unpacking Obama’s Call to Renewal Keynote Address

During the election campaign last year, the Obama Biden website posted a link to Obama’s Call to Renewal Keynote Address, given in Washington, DC, on June 28, 2006. According to the site, the address was hailed as “the most important speech on religion and politics in 40 years.” A pull-quote on the site reads:

“(Obama’s speech on faith) may be the most important pronouncement by a Democrat on faith and politics since John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech in 1960 declaring his independence from the Vatican…Obama offers the first faith testimony I have heard from any politician that speaks honestly about the uncertainties of belief.”
— E.J. Dionne, Op-Ed., Washington Post, June 30, 2006

While such praise sounds a bit ominous to any faithful Catholic, it also suggests that the speech might be worth examining in detail, as a way of attempting to understand our new President’s mind as it relates to the interplay of faith and politics.

After spending some time examining the speech, I’ve decided to reprint it here in full, interspersed with my own commentary, which will appear in-line and [in brackets].

UPDATE (3/26/2009): The Lazy Disciple has done me the honor of providing some further comments, which will appear in-line in bold blue text. Check out his blog here.

In summary, I agree with much of his analysis, but toward the end of the speech he makes some very serious missteps, in my opinion. I’m heartened by the nature of the discussion, but the substance seems to be, in some very important respects, lacking. Still, I think that the ideas expressed here could set a positive course for a dialogue, should any such opportunity actually surface during this administration. I’m not terribly optimistic about the chances that this will come to pass, but I’ll pray for it.

Call to Renewal Keynote Address
June 28, 2006

Good morning. I appreciate the opportunity to speak here at the Call to Renewal’s Building a Covenant for a New America conference. I’ve had the opportunity to take a look at your Covenant for a New America. It is filled with outstanding policies and prescriptions for much of what ails this country. So I’d like to congratulate you all on the thoughtful presentations you’ve given so far about poverty and justice in America, and for putting fire under the feet of the political leadership here in Washington.

But today I’d like to talk about the connection between religion and politics and perhaps offer some thoughts about how we can sort through some of the often bitter arguments that we’ve been seeing over the last several years.

I do so because, as you all know, we can affirm the importance of poverty in the Bible; and we can raise up and pass out this Covenant for a New America. We can talk to the press, and we can discuss the religious call to address poverty and environmental stewardship all we want, but it won’t have an impact unless we tackle head-on the mutual suspicion that sometimes exists between religious America and secular America. [Outstanding. Let’s do it.]

I want to give you an example that I think illustrates this fact. As some of you know, during the 2004 U.S. Senate General Election I ran against a gentleman named Alan Keyes. Mr. Keyes is well-versed in the Jerry Falwell-Pat Robertson style of rhetoric that often labels progressives as both immoral and godless.

Indeed, Mr. Keyes announced towards the end of the campaign that, “Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama. Christ would not vote for Barack Obama because Barack Obama has behaved in a way that it is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved.”

Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama. [Provocative.]

Now, I was urged by some of my liberal supporters not to take this statement seriously, to essentially ignore it. To them, Mr. Keyes was an extremist, and his arguments not worth entertaining. And since at the time, I was up 40 points in the polls, it probably wasn’t a bad piece of strategic advice.

But what they didn’t understand, however, was that I had to take Mr. Keyes seriously, for he claimed to speak for my religion, and my God. He claimed knowledge of certain truths.

Mr. Obama says he’s a Christian, he was saying, and yet he supports a lifestyle that the Bible calls an abomination.

Mr. Obama says he’s a Christian, but supports the destruction of innocent and sacred life. [This reveals a willingness to represent / address the views of some of his opponents. I appreciate this.]

And so what would my supporters have me say? How should I respond? Should I say that a literalist reading of the Bible was folly? Should I say that Mr. Keyes, who is a Roman Catholic, should ignore the teachings of the Pope?

Unwilling to go there, I answered with what has come to be the typically liberal response in such debates – namely, I said that we live in a pluralistic society, that I can’t impose my own religious views on another, that I was running to be the U.S. Senator of Illinois and not the Minister of Illinois. [This would be a fair enough response, if opposition to abortion were a simply a matter of creed. More on that later…]

But 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. [Good. I like hearing that he has an active conscience.]

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. [True.]

For some time now, there has been plenty of talk among pundits and pollsters that the political divide in this country has fallen sharply along religious lines. Indeed, the single biggest “gap” in party affiliation among white Americans today is not between men and women, or those who reside in so-called Red States and those who reside in Blue, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don’t.

Conservative leaders have been all too happy to exploit this gap, consistently reminding 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, 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. [I appreciate his willingness to acknowledge the misrepresentations.]

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. [Bring it on!]

And if we’re going to do that then we first need to understand that Americans are a religious people. 90 percent of us believe in God, 70 percent affiliate themselves with an organized religion, 38 percent call themselves committed Christians, and substantially more people in America believe in angels than they do in evolution.

This religious tendency is not simply the result of successful marketing by skilled preachers or the draw of popular mega-churches. In fact, it speaks to a hunger that’s deeper than that – a hunger that goes beyond any particular issue or cause.

Each day, it seems, thousands of Americans are going about their daily rounds – dropping off the kids at school, driving to the office, flying to a business meeting, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets – and they’re coming to the realization that something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough.

They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They’re looking to relieve a chronic loneliness, a feeling supported by a recent study that shows Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than ever before. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them – that they are not just destined to travel down that long highway towards nothingness. [Is this a fair way to describe the religious impulse? Is it just a response to personal need, rather than a felt duty?]

And I speak with some experience on this matter. I was not raised in a particularly religious household, as undoubtedly many in the audience were. My father, who returned to Kenya when I was just two, was born Muslim but as an adult became an atheist. My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, was probably one of the most spiritual and kindest people I’ve ever known, but grew up with a healthy skepticism of organized religion herself. As a consequence, so did I. [An interesting biographical bit.]

It wasn’t until after college, when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma.

I was working with churches, and the Christians who I worked with recognized themselves in me. They saw that I knew their Book and that I shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me that remained removed, detached, that I was an observer in their midst.

And in time, I came to realize that something was missing as well — that without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone. [A good insight, and an ecclesial sensibility.]

And if it weren’t for the particular attributes of the historically black church, I may have accepted this fate. But as the months passed in Chicago, I found myself drawn – not just to work with the church, but to be in the church.

For one thing, I believed and still believe in the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change, a power made real by some of the leaders here today. Because of its past, the black church understands in an intimate way the Biblical call to feed the hungry and cloth the naked and challenge powers and principalities. And in its historical struggles for freedom and the rights of man, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source of hope. [OK – so he’s moved beyond that depiction of faith as mere source of comfort. But still no mention of a felt duty of the creature to a transcendent Creator. So everything remains on the horizontal plane.]

And perhaps it was out of this intimate knowledge of hardship — the grounding of faith in struggle — that the church offered me a second insight, one that I think is important to emphasize today.

Faith doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts. [True.]

You need to come to church in the first place precisely because you are first of this world, not apart from it. You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away – because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey.

It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth. [I appreciate the candor. At the same time, this experience, as articulated, remains largely anchored in the horizontal plane, with the creature as the primary actor in the drama of faith.]

That’s a path that has been shared by millions upon millions of Americans – evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims alike; some since birth, others at certain turning points in their lives. It is not something they set apart from the rest of their beliefs and values. In fact, it is often what drives their beliefs and their values.

And that is why that, if we truly hope to speak to people where they’re at – to communicate our hopes and values in a way that’s relevant to their own – then as progressives, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.

Because 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. [This can indeed happen, and I appreciate the posture of engagement.]

In other words, if we don’t reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, then the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Alan Keyeses will continue to hold sway.

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. [Pointing out the need for a common language in order to have a discourse.]

Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address without reference to “the judgments of the Lord.” Or King’s I Have a Dream speech without references to “all of God’s children.” Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible, and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.

Our failure as progressives to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical, though. [Agreed.] 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. [Good! A recognition of the fact of original sin.]

Solving these problems will require changes in government policy, but it will also require changes in hearts and a change in minds. I believe in keeping guns out of our inner cities, and that our leaders must say so in the face of the gun manufacturers’ lobby – but I also believe that when a gang-banger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody disrespected him, we’ve got a moral problem. There’s a hole in that young man’s heart – a hole that the government alone cannot fix. [This is an important point. The foundational need is not a new set of laws, but a new ethos in the hearts of Americans.]

I believe in vigorous enforcement of our non-discrimination laws. But I also believe that a transformation of conscience and a genuine commitment to diversity on the part of the nation’s CEOs could bring about quicker results than a battalion of lawyers. They have more lawyers than us anyway.

I think that we should put more of our tax dollars into educating poor girls and boys. [Sounds good.] I think that the work that Marian Wright Edelman has done all her life is absolutely how we should prioritize our resources in the wealthiest nation on earth. [Red flags going up on the Edelman reference: see here.] I also think that we should give them the information about contraception that can prevent unwanted pregnancies, lower abortion rates, and help assure that that every child is loved and cherished.

[Red flags well warranted. Contraception will assure that every child is loved and cherished? A strong argument can be made that the opposite, in fact, is true. I am reminded of this passage from John Paul II’s Gospel of Life (#13): But despite their differences of nature and moral gravity, contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree. It is true that in many cases contraception and even abortion are practised under the pressure of real- life difficulties, which nonetheless can never exonerate from striving to observe God’s law fully. Still, in very many other instances such practices are rooted in a hedonistic mentality unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality, and they imply a self-centered concept of freedom, which regards procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfilment. The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs, and abortion becomes the only possible decisive response to failed contraception.]

But, you know, my Bible [my Bible?!] tells me that if we train a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not turn from it. So I think faith and guidance can help fortify a young woman’s sense of self, a young man’s sense of responsibility, and a sense of reverence that all young people should have for the act of sexual intimacy. [This seems to me a very different position from that articulated in the prior paragraph. At the very least, nothing said in this paragraph implies the assertions of the prior one.]

I am not suggesting that every progressive suddenly latch on to religious terminology – that can be dangerous. Nothing is more transparent than inauthentic expressions of faith. [This statement is a bit hard for a Catholic to swallow after watching Obama’s selections of dissenting Catholics for his administration. It may be transparent, but perhaps it is also politically expedient?] As Jim has mentioned, some politicians come and clap — off rhythm — to the choir. We don’t need that.

In fact, because I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality, I would rather have someone who is grounded in morality and ethics, and who is also secular, affirm their morality and ethics and values without pretending that they’re something they’re not. They don’t need to do that. None of us need to do that. [I would agree that common moral ground is required, and not a common creed. Of course.]

But 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. [Amen.] Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition. [Agreed. But then why have you posted opinions from the dictatorship of relativism on your own blog? And why did you choose Joe Biden as a running mate?]

Moreover, if we progressives shed some of these biases, we might recognize some overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country. We might recognize that the call to sacrifice on behalf of the next generation, the need to think in terms of “thou” and not just “I,” resonates in religious congregations all across the country. [I like the relational insight here.] And we might realize that we have the ability to reach out to the evangelical community and engage millions of religious Americans in the larger project of American renewal.

Some of this is already beginning to happen. Pastors, friends of mine like Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes are wielding their enormous influences to confront AIDS, Third World debt relief, and the genocide in Darfur. Religious thinkers and activists like our good friend Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo are lifting up the Biblical injunction to help the poor as a means of mobilizing Christians against budget cuts to social programs and growing inequality.

And by the way, we need Christians on Capitol Hill, Jews on Capitol Hill and Muslims on Capitol Hill talking about the estate tax. When you’ve got an estate tax debate that proposes a trillion dollars being taken out of social programs to go to a handful of folks who don’t need and weren’t even asking for it, you know that we need an injection of morality in our political debate. [Agreed.]

Across the country, individual churches like my own and your own are sponsoring day care programs, building senior centers, helping ex-offenders reclaim their lives, and rebuilding our gulf coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

So the question is, how do we build on these still-tentative partnerships between religious and secular people of good will? It’s going to take more work, a lot more work than we’ve done so far. The tensions and the suspicions on each side of the religious divide will have to be squarely addressed. [Agreed. But this is precisely what you don’t seem to be doing, Mr. President. I think, for example, of the lack of any ethical discussion / debate prior to the executive order allowing use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. Even the New York Times noticed this.] And each side will need to accept some ground rules for collaboration. [Agreed.]

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. [Granted.] 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. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn’t want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.

Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America’s population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. [This is a legitimate concern.] 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. I would take issue with the ambiguity of this statement. We are, whatever religion our fellows practice, “[A] new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Participation in this common conviction, in dedication to which is forged the soul of the nation, does not require a real assent to the data of faith. Nevertheless, the notion that all men are created equal is unthinkable – I mean this in a strict, technical sense – outside the cultural and institutional context that is explicitly Christian. So, the president’s discussion actually begs the question. It presumes that what we might call the cultural commitments of a society desirous of securing ordered liberty to itself and its posterity are not necessarily those, which as a matter of historical fact did give rise to the first, and arguably only nation on Earth to be successful in such an experiment.

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. [I’m all for good catechesis and well-informed faith, like this.]

This brings me to my second point. 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. [This is a very good point. Many religious groups in this country could stand to look critically at their initiatives in this light. I remember going to the March for Life a few years ago and seeing “God is Pro-Life” buttons everywhere.] I agree with the President’s understanding of the requirements of democracy. I agree therefore with his explicit discussion of abortion, insofar as the negative aspects of it are concerned. I am not entirely convinced that a legislator in, e.g., Mississippi, need explicitly consider the possible objections of, e.g., a Buddhist, in his formulation of his arguments in favor of a legislative ban on abortion. The point is that legislators build consensus among themselves, and enact laws that represent that consensus. In Roe, the Supreme Court said a state legislature is not competent to regulate abortion. If a legislature is not competent to impose its consensus regarding an act that may be directly destructive of a human life, then a fortiori, it is not competent to set speed limits or a legal drinking age. In sum, what appears to be the expression of a desire to see our public discourse conducted reasonably, actually ends up setting the bar too high, as it were. [More of my thoughts on this mentality, as opposed to a disposition to dialogue, here.]

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. [Impossible merely on the basis of human resources, perhaps. But not de facto 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. [Is this really a solid principle? In particular cases, I agree, it could be convincing. But I don’t think it holds up terribly well to closer scrutiny. And, ironically, it could become an uncompromising commitment in itself.] This is a false dichotomy. The art of politics is compromise, but the essence of politics is the common good, and this is knowable. Indeed, at some fundamental level, the continued existence of a given political society requires that efforts at compromise be put aside. We may disagree over where that point lies, or whether it has been reached. We cannot, however, deny that it exists. Ask Neville Chaimberlain. And if you doubt that, let me give you an example. [Just one example? Okay, I ought to hear this out….]

We all know the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his only son, and without argument, he takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded.

Of course, in the end God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute, and Abraham passes God’s test of devotion.

But it’s fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason. [Okay, I see the point being made. But it does raise the question: Are there not many initiatives, such as the pro-life cause, that are taken up by people of faith, that are, at the same time, based on the dignity of the human person, rather than simply based on creed? And are there not many significant debates that involve this value: the dignity of the human person? And is this value not accessible to believer and non-believer alike? In which case, the larger question needs to be raised why some people recognize the value, and why others do not, and what to do about this fundamental disagreement. It has wide-ranging implications for the common good…. This is a much more delicate question, and one not to be answered neatly in the course of a political speech.]

Finally, any reconciliation between faith and democratic pluralism requires some sense of proportion. [A sense of proportion? Let’s see where this is going….]

This goes for both sides.

Even those who claim the Bible’s inerrancy make distinctions between Scriptural edicts, sensing that some passages – the Ten Commandments, say, or a belief in Christ’s divinity – are central to Christian faith, while others are more culturally specific and may be modified to accommodate modern life. [Granted.]

The American people intuitively understand this, which is why the majority of Catholics practice birth control and some of those opposed to gay marriage nevertheless are opposed to a Constitutional amendment to ban it. Religious leadership need not accept such wisdom in counseling their flocks, but they should recognize this wisdom in their politics.

[The argument has taken several major missteps here. Several points: 1) Democratic pluralism is being confused with pluralistic understandings of human dignity. The latter can spell disaster for the common good. 2) Faith and natural law seem to be equivocated here. The assumption is that the Catholic Church’s teachings on artificial contraception and marriage are designated for believers only; that is, that they are merely credal in character, rather than reflecting truths about the human person accessible to human reason. 3) The statement about birth control actually goes one step further, suggesting that widespread dissent from the Church’s teaching reflects a principled theological position on the part of those who use contraception, rather than a moral compromise or poor catechesis / poor guidance from pastors. But I thought Obama just got finished making the point that folks haven’t been reading their Bibles. Now they are suddenly inchoate experts on matters of Biblical hermeneutics?]

But a sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation – context matters. It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase “under God.” I didn’t. Having voluntary student prayer groups use school property to meet should not be a threat, any more than its use by the High School Republicans should threaten Democrats. And one can envision certain faith-based programs – targeting ex-offenders or substance abusers – that offer a uniquely powerful way of solving problems. [True enough.]

So we all have some work to do here. But I am hopeful that we can bridge the gaps that exist and overcome the prejudices each of us bring to this debate. And I have faith that millions of believing Americans want that to happen. No matter how religious they may or may not be, people are tired of seeing faith used as a tool of attack. [Okay, but… ] They don’t want faith used to belittle or to divide. They’re tired of hearing folks deliver more screed than sermon. Because in the end, that’s not how they think about faith in their own lives. [Obama seems to be assuming bad motives on the part of many people in public leadership. I think this broad generalization is unfair.]

So let me end with just one other interaction I had during my campaign. A few days after I won the Democratic nomination in my U.S. Senate race, I received an email from a doctor at the University of Chicago Medical School that said the following:

“Congratulations on your overwhelming and inspiring primary win. I was happy to vote for you, and I will tell you that I am seriously considering voting for you in the general election. I write to express my concerns that may, in the end, prevent me from supporting you.”

The doctor described himself as a Christian who understood his commitments to be “totalizing.” His faith led him to a strong opposition to abortion and gay marriage, although he said that his faith also led him to question the idolatry of the free market and quick resort to militarism that seemed to characterize much of the Republican agenda.

But the reason the doctor was considering not voting for me was not simply my position on abortion. Rather, he had read an entry that my campaign had posted on my website, which suggested that I would fight “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.” The doctor went on to write:

“I sense that you have a strong sense of justice…and I also sense that you are a fair minded person with a high regard for reason…Whatever your convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering on women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded….You know that we enter times that are fraught with possibilities for good and for harm, times when we are struggling to make sense of a common polity in the context of plurality, when we are unsure of what grounds we have for making any claims that involve others…I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.” [This, at least, would be a step in the right direction. Still not fully humane, but a start… ]

Fair-minded words.

So I looked at my website and found the offending words. In fairness to them, my staff had written them using standard Democratic boilerplate language to summarize my pro-choice position during the Democratic primary, at a time when some of my opponents were questioning my commitment to protect Roe v. Wade. [This sounds like throwing what has become a key tenet of the Democratic Party platform under the bus. Interesting.]

Re-reading the doctor’s letter, though, I felt a pang of shame. It is people like him who are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country. They may not change their positions, but they are willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in fair-minded words. Those who know of the central and awesome place that God holds in the lives of so many, and who refuse to treat faith as simply another political issue with which to score points.

[Mr. President, please show us evidence that you want a fuller conversation. Executive orders that dismiss or ignore ethical concerns as mere political gridlock are not the best evidence. Labeling principled ethical concerns as mere ideology is not good evidence. Appeals only to those who agree with you are not good evidence. The Office of the President appears to be campaigning, rather than representing the entire population of this country.]

So I wrote back to the doctor, and I thanked him for his advice. The next day, I circulated the email to my staff and changed the language on my website to state in clear but simple terms my pro-choice position. And that night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own – a prayer that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. [Keep praying that. It’s a good prayer. I’ll do the same.]

And that night, before I went to bed I said a prayer of my own. It’s a prayer I think I share with a lot of Americans. A hope that we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all. It’s a prayer worth praying, and a conversation worth having in this country in the months and years to come.

[Indeed it is. How long will we have to wait before the conversation will begin? And when will you begin calling the media to account for its efforts to derail this conversation?]

Thank you.

3 thoughts on “unpacking Obama’s Call to Renewal Keynote Address

  1. Very well done fisking of this speech, Clayton, and you handled the job far more charitably than many would.Sadly, this is not the same man sitting at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue now. He’s more than proven that since taking office. Bipartisanship–out the window; discussion and debate–pipe dreams. I don’t know if the old adage about power corrupting fits in his case, though. I seriously think he’s a brilliant orator with a silver tongue who does not genuinely believe much of what he says. Maybe it’s the cynic in me after having lived in DC for 5 years…Much prayer for him is still needed, of course, and let’s hope he decides to turn down the offer to speak at the ND commencement exercises.

  2. Clayton: You are very fair minded with Mr. Obama (now President Obama). I appreciate that you pulled this speech back out.Call to Renewal is, I believe, a progressive peace and justice conference sponsored by Sojourner’s. I have some experience with their group from my dissenting days. Some of their beliefs, believing Catholics would agree with (fair wages) others (contraception) we would not.I find the venue itself revealing.Mr. Keyes was wrong to say what he did about Jesus not voting for Obama. I like Alan Keyes but he went too far there.I still believe that President Obama’s faith is very much an internalized and personal thing. Meaning, HE decided what he was going to believe in. I don’t believe he is guided by any community of faith or their core teachings as much as he is guided by ideals. In particular, the ideals of Edelman and,though not mentioned by name, James Cone. Many of his ideas are very much from the “Black Theology of Liberation” of Mr. Cone’s. I believe Rev. Wright (Obama’s Pastor of many years) is a fan of Cone’s teachings.I cannot help but think if Obama were Catholic (he went to Catholic schools when he was a child) he would have right there a guide for what Scripture really says rather than throwing the “red herrings” around of Leviticus and Deuteronomy without understanding that The Law was fulfilled with Christ.Bottom line: I hear him very much saying that “hard liners” read: (people that live their beliefs) need to step away from their beliefs for the sake of the common good as he has defined it.

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