Remember that young phenom who rocked the 2004 Democratic National Convention with the refrain “we worship an awesome God in the blue states!”? Well, in style, at least, he was nowhere to be found at yesterday’s National Prayer Breakfast. Indeed, listening to President Obama deliver his remarks I was struck by the dirge-like joylessness of his oration.
In substance, however, his speech quietly drove home many of the core-beliefs of the ever-mobilizing, ever-regrouping, ever-coming-in-second-place American Religious Left. Listening carefully to Obama’s sedate address, one could detect a rather tenacious, albeit sometimes disheveled, defense of the principles that Progressives of Faith live by:
We are not separationist secularists: The president has been distancing himself from separationist secularism since as far back as The Audacity of Hope. And he did so again yesterday when he observed: “I am reminded that faith and values play an enormous role in motivating us to solve some of our most urgent problems . . . we can’t leave our values at the door . . . if we leave our values at the door we abandon the moral glue that has held our country together for centuries.”
And we aren’t the Christian Right either!: Obama has made efforts to reach out to religious conservatives and these have been welcomed as warmly as his endeavor to build bridges with house Republicans. In light of the recent dust-up with the Catholic Church about mandatory coverage for birth control in health plans, I can’t help but wonder if the following aside wasn’t a critique of the right’s will to religious power: “Part of living in a pluralistic society means that our personal religious beliefs alone can’t dictate our response to every challenge we face.”
What ‘war on religion’?: For decades religious conservatives have, somehow, managed to tar religious liberals as anti-religious—a smear that liberals have had the damndest time neutralizing. The idea that the Obama administration is hostile to religion would certainly come as a surprise to the aforementioned separationist secularists. Too, it would seem to contradict the relentlessly faith-friendly tone of his speech on Thursday (not to mention the existence of his Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships). The key for Obama and Progressives of Faith is to shift public perceptions. They must no longer come across as the party of separationism, but as the party of . . . .
Pluralism: For all of his ostentatious references to his “Christian walk” and “finding Christ when I wasn’t even looking for him,” this address was intriguingly ecumenical. Obama’s repeated allusions to his Christian faith did cloud the argument, but the president ultimately managed to draw literal moral equivalences between Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and even, yes, nonbelief (“These values are old and they can be found in many denominations, in many faiths among many believers and among many nonbelievers”). Just as White Conservative Evangelicals understood that political power could be gained by engaging in “co-belligerency” with traditionalist Catholics, Mormons, and Jews, religious progressives will need to forge their own ecumenical coalitions.
Poverty: Using the Bible in politics is about strategic and selective emphasis. It entails focusing on one set of Scriptures (to the exclusion of contradictory others) and arguing that those verses comprise God’s overarching policy priority. The Christian Right has championed those texts that it believes oppose gay marriage and abortion. The Left, for its part, focuses on scriptures that decry poverty.
Yesterday, the President cracked out the exegesis and made a scriptural case for his economic policies. Invoking 1 John 3:17 (“if anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”) Obama called for the types of actions that his critics would surely dub as “income redistribution.” When he paraphrased Luke 12:48 to the effect that “to whom much is given . . . . much is required” one couldn’t help but see this as a plea to raise taxes on the wealthy. Riffing on Genesis 4:9 and Matthew 25:40 he made the argument that government is the brotherly keeper of those who have the least.
Obama’s speech was hampered by a lack of energy and focus (why exactly was the president telling us that he recently prayed for Billy Graham?). Yet it did successfully outline the rudiments of the Left’s religious/political vision. In recent times, this vision has not swayed voters as much as its counterpart on the Right. And that’s a problem which his somber sermon was meant to confront.