Sunday, July 02, 2006

God's Politics

I haven’t gotten much into political matters in this blog, though I do believe that matters of faith and politics (and somehow lions) are necessarily connected. This connection is especially true for Christians whose faith is necessarily social (various contemporary expressions notably to the contrary).

And though my friends and family are sick of me talking about Barack Obama, I’ve not mentioned him here. Now I have to. Obama has just given his most important speech since his inspirational address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. This message for Call to Renewal’s Pentecost 2006 conference focused on matters of faith and politics.

Since then, he has been criticized from all quarters. Moderate Democrats are nervous that Obama might upset secularist friends. Confirmed secularists are infuriated that Obama would suggest that religious faith has any place in the public square (lots of blather about the difference between religious faith and other types of beliefs. What the secularists ignore is the fact that their faith also informs their decision-making. Those who champion intellect as the great arbiter of truth deceive themselves into believing that they make all decisions without any input other than intellect. The fact is their FAITH in intellect informs this decision-making, which is not the same as intellect itself. And their feelings and history and current life situations all inform their decision-making.) Some folks from the Religious/Political Right seem nervous that a Democrat might actually talk about God in public. Al Mohler calls Obama a secularist with a religious veneer. All quarters seem to wonder if this is all politics—-pandering to an audience. Some suggest that he is faking his interest in this area. Many are convinced that Obama has finally completed his indoctrination by the Washington compromisers.

Most of these folks are missing Obama’s points entirely. I fault mainly the Associated Press reports which summarize the speech as “Obama Courting the Evangelicals” or “Obama Chastises Fellow Democrats.” While evidence for both headlines can be found, read the speech or hear it, and you’ll see that neither headline fairly represents the speech or its points. Associated Baptist Press presents a more objective and accurate summary of the speech.

First of all it should be noted that while the Call to Renewal folks are evangelicals in the truest sense (They call people to be Jesus-followers), they are not evangelical in the sense that most public discourse hears. That is: they are more likely to vote with Democrats than Republicans in most areas. Unfortunately many people, particularly secularists, read “evangelical” to mean “fundamentalist,” and this audience is anything but fundamentalist. So if Obama is courting their vote, it’s probably from folks who would be leaning his way anyway.

I read and heard Obama’s speech more like a politician’s honest reflections about reconciling his vocational mission with his personal beliefs. And he reflects out loud about where those deliberations have taken him.

It reminds me of the confusion people seem to have about Abraham Lincoln. I respect Lincoln, without believing the myth and legend about him. He was a mere man . I don’t respect him for freeing the slaves (he didn’t directly) No, what impresses me about Lincoln is that while presiding over still the darkest time in our nation’s history, Lincoln had to wrestle with personal faith /feelings (anti-slavery) with a vocational objective (to preserve the union). His antislavery views had been highly publicized, but he had a job to do which he felt sworn to. Thus you get the eloquent, anguished, God –soaked, 2nd Inaugural Address.

“All knew that this interest [slavery] was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Obama mentions the God-ness of the address in his speech. Not that Obama’s speech approaches the profundity of Lincoln’s, or that his anguish at this time approaches the anguish of President Lincoln, but the speech is born of a similar internal and occupational struggle. He affirms his own Christian faith, but talks about political openness to people of all beliefs including secularists. He calls on fellow liberals and Democrats to embrace their faith and openly bring it into the square. So some liberal commentators see these words as Obama feeding the cause of Republicans, reinforcing their stereotypes.

But it is not that he believes with some Republicans that Democrats are Godless. Quite to the contrary. He is calling those God-believing Democrats (that is: MOST Democrats) to vocally admit their faith. To do otherwise is not only deceptive, it creates the vacuum that only fundamentalists can fill. In Obama’s actual words, he says that conservative leaders tell

"evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design.

"Democrats, for the most part, have taken the bait. At best, we may try to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that - regardless of our personal beliefs - constitutional principles tie our hands. At worst, some liberals dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word "Christian" describes one's political opponents, not people of faith.

And he is right. If Democrats/liberals want to change, they must first admit that they have a problem. By “they” I mean anyone who decides that they can’t mention God in public because it might offend their constituency.

Barack Obama is calling these folks to embrace their faith, to not let the Religious/Political Right dictate what is Christian or what is appropriate talk of God in politics. Obama’s speech was not designed so much to court evangelicals as it was to call Democrats and other liberals to acknowledge the role their faith plays and to not apologize for that faith. And he wants to serve notice to the Religious/Political Right that they do not own God. Thank God for Barack Obama who is willing to infuriate secularists, and all Republicans and Democrats alike. If he’s courting votes, he’s got a funny way of doing it.


Taylor Burton-Edwards said...


Thanks for the insightful reading of Obama's speech. I think you've described both it and its intent eloquently and well.

Today, no doubt, Lincoln would be considered a "liberal" for many of his views. Even a radical. After all, slavery had become the foundation of the economy of the entire nation at some point, and was simply lingering longer in the South in terms of where the slaves actually were-- what they produced still profited the North, and far more than the South! To be so firm, and offer God language to support that firmness, that this bedrock of the entire US economy was unjust and must end... say things like that today and prepare to be branded a communist, an Anti-American, or worse.

It is essential in any discourse that motivating influences be named and claimed-- and religious belief remains a significant motivating influence for Americans of both the major parties. It is time both owned their own motivations, in their native forms, and named them such.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

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