My atheist friend, The Exterminator, is taking me to task here about not listening to his concerns about the increasing discussion of faith by Democratic candidates. His comments have caused me to think about the core issue--what is the appropriate discussion of faith in the public square?.
As an initial matter, I think all of us should take seriously the concerns of the secularists (I use this term because I suspect that the concerns expressed by the Exterminator are shared by those who would not call themselves atheists) as they watch the Democratic candidates talk about faith. For them, the Republican party has become a hostile force, and secularists' only home among the two major parties has been the Democratic Party. When Obama, Edwards and Clinton start talking repeatedly about their faith, a secularist has to wonder: "Am I about to be thrown off the bus." (Much like our GLBT friends in the Episcopal Church wonder whether the House of Bishops will throw them under the bus to keep peace in the Anglican Communion).
So I think we need to take these concerns very seriously. As an initial matter, however, I think my friend is being a bit unfair to Barak Obama. I had cited Obama's speech to the United Church of Christ assembly as evidence that at least he recognized the secularists concerns. The Exterminator had this response to the speech:
I'm going to use the same Obama quote you did, but I'm going to gloss it -- the way I hear it.
So let's rededicate ourselves to a new kind of politics - a politics of conscience. [Sounds great. Having a conscience is not dependent on a god-belief.]
Let's come together - Protestant and Catholic, Muslim and Hindu and Jew, believer and non-believer alike. [A nod to nonbelievers. Yay.]
We're not going to agree on everything, but we can disagree without being disagreeable. [Yup.]
We can affirm our faith without endangering the separation of church and state, as long as we understand that when we're in the public square, we have to speak in universal terms that everyone can understand. [Oops. Notice that he didn't say "universal terms that don't presume one worldview takes precedence over others." No, he wants everyone to understand. Well, I don't understand, at the deepest level, a belief in any supernatural beings. I understand that many people have that belief, and I would defend their right to that belief. But ... ummmm ... I don't understand it.]
And if we can do that - if we can embrace a common destiny - then I believe we'll not just help bring about a more hopeful day in America, we'll not just be caring for our own souls, [what about those of us who don't believe humans have souls?] we'll be doing God's work here on Earth. [In other words, "I'll give lip-service to nonbelievers, but I'm still going to claim to do the work of an entity in whom they don't believe. And I'm going to claim that even they, if they elect me, will be doing such work.]
If the audience for this speech had been anything other than a church gathering, The Exterminator's comments would be dead on. The speech indisputably assumes that the audience shares a particular religious view, and that would be deeply alienating to an atheist or other secularist. But note the context of the speech--it was to a religious audience from Barak Obama's own denomination. It seems to me, therefore, that in this context at least, it is appropriate to use language that assumes a particular set of religious views about human souls, God and the like. Obama is talking to a group of active Christians (like him), and that is the context of this speech.
It also seems to me that it is important that even in front of this religious audience, Obama chose to emphasize the following: that non-believers can be a part of this politics of conscience, that the actions of the faithful in the public square need to be consistent with the Separation of Church and State, and that when in the public square "we have to speak in universal terms that everyone can understand." While Obama perhaps could have used clearer language at times, I think his point--made to a religious audience--is clear: nonbelievers can be part of our politics of conscience and that when we bring our faith into the public square we need to be respectful of diversity.
I think that this raises a larger point. If you look at Barak Obama's speeches here, you will find one, and only one of his recent speeches that uses language of faith--and that was the speech to the United Church of Christ. I suspect that the same is true of Clinton and Edwards as well. The change this year is that all three major Democratic candidates are people of faith who are comfortable speaking in terms of faith to religious audiences. And it is this that has received a great deal of attention. When they speak to larger audiences, however, they largely speak in terms that connect to the values of all Americans--including our many secular friends that share our values.
So I agree with The Exterminator that we need to be very careful when we use faith language in the public square. Language that presumes that all share a belief in a God does not belong in a speech when the audience is not a group of the faithful. Period. No exceptions. And when we speak to the faithful, we still have an obligation to remind ourselves that there indeed many secular friends that share our values, and we need to caution ourselves that when we take our faith to the public square, we need to use language of universal values, not of our particular faith. If nothing else, using an argument that depends on a religious doctrine will not be persausive to those who do not share a belief in this doctrine. As Obama tried to say, our language in the public square has to be universal--not sectarian.
Have the Democrats in their zeal to win a few more religious voters always recognized the danger of alienating the secular voters? Probably not. I am sure that we can do better. We therefore need to keep listening to friends like The Exterminator when they think we cross the line (Heck, I stopped using "Militant Atheist" thanks to The Exterminator!). And for the very reason that our secular friends are an important part of the very base of the support of the Democratic Party, we need to be doubly sure we do nothing to lose their support and friendship.
Still, it seems to me that this is the appropriate line--we can use language of faith with the faithful as long as our own faith is genuine, and we remind our audience that the value we aim to implement in the public square are ones that are shared by many beleivers and non-believers alike outside the circle of our faith.