Until tonight, I hadn’t taken the time to fully research Barack Obama’s position on the role of religion in politics. His broad-minded and inclusive position is quite extraordinary. Here is the video of Obama’s “Call to Renewal Keynote Address” in Washington, DC on June 28th, 2006. Here is a fairly accurate (but imperfect) transcript of that speech.
The 40-minute speech contains many gems of wisdom. I will quote only one portion of the speech here and invite everyone to watch the video in its entirety:
Given the increasing diversity of America’s population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. 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.
And even if we did have only Christians within our borders, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? James Dobson’s, or Al Sharpton’s? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Levitacus, 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 so radical that it’s doubtful that our Defense Department would survive its application?
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 may be difficult for those 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 the possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It insists on the 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; to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.
I have never before heard a politician speaking so frankly yet comfortably on the topic of religion. Obama’s speech gives me hope that we can find a way to work together as one country. He is one of the very few American politicians who has specifically invited good-hearted non-believers to sit at the same table as good-hearted believers. He is one of the very few politicians to say what needs to be said about religious zealotry: that the insincere believers out there, those who merely invoking the name of God without showing good will, shouldn’t get a political leg up on anyone else. Obama makes it clear that using one’s own Religion as a sword against non-believers or against those who belong to minority sects is unacceptable intolerant aggression, pure and simple.
Obama thus envisions a tent that isn’t big enough for every single American, because some of us have been too thoroughly poisoned by the fear-mongering, name-calling and the scape-goating of the past six years. But there is hope for the rest of us and, ultimately, for all of us.