Barack Obama Hangs the Right’s Rhetoric on a Prayer

By: Alexander CarpenterToday, the man President Bush calls “the pope” delivered an incisive speech articulating a principled way forward in the American debate over faith and public life. I saw it four rows away, and it was good.

Speaking at the First National City Church, to a packed audience of mainline, evangelical, and Catholic progressive activists, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) began with a story familiar to many—having his religious bona fides questioned because he wasn’t conservative enough. Pushing past both the Right’s patently parochial rhetoric and the secular stammer of the left, the senator swung back with a vision for American values rooted in his hopeful prayer that “reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all.”

The only African-American in the U. S. Senate, and only the third since reconstruction, Obama pointed out that the “single biggest 'gap' in party affiliation among white Americans today is not between men and women, or those who reside in so-called Red States and those who reside in Blue, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don't.” And thus it follows that “we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people.”

While this might seem like easy words for the crowd, already the DailyKos community contains some prickly posts worried over the senator's recognition that “under God” is not the most difficult or stultifying aspect of a child’s school life. Read their posts here as well as some Obama defenders who urge people to read the whole speech, not just the AP MSM angle.

But Obama is no religious ideologue, sharing in the speech about his own secularist upbringing, and even after joining the Trinity United Church of Christ he recognizes the value that doubt plays in the search for meaning. He points out that one American's doubt shouldn't force another's awkward silence. In fact, the Left's religious sotto voce leaves it unable to call the country to high ideals.

Not long ago Hendrik Hertzberg at the New Yorker noted the junior Democratic senator joking at the Gridiron dinner. “You hear this constant refrain from our critics that Democrats don’t stand for anything,” Obama said. “That’s really unfair. We do stand for anything.”

Listening to today's speech it's clear that Barack offers progressives (and the Democratic party) a new religious principle on which to stand.

He opposed CAFTA, has called for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and even in a skeptical The Nation article entitled "Mr. Obama Goes to Washington," David Sirota notes the junior senator's "rare flash of defiance when he unsuccessfully pushed legislation this year to create an Office of Public Integrity." Obama has even blogged on DailyKos, addressing the sphere's two dominant topics: troops out of Iraq and into Darfur. “They are exactly right to be fired up about Darfur, he writes. "It is in our national interest to stop states from failing, and to stop genocide. But they also have to recognize that if we are willing to engage militarily in those circumstances, then there certainly are situations that call for direct military engagement in defense of our national interests.” He adds, "we are less equipped to deal with Iran because of the Iraq war.”

But Obama's short record and today's speech reveals more than progressive ideals and sharp political timing. He also envisions a way forward that eschews the Right's solipsistic rhetorical grip on American values. He sees that the solutions to gun violence, poverty, war and failed immigration policy lie in our ability to turn personal ideals into broad movements for the common good:

“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.”

By saying to the faithful and the secular of all varieties that the American conversation should always be privately honest and publicly plural, today, Obama leads a party hung by others’ prayer to a new vision for faith in public life.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4539