Barack Obama on the role of religion in politics

| May 13, 2007 | 58 Replies

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.

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Category: Politics, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (58)

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  1. NIklaus Pfirsig says:

    The Christian fundamentalists are beingscammed by the money worshipping neocons to promote an agenda, A large part of the misinformation strategy used to enjoin true believers against the “Goddless, left-wing commie libruls” is based on the lie that the founding fathers of the United States of America intended this nation to be a Christian nation.

    A lesser known document, written by the founding fathers, generally known as the treaty of Tripoli is quite explicit on the role of religion in government and the role of government in religion:

    “As the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

    NOte: Muselmen was the period spelling of Muslims.

    This clearly states the opinion of the found fathers on the matter.

  2. Tim Hogan says:

    It should be noted that the Treaty of Tripoli was unanimously ratified by the US Senate and the text, including Article XI, was published around the United States and did not arouse any dissent or even mild discussion on the issue of the secular and not religious nature of the United States as a sovereign nation.

  3. Karl says:

    So tell me Niklaus,

    Just how could anyone conceive of the creation a nation or even a government founded upon the Christian Religion? How does one put into governing documents that all have sinned and come short of the Glory of God? How does one appeal the the kinder affections of man towards one another when all some men will recognize is the use of power to either subdue others or be subdued themselves.

    How would one put into codes and “legalese” the values of loving the Lord Thy God with all thy heart, mind, soul, and strength and thy neighbor as thy self?

    How does one include “God” in a constitution of “we the People?”

    It is fairly clear that the last men standing in the governments of most immoral cultures (if any could even be described as still standing) have been mostly soem combination of pagans, atheists and anarchists who had no need of any moral values to govern themselves other then what they consider to be “me and my people.”

    This is why nearly all of our founding fathers stated explicitly, our constitution is totally inadequate to rule any other than a morals and religion people.

    This is a quote from John Adams “we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

  4. Jim Razinha says:

    Bingo, Mark, and thanks. I’m tired of hearing that refrain Karl repeated. Every now and then my spam filter lets one of those emails through…usually from an old high school friend who has never heard of snopes (despite several of us pointing it out each time)…you know the ones: destroying Christmas, kissing up to his Muslim brothers (love those almost as much as the birthers’).

    I wonder what the folks that don’t understand the real founders would think of Washington, newly elected but not yet inaugurated first president, almost being arrested for not going to church. Would Reagan’s consultation with astrologists offend the RIGHT today, or is he beyond reproach?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Jim: As to your question about Reagan’s association with astrology (my understanding is that it was Nancy Reagan who dabbled), I have consulted today’s horoscope and it indicates that Reagan is beyond reproach.

  5. Karl, you’re talking out your ass. First, what “immoral cultures” are you referring to? Secondly, governmental structures are there to regulate ethical behavior, which is similar to but not the same as morality. It has been seen time and again that legislating morality has often horrible unintended consequences.

    You have a problem with individuals choosing their own path if that path includes any of a number of choices proscribed in your holy book, so you wish the government to do something about such choices. I on the other hand would not seek to curtail you from seeing the universe any way you please, either as an emergent effulgence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the magically manifested abra cadabra of Yahweh, so long as you don’t try to impose the death penalty on me for having sex with a woman not my wife or try to stone the woman in question for the same.

    But to my first point, you seem to think that the process of rise and fall of civilizations is somehow a judgment on said civilizations rather than the consequence of cultural entropy. I don’t care how righteous a culture is, if there is sufficient interaction with others there will be an ebb and flow—to use an inadequate but easily understandable phrase, It’s Natural. So I have to wonder which cultures and civilizations you have in mind for the special treatment of collapse by divine judgment as opposed to those who have been righteous and upstanding and are still around.

    Oh. None of them. Gosh, I guess they were all immoral and corrupt. But then, there’s no counterexample to support you thesis that this has anything to do with them being bad people rather than just victims of inevitable historical process.

  6. Karl says:

    There are no counter examples because people keep thinking their way of thinking about life and morality is all they have to go on and so they refuse to learn from history. Sure it’s an historical process but not one that we are incapable of learning from unless we think we can somehow expect a different outcome – but that’s simply called insanity.

    The Governmental system of the USA has shown itself to be capable of transferring leadership to the next generation without tremendous bloodshed and chaos. Our Nations Debt has now met out GPD, no matter what we do there will be no coming back from this one. Every minute that ticks by makes us increasingly legal debtor to others and not capable legally of living in the freedoms we have given away.

  7. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Karl
    For centuries, most of Europe was under the rule of governments founded on the principles of Christianity. There were no governing documents, there were no laws other than the fiat decrees of the kings, who claimed their authority as a divine birthright.

    Christianity has always been a religion of the oppressed, and it nurtures within its dogma of blind unquestioning faith the perfection of subservience to the oppressors. It was from the oppression of a king who ruled an empire under his claim of authority granted him through divine right that we fought and won our freedom.

    BTW, the John Adams quote in its context:

    “While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned us by Providence. But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation, while it is practising iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candour, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world. Because we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. Oaths in this country are as yet universally considered as sacred obligations. That which you have taken, and so solemnly repeated on that venerable ground, is an ample pledge of your sincerity and devotion to your country and its government.” –John Adams

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