Well . . I haven’t been able to spend the time I have wanted to on this post. I am in the process of moving, quitting my job, and taking up a new career. All of this has led to a pretty chaotic life at the Canada house. Recently, my friend, Ed Gilbreath, also gave me a shout out on his Reconciliation Blog, which said that I had been bloggin’ about the Dobson/Obama issues. While this is partially true, I wanted to stay honest and complete my thoughts about Obama, Dobson, and Biblical interpretation in the public square. This will probably encompass several posts and go well beyond when Dobson’s comments are in the public eye, but regardless, thinking about Obama’s use of religion is important, so here ya go.
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I have been marinating over the controversy surrounding James Dobson’s comments about Obama’s theological views as well as his interpretation of the constitution. I am not going to talk much about my interpretation of the constitution – that differs than both Dobson and Obama’s view. What I am going to try to do is speak on the validity of Obama’s Biblical perspective as well as a critic of how the Bible is often considered in the public and political sphere.
I had to re-watch and re-read the “Call to Renewal” speech that Obama gave. Although I remember seeing it in 2006, I wanted to reorient myself to Obama’s words and to also consider my thoughts now that Obama is a presumptive democratic presidential candidate. As I watched the speech, many of my feelings remain the same. I really enjoy hearing Obama speak – who wouldn’t, he is an incredibly talented orator-, but there are certain comments that I found difficult to digest.
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.
As I break this down there are some things that don’t settle well with me. I begin at the way the words are set up (Normally, I understand that sometimes people make statements that suggest things that they shouldn’t suggest, but Obama is an orator and a wordsmith at that. I don’t believe that he lackadaisically put words together, they have intention both in aesthetic and in meaning). Obama sets a comparison of Dobson’s conservative theology and Sharpton’s liberal theology. Obama cleverly uses figures from each theological camp rather than naming the actual camp, thus, not overtly alienating anyone in his comments. However, in nuance he does belittle the conservative establishment and shows his alliance with a more liberal theological an ilk. Obama uses the Old Testament and questions the literalism and relevance of Old Testament scripture and asserts the supremacy of the New Testament. In this, Obama criticizes those in the conservative camps that are more Biblically literal – conveniently ignoring that most theologians, all over the spectrum, believe that these Old Testament passages were intentionally application in the ancient Israelite context, not modern Christianity. After his subtle criticism, Obama affirms those that are more liberal. Obama brings up the Sermon on the Mount, which isn’t solely liberal, but is embraced by my more liberal sects within Christianity.
But this really is a minor point in my frustrations. The issue that draws my largest complainant comes after that when Obama asks, “Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy?” What I object with is the fact that he makes a claim (even if not realizing it) that any single passage should guide our public policy and further that the Bible can be divided into sections that are disconnected to one another. Obama is not the only public figure that does this. Many who are Christian (both on the right and left side of politics) don’t really think about the Bible as a complete book, they piecemeal it together.
Obama misses that Leviticus and Deuteronomy, are specific books that outline how the Israelite nation should live under the Mosaic covenant. These passages do not translate unchanged to Christianity but the morals and objectives behind these rules do. At the time shellfish was unclean, and eating them risked a lot of health problems, the point was that God wanted them to care for the bodies which he had given them.
Obama’s inclusion of slavery is complex in that Biblical slavery was also not the same slavery that most American’s immediately think about. Biblical slavery was typically – especially in the Israelite context – not to be used as extortion and belittlement, but rather as a mode of justice. People became slaves because they committed a crime, lost a war, owed a debt they couldn’t repay, etc.
The Bible is not supposed to be divided into passages that we accept and those that we do not, and into passages that guide us as passages that do not. The Bible is a complete and compatible book. The mystery and dedication to living biblically, is not simply choosing sections that fall most congruently with your own personal beliefs, follow the flow of popular or budding social sentiment, or has historically fell into one’s denominational anchor. No, the difficulty and dedication that is involved with living biblically is found in trying to holistically understand how the entire bible holistically effects and influences your entire life.
“So before we get carried away, let’s read our bibles. Folks haven’t been reading their bibles”. This comment really disturbs me. Obama suggests that conservative Christians and those Christians that support war and earnestly have different theological and biblically influenced political opinions aren’t reading their Bibles or at the least aren’t reading it correctly. Although Obama claims that he wants unity and togetherness, his comments are ones that create distention amongst Christians.
Now, I don’t think it is wrong to say that your belief is right and another belief is wrong, but if Obama is presenting himself as one that promotes collectivity, his words should be more sensitive, especially because he finds faults in those who use this language but who happen to be on the opposite theological and/or biblical perspective. It is important that we leave this quote in context. There is nothing inherently wrong with claiming that someone is not reading their Bible (or not understanding what the Bible is saying), but the fact that he said this directly following setting up the conservative/liberal juxtapositions I commented on earlier makes this statement a decisive “I am right, you are wrong”.
I am incredibly enthused that there is a presidential candidate that is willing to include those from the evangelical and broader Christian community – though I was also excited about that aspect of Bush in 2000 and now I am not so happy. What I fear is that, at this point, Obama’s engagement of Evangelicals seems political. Obama has learned from the changing Christian atmosphere in the past couple years. He has seen and felt the exodus of Christians, specifically evangelicals from president Bush . He has also seen “evangelical leftists” and “evangelical centrists” such as Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, and Ron Sider (to name a few) become more prevalent. Obama knows that American evangelicals are primed for a candidate that expresses something other than Bush Evangelicalism, therefore that is type of candidate he wants to be.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that Obama is above the lure of courting religious folks in order to get a vote. Obama knows that he can get support from leftist and centrist evangelicals. He realized this in 2006 when he gave his “Call to Renewal” speech and still realizes it now as he pursues the presidency. I believe Obama is very intelligent and strategic. Although he is in the Christian faith, he is a politician who knows how to work the votes. (I would argue that Bush’s election, especially in 2004 was because he was exalted by the Christian Right and other conservative Christians. Obama is taking the opposite position where he courting the Christian Left ad liberal Christians)
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.
I agree with Obama that faith should be present in the public square, but I don’t think that he is original by saying that those of faith need to translate their arguments in to universal values. While one can consider the overwhelmingly religious overtones of Focus on the Family and The Moral Majority, what is important to note is that when actually trying to get policy passed most conservative Christian groups – whom Obama is responding to – actually do intensive research and make logical and societal arguments before or in replacement of biblical arguments. That doesn’t mean that they back off of their religious beliefs, or that they don’t ever use religious specific language. They continue to do such, both because they are being honest to themselves and because they are attempting to resonate with other Christians in America. I don’t believe that this has always come off the correct way, understand that certain individuals put their foot in their mouth, and realize that some leaders create a blur because they try to live simultaneously in pulpit and podium. But that isn’t the point. The point is when making arguments, conservative Christian groups often do employ a universal morality and logic
Conversely, the Evangelical left, which many of those at “Call to Renewal” were apart of (especially Jim Wallis who is perhaps the most prominent leader of the Evangelical left) uses much of the same language as the Evangelical right. They use the Bible as their primary influence (not logic). But currently the Biblical arguments – presented in publicly in both Biblical and logical ways- that the Evangelical left is making have shaken things up in society and have found a base. This makes them seem as if they are reaching outside Christianity to those of all faiths and beliefs. The Evangelical left popularity within culture and politics is more of the newness of its prominence rather than the presentation of its positions Both groups use Biblical language and logic in their arguments.
Early on in his speech Obama refers to Martin Luther King Jr. and how he brought his Christianity to the public square. This is of course true, but as I thought about it I realized that Martin Luther King Jr. did not lose his Christian rhetoric when attempting to unify people and fight for freedom. Instead his Christianity was in the forefront of his arguments. It wasn’t that he was trying to ,,necessarily, find a moral point on which everyone agreed, or a “least common denominator” as Dobson said in critic of Obama’s approach. What King did is speak biblical truth about justice and people realized that it was Truth. I would argue that non-Christians related with King because “All Truth is God’s Truth” and arguing something from a correct biblical perspective is not only resonating with Christians, but a deeper, universal moral underpinning (we must also keep in perspective that it wasn’t just the southern Christian church opposing King and that those encompassed in Christianity are not always Christians).
It was fascinating to read the Christianity Today article in which they explain how Bush never wielded his Evangelical Christianity during his policy making and based his arguments on a broader moral precedent.
This approach is probably good politics. Indeed, one politician not commonly associated with Obama already practices this strategy. You won’t hear from President George W. Bush direct appeals to United Methodist Church teachings to justify his opposition to same-sex marriage or abortion. Speaking in 2004 in support of a Federal Marriage Amendment, Bush said, “The union of a man and woman is the most enduring human institution, honoring — honored and encouraged in all cultures and by every religious faith. Ages of experience have taught humanity that the commitment of a husband and wife to love and to serve one another promotes the welfare of children and the stability of society.”
Signing the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, Bush likewise declined to cite chapter and verse. “By acting to prevent this practice, the elected branches of our government have affirmed a basic standard of humanity, the duty of the strong to protect the weak,” Bush said. “The wide agreement amongst men and women on this issue, regardless of political party, shows that bitterness in political debate can be overcome by compassion and the power of conscience.
That was an education to me, although when I read it I realized that is how I heard Bush argue for his policies. Just as most, I got caught up into what was being presented about Bush rather than what Bush was actually doing. The Evangelical Christian – United Methodist – element, which probably personally drove his convictions, was brought up by either the media, or conservative Christians who agreed with President Bush, not by Bush.
I like Obama, but I don’t think that he is revolutionary in his approach to Christianity and politics and unfortunately for me he seems like he is courting the religious constituency – though a different group than recent -just as other presidential candidates have.