Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

06/26/2008 (7:08 am)

Hating Evangelicals in the Public Square

No sooner do I take on the academic distaste for Evangelicals than the same topic pops up in the political square. How convenient.

Yesterday a small brouhaha erupted when James Dobson, radio host of Focus on the Family, did a little critique of a speech by Barack Obama about religion in the public square. The speech was an old one; it had been delivered in June of 2006, as the keynote address to a religious conference called “Call to Renewal,” put on by the politically progressive religious group Sojourners.

Here’s an uncharacteristically fair report on the discussion from Jake Tapper of ABC News:

You can hear Dobson’s entire critique, and Obama’s speech in its entirety, here at CitizenLink.com, FOTF’s political action blog. Dobson’s radio portion is the small bar just above Obama’s picture. You have to sit through Dobson’s tribute to Tim Russert, but that’s actually very nice.

Now, I’ve never thought Dr. James Dobson, child psychologist, was particularly cogent on political subjects, and I don’t think he makes his case correctly on this one. (His books on child-rearing are another matter; I used them, and they were outstanding.) However, he was right to be incensed by Obama’s faux libertarianism, and whether he makes his point well or not, he’s on the side of the angels this time.

The speech was standard Obama fare, solidly Progressive while couched in the language of conciliation. Obama fancies himself a negotiator and reconciliation counselor, and often offers advice for keeping the conversation civil, but his terms usually favor the left. It’s a couple of those moments that agitated Dr. Dobson, enough to make him respond 2 years after the fact.

Objectionable point number 1:

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.

There’s a lot for an Evangelical to get agitated about here, but I’ll focus on just one.

For a conciliator, Obama makes a huge goof by comparing Dobson with the Reverend Al Sharpton. This would be like saying to a Democrat, in the context of explaining why we don’t have political classes in public schools, “Whose politics should we teach? Yours, or David Duke’s?” The implication, of course, would be that the Democrat represents on the left what David Duke represents on the right. Do you suppose the Daily Kos Kids might have a few choice words about that comparison?

Nobody objects to Al Sharpton because of his religion; we don’t even know what his theology is, nor do we care. Al Sharpton is a professional racist. He runs a protection racket; he routinely hustles money out of legitimate businesses by threatening them with racial demonstrations if they don’t contribute to his organization. He deliberately inflames tense situations by invoking race in order to garner attention for himself. Some of his attention games have resulted in riots, and in innocent people being killed; others, in people having to fight in court and the public square for their liberty. You may disagree with Dr. Dobson’s politics, but the man has never in his entire life engaged in the sort of sleazy, self-aggrandizing demagoguery for which Sharpton is known. The comparison is insulting and inappropriate.

Other avenues Dobson approaches here are valid as well: Obama’s application of Bible verses are distorted horribly, and then he rubs them in with “folks haven’t been reading their bibles.” Obama invokes multiculturalism inaccurately; a huge majority of citizens in the US self-identify as Christian, whereas no other group Obama mentions even represents double digits in the American population, except for non-believers.

My own take is that Obama’s point illustrates why there should be no public schools. If parents could send their children to the sectarian school of their choice, every parent would be satisfied with the religious content, every right would be protected, and every point of view adequately represented. It’s the act of the public providing universal schooling that creates the conflict in educational content, not the fact of sectarian opinions. I personally favor a completely private system, with public funding only for the very poorest students, but given the reality of near-universal public funding, I favor vouchered education that includes sectarian choices.

Obama’s offending comments, take 2:

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.

I have to admit that this is one topic on which I’m apt to throw my equanimity to the winds and simply explode. You want to hear me get steamed? Suggest that democracy requires that I stifle my religious opinions, like Obama does here.

Obama simply does not understand the American political system. And this putz wants to be President.

If Obama were simply offering avuncular wisdom, it would be fine: “You know, if you want to have more impact on people who disagree with you, you’ll do better if you take this approach.” Yes, for a religious person to have a wider appeal, this is sensible advice.

That’s not how it’s phrased, though, and it’s not what’s being said. Obama says democracy depends on such an approach. If Obama was simply giving advice, the consequence of not following it would be just “You’ll not be heard.” By contrast to that, he seems to be saying that the failure to put religious points in secular terms somehow damages the body politic — that it hurts us all. The reason he’s rapproaching Dobson thus is not that Dobson is hurting himself and not being heard; quite the contrary. Obama knows Dobson is being heard, by lots of people, and he wishes he wasn’t. His point is just another attempt by a leftist to get his opponent to shut up.

No agent can be prevented from engaging legally in free, political advocacy on the basis of the terms of that advocacy. Frank religious talk is protected, and, contrary to ridiculous readings of the establishment clause, there is not a single word of the Constitution that prohibits citizens from advocating their favored policies in the starkest religious terms possible (in fact, not a single word of the Constitution prohibits any citizen from doing anything; the Constitution limits the government, not the people).

I, personally, have no problem couching my own political points of view in secular terms, but let me be clear: I don’t do it because democracy demands it, I do it because I think it’s more effective. If Evangelicals want to advocate some policies publicly by saying “We believe it because it’s biblical,” that is their right, and no defender of liberty has any basis for silencing them. If Dobson cared to form policy on the basis of casting lots at midnight and barking at the moon during the vernal equinox at the center of Stonehenge, and then advocated it publicly on that basis, that is his right. If he can garner enough votes to pass his measure stated in those terms, he wins — as he should. There is no obligation to avoid religious language in political advocacy, none whatsoever. Religious people have every bit as much right to participate in the political process as anybody else, using any terms they choose, and any attempt to make them tone down their religious talk is tyranny, pure and simple.

Obama’s response, noted in the ABC News clip at the top of this post, was typical: “He must have misunderstood, or he’s just trying to score political points.” Jim Wallis of Sojourners takes a similar swipe at Dobson, calling his objection disingenuous. Wallis is wrong; Dobson is not being disingenuous, he’s heard this same attempt to get him to shut up thousands of times before, so he recognizes it when he hears it. He responded honestly to precisely what Obama meant. Obama’s point is the point of tyrants; Dobson correctly defends his own liberty, with my wholehearted approval.

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