Sunday, August 26, 2007

Faith and Politics

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.


Virginia Karwoski said...

For me, the revelation of Mother Teresa's letters tell me that the
hypocrasy sometimes felt at the
questioning of our faith is a natural struggle to be dealt with on a day to day basis.
Faith has highs and lows. The lows are a confusing and dark place in which hopefullly, we emerge and hope God forgives us our doubts.

The Exterminator said...


I think it's fine to tailor a political speech to a particular audience, e.g. churchgoers. The problem with doing so in these times, however, is that the speech then gets picked up by the media and is presented as if it reflects a general viewpoint, which then feeds further media coverage, which then locks the candidates into their positions, which then ...

On a Sunday morning news show recently, all the candidates were asked to address the issue of prayer. And not one spoke up to say that the question was inappropriate. The responses were varied, and some of them -- Obama's among these -- were more palatable than others to secular ears. But even the candidates who went out of their way to indicate that prayer was a private, not public, matter, ran into trouble. Richardson, for example stressed that prayer was personal, but he also commented "I think it's important that we have faith, that we have values" as if it were impossible to have values without faith. Only Gravel declined to board the faith train. (Instead, though, he quoted the sentiments expressed in hippie song lyrics of the '60s. Yikes!)

On my blog, I posted the transcript of this segment of the debate. I included what I might have said if I were a candidate. But basically, I was left speechless at the Democratic answers to the question, as the title of my post indicates. Exterminator at a Loss for Words?

J Morales said...

I found this a very reasonable and well-considered post.

I quite concur, "it seems to me that this is the appropriate line--we can use language of faith with the faithful" - in a sense - but the caveat is "as long as our own faith is genuine".

I don't believe it can be so for such a large majority.

Do you?

J Morales said...

Reading my own comment, I realise I was unclear.

When I said "[appropriate] in a sense", by that I meant that a politician would be foolish to use language objectionable to his audience.

Gary Aknos said...

IRS complaint filed against the United Church of Christ over Obama speech!

Check it out!

JR said...

It's fascinating to me to watch this conversation go on, as the violent reaction of secularists to even the slightest hint of attempts to make religious people feel at home in the Democratic Party is evidence of something bigger. This is the slow but steady loss of the disproportionate influence of the non-religious crowd within the Democratic Party.

Numerically, secularists are over-represented amongst Party staff and in the activist community, and so perhaps that disproportionate influence is warranted; however, with the increased influence of minority communities and the inevitable need for any future Democratic majority to include the working-class Whites who were lost in part over the perception of Democrats as hostile to religion, this loss of power and influence by secularists is a necessary growing pain if the Democrats are to re-secure status as a majority party.

In the end, it is the commitment to progressive principles of internal democracy and responsiveness to the values of the rank-and-file members that ultimately will be the downfall of the brief reign of influence of the secular community on the mainstream American left.

John Morales said...

I consider that the assertion "Numerically, secularists are over-represented amongst Party staff and in the activist community" is debatable.

Perhaps you mean atheists and not secularists?

John Morales said...

Excuse me, I should have said in my last comment that I am J Morales.

You didn't answer the question I asked in my original comment, by the way.

Was I naive to expect you to?

Chuck Blanchard said...

To all:

Sorry for the delay in responding to the comments, but i have been quite busy at work and also wanted to see how this conversation proceeded.

Exterminator: your point about the media picking up even speeches done to a fiath audience is a point well taken, which is why care needs to be taken not to exclude even in these audiences. Nonetheless, I still think that this is an apopropriate line to cross. On the prayer question--I have no problem with a candidate answering truthfully about their own prayers, but i agree that it would be nice if at least one candidate made a gesture of inclusiveness.

John Morales: I can't speak for all candidates, but from what I know both from friends who work with them, Obama, Edwards and Clinton are people with a genuine faith. I might also add that it can be appropriate for even a secularist to speak "faith talk" to a faith audience as long as there is no pretense of a false faith. E.O. Wilson is not a Christian and does not pretend to me. Still, he wrote a book directed to Christians about climate change that was very well done. What is insulting to everyone is the pretense of faith when there is none there.

JR--I don't really think this is about power within the Democratic Party,. I think that there is genuine fear by secularists that the Democratic Party aims to replace a theocracy of the religious right with a theocracy of the religious left. I don't think this is the case, and we ought to be careful to communicate that this is indeed, not the case.

We want a party that is welcoming to the faithful, but also to our allies among the secularists.

John Morales said...

I appreciate the time you've taken to respond to me, Chuck. It's clear you do believe that the vast majority are honest in their profession of faith.

I still don't understand, however, why you either conflate or euphemise atheism with secularism. It seems deliberate and disingenuous.

Chuck Blanchard said...


I appreciate that the term "secularist" can be a bit unclear. For example, I am religious, but beleive in a secular, non-sectarian government. I don't mean secularist in way. Instead, I mean those who are not actively religious--which is a larger group that atheists--it could mean agnostics, and those who may have some religious beleifs. but who are not activley religious. My point is that of these folks (not just atheists) may be threated by faith talk in the public square.

John Morales said...

Ah, that seems more reasonable - I was being paranoid.

I use the word "irreligious", myself, to refer to that particular category of people.

Since atheist and secularist have quite separate and specific meanings, the use of either term when referring to the irreligious produces ambiguities.

Regarding your point, it is now almost clear to me. By "threatened by faith", did you mean that or did you mean threatened by the results of applied faith (as historically documented)? Because I consider these two different things, and I suspect the second far closer to the truth.

Chuck Blanchard said...


I mean your second meaning--threatened by the fear of the imposition of religious doctrines by the political process.

John Morales said...

It is interesting that I, an atheist, find your position on this matter (given your beliefs) more reasonable than that of Exterminator, whose values I share.

My own position differs because I believe that there are many more irreligious people about than you consider is the case.

For instance, in my pubescence I was an altar-boy at a Catholic church while already an atheist. To me, it was merely easier to go through the rigmarole than to protest, yet by all demographic tests I was a practicing Catholic. I even went to confession, to appease my mother.

I don’t think I was all that unusual in that sense.

PhillyChief said...

I don't think Obama gets a pass because he was speaking to a religious audience. Don't we all get upset when politicians pander to a special interest group or say different things to different groups? Would you hold to your rationale if he spoke to a group of atheists and said:
I believe we'll not just help bring about a more hopeful day in America, we'll not just be caring for our own soulless lives, we'll be doing godless work here on Earth.

I also take offense to "non-believers can be a part of this politics of conscience". Oh we can? Even us, the godless? Gosh, that's swell. Thanks a bunch. How very kind to include us.

Personally, I think the Democrats feel we atheists, agnostics and non-religious will simply vote Democrat by default so they don't worry at all if what they say upsets us. What, we'd vote Republican? Hand the religious right more power? Of course not, so we're stuck. It's a frustrating result of having only two political parties. The Democrats know that many christians feel they've been duped by the Republicans. I mean, look at Kuo's book. Nasty. So they're going after them. Whether they honestly have faith or not doesn't matter to me, but their language of implying it's necessary or condescendingly admitting we non-religious can be on the bus too (as long as we sit in the back, maybe) is infuriating and a far cry from speaking in "universal terms".