Back in 2006 Barack Obama delivered his ‘Call to Renewal’ Keynote Address. It perhaps encapsulates his views on role of religion in politics. In our president-elect’s own words:
Mr. Keyes’s implicit accusation that I was not a true Christian nagged at me, and I was also aware that my answer did not adequately address the role my faith has in guiding my own values and my own beliefs.
Now, my dilemma was by no means unique. In a way, it reflected the broader debate we’ve been having in this country for the last thirty years over the role of religion in politics.
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, there are some liberals who 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.
Now, such strategies of avoidance may work for progressives when our opponent is Alan Keyes. But over the long haul, I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in people’s lives — in the lives of the American people — and I think it’s time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.
And if we’re going to do that then we first need to understand that Americans are a religious people.
when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations towards one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome – others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.
More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem here is rhetorical – if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.
Our failure as progressives to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical, though. Our fear of getting “preachy” may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems.
After all, the problems of poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed, are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten point plan. They are rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness – in the imperfections of man.
Solving these problems will require changes in government policy, but it will also require changes in hearts and a change in minds.
what I am suggesting is this – secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.
While I’ve already laid out some of the work that progressive leaders need to do, I want to talk a little bit about what conservative leaders need to do — some truths they need to acknowledge.
For one, they need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn’t the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment.
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.
He concluded with a prayer that “we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all.”
You can view some of the speech here.