as the law which all must obey. Night and day.

I am an agnostic with leanings toward Deism, and I fear the marriage of church and state as a prelude to theocratic fascism. This is not to say that I hate Christianity or even dislike it. Nor that I need to see organized religion banned from the Earth. I simply have seen too much of the worst of Christianity applied to public policy and law and know that the consequences can only get worse if such continues.
What I do not fear are Christian principles–if they are indeed Christian principles; but not old-testament principles excused by a profession of the love of Christ. Yes, if they are a call to self-discipline and spiritual growth; but no, not the application of the political will of a stagnant “religious” body more intent on enforcing rigid dogma based on fear and hate than it is on nurturing spiritual growth and compassion. There are people who follow the teachings and traditions of Christ, and then there are people who dress themselves in the splendor of his clothing and then go out with picket signs saying “God Hates Fags.”

As I have said before, if Christianity lived up to its name and held above all else the words and actions of Christ, the world would be a lot better place. But too many Christians do nothing of the sort; despite professing Christ as their redeemer, their lord and savior, or their favorite philosopher, they base their moral compass and their corporeal actions upon the more primitive and even feral guidelines of the old testament. Instead of turning the other cheek, they want an eye for an eye; instead of “he who is without sin,” they prefer to smite the wicked, with themselves being the judge of who is wicked and who is righteous. But it need not even be new vs. old testament–but rather simply following the spirit, the true philosophy, that being one of morality turned inward instead of outward, of showing compassion and assuming spiritual responsibility for one’s own self. You just don’t see that too often.

I suppose that this dovetails with the Republican mindset, where you have people professing an undying love of America but who clearly hate the people living in it; these “Christians” profess a love of Christ but turn away from him when it comes to his clearly expressed words and actions. It’s about professing love for something but rejecting it in fact, professing humility but acting arrogantly.

That is why, despite Obama’s history, despite his late decision to become a churchgoer, despite his exposure to other faiths and his tolerance for them, Obama strikes me as more of a genuine Christian than any of the fundamentalists of the religious right who praise Jesus but self-righteously practice intolerance, suspicion, and hate.

Obama, however–he’s a Christian I can believe in. And, I believe, a model for those who think faith should be a part of the political arena. As with all my other beliefs, my agnostic side tells me that I have to wait and see what the facts bear out. But as much as I can have faith, in this matter I do.

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  1. Ben
    November 18th, 2008 at 15:41 | #1

    Excellent post

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