Thursday, January 22, 2009

Religion and Politics: Making Peace with Obama's Peacemaking

I knew I was going to vote for Barack Obama as soon as I saw his 2006 Call to Renewal speech (video below).

I am one of those secularists he spoke of who "dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant." I cringe at the mention of god in speeches and roll my eyes when athletes thank god for a touchdown. So for a politician to speak positively about religion and make me want to vote for him is astounding.

It was the reasonableness of his speech that impressed me.

The majority of Americans, Obama pointed out, are religious. Ninety percent of Americans believe in god. Morality, for many Americans, has a religious basis. And as "law is by definition a codification of our morality," he argues that it would be impossible for a religious person to completely leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.

And while I am wary about anyone who suggests even the slightest opening for religious morality in the public square, I was comforted by Obama's statement that he does "not believe religious people have a monopoly on morality." That may seem like an obvious thing, but it is a hard fought point with many religious people.

I believe strongly in democracy, as frustrating as it can be when you are in the minority. I agree with Obama that democracy requires dialogue. Democracy requires that people with wildly divergent views find common ground and Obama outlines a blueprint for finding that ground. Confront the differences head on. "Speak to people where they are at." Do not concede difficult territory to "those with the most insular views."

He tells secularists to stop avoiding religion and to respect that many people's morality has a basis in their religious beliefs. To the other side he says that “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," that they "can’t simply evoke god's will.”

I was convinced. Here was a man who might actually believe in real democracy and who might have the ability to bridge some of those divides that paralyze our politics. He even made a rational case for why people are drawn to religion. He spoke of the desire for a "sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives." He spoke of religion as a source of hope. Hope is something even godless liberals seemed to have been looking for. We certainly voted for it.

I was convinced. But it is one thing to hear these ideas in a speech. It is quite another to see it in practice.

I saw not one, but three different christian clergy during the inauguration festivities. I hated the idea that our political changing of leadership came with such a strong christian component. For all Obama's talk in his 2006 speech about America no longer being just a christian nation, when it came down to it, he chose christ-times-three.

Most troubling was his pick of Rick Warren, a man who compared homosexuality to incest. I was incensed, especially coming off of the Prop 8 fiasco in California, a fiasco Rick Warren was on the wrong side of. But we should not have been surprised to find Warren there. After all, Obama mentions him as a friend back in his 2006 speech. Obama (ostensibly) disagrees with Warren on many issues, but he feels he has found an evangelical leader with whom he has some common ground.

So how much should we tolerate the intolerant? Can we take civility too far? If Obama is able to start a dialogue with the religious right, is it worth elevating someone with many deplorable views into such a prominent position? If that dialogue makes it so that evangelicals don't just automatically vote for whatever republican says they are anti-abortion and anti-homosexual, is it worth it?

Will dialogue moderate extremest views? When Obama says that he is going to talk to foreign leaders without preconditions I applaud his move towards diplomacy. Some of those leaders base their governance on Islamic law, kill homosexuals, and deny the holocaust. Yet, I sincerely believe that diplomacy is the best course of action.

When the Bush administration refused to talk to those leaders, because they did not want to give them credibility, I denigrated them as ideologues. But why is it so much easier for me to understand elevating Ahmedenajad than Rick Warren? Granted, Ahmedenajad was not asked to speak at the inauguration, but what if a grand gesture was the only thing that might have opened the door?

Perhaps the beginning of an answer can be found in how the three clergy responded to Obama's invitation. Openly gay episcopalian Gene Robinson was very careful not to make a christian prayer, using phrases like "every religions god." And he took his time to speak about poverty, disease, and discrimination against "refugees, immigrants, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people."

Reverend Joseph Lowery also used his time to talk about social justice, saying “deliver us from the exploitation of the poor…and from favoritism toward the rich.” Lowery used language that was significantly more christian in tenor. Although ending with some humor helped, being at a political function where millions of people are calling out amen is uncomfortable for me to say the least. Still, he did make an effort to talk about “inclusion not exclusion” and referenced “our churches, our temples, our mosques.” He acknowledged those of other faiths, if not those of no faith.

But it was Rick Warren whose invitation caused the most controversy and it is evangelicals who always seem to be shoving their religious beliefs down my throat. So I was most curious to see what Warren would say. In the beginning, I must admit I was pleasantly surprised. He used his time to mark the historic occasion of electing the first African American president.

He asked for Obama to have wisdom, courage, and compassion. He called for respect for "all the earth" and for a "peaceful planet." He even expressed that Americans are "united not by race, religion, or blood, but by our commitment to freedom and justice for all."

Yet although Warren prayed for all of us to have humility, he showed us the ultimate arrogance by bringing jesus into our presidential inauguration and then reciting the lord's prayer. This was disrespect, not just to nonbelievers, but to people of every other belief system.

I'm struggling to reconcile my philosophical beliefs in democracy and diplomacy with my intense feelings about the unjust and insulting views and manners of many believers. But I voted for Obama based on his ability to reason, to find common ground, to lead democratically, and to show all people respect - even those people who I don't think deserve it.

This does not mean that I will blindly accept what Obama does. I'm still pissed about the lord's prayer being recited and I will write letters and articles and scream from the rooftops when these things happen. I will fight that much harder for the rights of the GLBT community. I will fight that much harder for us nonbelievers to be shown some respect. I will fight that much harder for the arts and humanities, and other sources of non-religious morality, to be prioritized for a change.

But I'm also going to try and develop a little thicker skin and to respect the diplomatic efforts Obama is making. While the clergy did not mention us nonbelievers, Obama did. And as a man who was raised by a "secular humanist," I believe that he respects us.

Obama ended his speech in 1996 by recounting an incident. A doctor with strong feelings against abortion wrote to him to express his disappointment that Obama's website called all those against abortion extremists. Obama struck the doctor as being better than that. He gave Obama credit for being a just and fair minded person, despite this evidence to the contrary. Obama was impressed by the man's letter. He changed his website. He tries to "extend the same presumption of good faith to others."

Obama is extending that presumption of good faith to people like Rick Warren and, as much as I hate it, I guess I'm willing to see where it goes.

Call to Renewal Speech, Part 1 of 5

Call to Renewal Speech, Part 2 of 5

Call to Renewal Speech, Part 3 of 5

Call to Renewal Speech, Part 4 of 5

Call to Renewal Speech, Part 5 of 5

Inaugural Speech of Gene Robinson

Inaugural Speech of Joseph Lowery

Inaugural Speech of Rick Warren

Inaugural Speech of Barack Obama

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