The Right Mix of Religion and Politics
In a story from his 2004 campaign for Senator of Illinois, Obama recalled how his rival, Alan Keyes, accused him of behaving "in a way that it is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved." Obama held views that Keyes believed to be in opposition to Christianity, and therefore he summarily dismissed Obama's faith. Though Obama answered these accusations with what he said "has come to be the typically liberal response in such debates...we live in a pluralistic society...I can't impose my own religious views on another," he felt that he had not fully represented his beliefs on the matter. Ultimately, he knew that his "answer did not adequately address the role my faith has in guiding my own values and my own beliefs."
Thus Obama set out, in 2006, to give the answer that he should have given in 2004. In much the same way that he so eloquently and thoroughly answered the nagging race questions raised during his presidential campaign with what has come to be called, simply, "Obama's speech on race," his Call to Renewal speech serves, I believe, as a template for a healthy mix of politics and religion.
After stating in no uncertain terms that secularists are wrong to ask religious people to leave their beliefs "at the door before entering into the public square," the remainder of his speech outlined three important facets of the relationship between faith and politics.
He began by affirming the importance of the separation between church and state in insuring, not only that the government of the people does not become a theocracy, but also, more relevant to the founding father's intentions, that the practice of religion is not dictated by the government. In so doing, the first myth that must be surrendered is the claim that the United States is a Christian nation. "We are no longer just a Christian nation," he said. "We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers." He further illustrated the religious diversity in this country by positing the hypothetical situation in which there were no other adherents of other religions in the US, only Christians, and asking then, "whose Christianity would we teach in the schools?"
Obama's second point stated that the concerns of the religiously motivated must be translated into universal values. That is, although believers, including Obama himself, undoubtedly come to their political positions based on their religious convictions, when they submit these positions to the public square, they must do so in such a way that acknowledges the plurality of the populace. Clearly, this will involve compromise. If I understand that the only reason I hold to a certain position is due to my religious convictions, I must either find a way to express these so that they have universal appeal, or recognize their place in my personal life but not in society.
Obama illustrated the point brilliantly through the story of Abraham and Isaac. If any of those in attendance, he said, saw Abraham with the knife raised above Isaac's head, they would act to stop him from murdering his son. They would be operating on the basic and universal belief that murder is wrong, and would not have access to the special instruction that God gave Abraham. So too must believers and non-believers appeal to the values we share, as opposed to special revelation.
Finally, Obama called for a sense of proportion from both sides. This, he said, is already widely understood and practiced by Christians in the United States. We understand that certain Biblical teachings are essential to faith and must be accepted, whereas others are more open to interpretation, more amenable to compromise in a pluralist society. For those who are not religious, however, he also calls for proportion, pointing out that not every mention of God in public is a violation of the separation between Church and State, and that prayer groups in school do not threaten our democracy.