Obama, Alabama, etc.

Yesterday, my senator Barack Obama made a speech about how Democrats need to embrace faith. The speech is here.

Already, I’ve received a couple emails from Atheist organizations opposing the comments he made. For them, any expression of faith in the public square is anathema to their own agenda.

What did Obama say? Definitely not that we should merge church and state. Instead, he said:

“Liberals dismiss religion… thinking that the very word ‘Christian’ describes one’s political opponents, not people of faith.”

“If we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.”

“Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.”"Moreover, if we progressives shed some of these biases, we might recognize the overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country.”

For anyone who thinks he was soft on fundamentalists, he added:

“[Conservative leaders of the Religious Right] need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice.”

“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.” (Boldface is mine)

“And even if we did have only Christians within our borders, who’s 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 Leviticus, 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?”

“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.”

To clarify, Obama is not suggesting that religion be the sole guide in public policy decisions. The government should primarily use reason and evidence, with religion giving their decisions a context.

Now, what is wrong with any of that? Why have Obama’s comments caused any uproar at all in the secular community? We should be proud of him.

A friendly Atheist couldn’t have said it better.

I returned from Iceland where I presented at an international Atheist conference. While the whole experience was great, two things from the conference itself stood out to me.

First, after I spoke about the eBay auction and being a “Friendly Atheist,” a man came up to me and told me he had been an Angry Atheist for a long time–it hadn’t gotten him anywhere, but he enjoyed the demeanor. After hearing what I said, though, he was going to make an effort to be more friendly when talking to his religious friends and family. What a beautiful comment to hear.

On a different note, I also learned that while the overwhelming majority of Icelanders (about 90%) were Lutheran, it didn’t play as major a role in politics as it does in America. It seemed to be a cultural issue more than theological.

The whole concept of “secular Europe” is still a shocking one to me… One of the Icelandic speakers presented a comparison between the natives’ views on religion versus Americans’ views. The discrepancy was embarrassing. While over 40% of Americans believed in a 10,000 year old world and nearly 70% believed in the devil and Hell, the numbers for Icelanders was near 0% for the young-earth idea and less than 10% for the devil and Hell. It was a distinction about letting religion guide your life while still using evidence and common sense when it came to scientific issues. Unfortunately, not everyone knows how to separate the two in America.

Karen from Parkview Christian Church addressed the “Creationism for My Child’s Teacher” controversy:

Just wanted to weigh in and let you all know that Pastor Tim has been out of town and just hasn’t had a minute to address some of the questions posted here about his paper “Creationism for My Child’s Teacher” beyond his earlier post. We did do some tweaking, however, to address concerns about the use of the NG cover. We still like the cover…it asks the question that we want to ask ~ “Was Darwin Wrong?” But we added a caption making it clear that NG’s answer to the question was “No.” We also removed reference to the NG cover in Tim’s “Dear Teacher” letter on page 3. We felt there were legimate objections to our previous use of the cover and we wanted to rectify that. See Creationism For My Child’s Teacher.

That’s a wonderful start! Good for Karen, Tim, and the Parkview staff for correcting that mistake. There are still many other errors in the document, however, that were brought up in earlier discussions. I’m curious if they plan to correct anything else or if they’re hoping that this alteration appeases us enough.

This weekend, I’m off to Alabama for an Atheist retreat at Lake Hypatia (or as they like to call it, the “Lake Hypatia Advance”… nice). I’ll be back next week!

  • http://www.conversationattheedge.com/ Helen aka Ir

    Barack Obama: 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.”

    He included nonbelievers? Wow, awesome! He continues to impress me :)

  • Siamang

    Crossposted from Conversations at the Edge:

    To me, the central question isn’t “appeasement.” It’s not that WE should somehow be placated. That’s so utterly beside the point. I doubt that Pastor Tim gives one whit what I think. What I think is immaterial to the main point.

    The point should be that Pastor Tim is square with his conscience on this stuff. If he’s fine with flawed sourcing, quotes invented from wholecloth, general intellectual dishonesty throughout, then he can live with it.

    It would say something about him. Not a positive thing, a rather negative thing, in fact. But unless his flock minds, I don’t expect him to change.

    The point isn’t “placating Siamang.” The point should be that he grasps the seriousness with which he should take his position of authority, and that he shouldn’t sling it around casually when speaking of matters of science to people who have entrusted him to guide their church.

    To quote people without checking the provenance of the quotes is a misuse of his pulpit, to the point of arrogance. If you are going to quote people, especially people who do not agree with you, you have a RESPONSIBILITY to quote them HONESTLY. Do NOT take their words out of context. Do NOT make it seem like they agree with you when they frankly DO NOT.

    I’ll add here: I do hope that this change is the start of something, and not the end of something. I think this conversation should continue.

    A cynical part of me says that this will be the end of it.

  • Siamang

    I’m glad that Senator Obama has what I view as an authentic experience of personal faith. I don’t think he’s pandering. I think his views are authentic.

    But could we ever imagine, even within our lifetimes a politician of national office speaking movingly and openly about his or her experience as an atheist?

    The minute we have a politician making a similar speech talking about how we shouldn’t demean or discount people with no faith we can start having a discussion about faith in politics. One four-word bone thrown to us, notwithstanding.

    Sorry, but I feel left out of Obama’s speech. Wow, bold politician embraces Christianity. In other news: Water Still Wet.

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  • jim

    Spread this idea and you’ll really have to call yourself The First Atheist Pastor – nice work again

  • jim

    My previous comment was in response to this interaction you mentioned

    “After hearing what I said, though, he was going to make an effort to be more friendly when talking to his religious friends and family. What a beautiful comment to hear”.

  • Eliza

    Barack Obama’s speech was given at the “Pentecost 2006: Building a Covenant for a New America” conference at National City Christian Church in Washington D.C. – Jim Wallis is the first speaker listed on the program. The purpose of the conference was to: “Join Rev. Jim Wallis and hundreds of grassroots and faith-based anti-poverty leaders for three days of putting faith into action through workshops, Hill visits, inspiring speeches, and music, with the goal of building the political will to overcome poverty!” (Rick Santorum was one of the speakers; the others whose names I recognize are all pretty liberal.)

    So while I like what Sen. Obama said, it also sounds like “preaching to the choir” – so to speak – except for the bit about this being a nation of people of many different beliefs, and no religious beliefs. That added something this conference didn’t have as part of its agenda.

    I’d really like to hear political leaders speaking out against sectarianism and for compassion, and compassionate work, for/with the underserved, explicitly including people of all faiths and of no faith in the message, as Sen. Obama takes a better step toward this than anyone else I’ve heard. Lately, at least. (BTW, I’d recommend Jim Wallis’s book “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.”)

    I think the Democrats have to get more comfortable with speaking about faith, but emphasizing inclusion and compassion and the harm of sectarianism. Because the truth is, it’s an important part of public as well as private life in America, and by not addressing it they seem to come across as being anti-religion or religiously apathetic – a political death sentence in many parts of the country! I do believe firmly in separation of church and state, but not in separation of compassion and state. So far, by trying not to address religion, the Democrats are ceding religion largely to the Republicans, and I’m not happy with the results that has given us.

  • Siamang

    Democrats need to disentangle religion from the abortion question before they can get christian voters to listen to them.

    The problem is the party leadership keep seeing them as a single issue. prolife=noChristians.

    It’s utter garbage, but that’s politicians for you.

  • Siamang

    Barack Obama is sweeping and authentic-sounding in his speech where he says

    “Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.””Moreover, if we progressives shed some of these biases, we might recognize the overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country.”

    Hemant asks, “What’s wrong with that?”

    Here’s what’s wrong. Obama spends plenty of time in the speech dressing down “some secularists” within the democratic party.

    “More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem here is rhetorical – if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice. ”

    My problem with that is twofold. One, I think he’s missing the key difference between Democrats and the Democratic party leadership. Democrats ARE theists. The vast majority of them believe in God. The majority of them are Christians. He has bought into the Republican projection of what the Democratic party is, and then selling it back to us. While he’s at it, perhaps he should lecture us on how we should be more patriotic, and also tell us that we need to be more moral. Oh yeah, and we need to hate America less. This is utter poppycock.

    The second thing is, if Barack Obama wants to talk more about God, he should do it. He shouldn’t spend his speech telling other people to talk about God more. Lead by example, not by admonishment. For instance, he said:
    “More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. ”
    Excuse me, but where does that leave candidates who DON’T believe in God? What the hell are they supposed to do to “effectively address the issues in moral terms?” Is there any possibility to the idea that some democratic candidates exist who do not believe in God, and remain silent on the issue because of the bigotry of the electorate? Do such candidates exist in Obama’s mind?

    If Obama wants to talk about faith and morality and how they interconnect for him, he’s welcome to. Unlike the unnamed “some progressives” I do not ask believers to check their faith at the door before entering the public square. On the contrary, I fight for his freedom to speak his mind and exercise his faith. I don’t know who these unnamed “secularists” are who are gagging him, but I’m sure Bill O’Reilly will list them for us, as they’re probably those people waging the non-existant war on Christmas.

    “I am not suggesting that every progressive suddenly latch on to religious terminology. Nothing is more transparent than inauthentic expressions of faith – the politician who shows up at a black church around election time and claps – off rhythm – to the gospel choir.”

    I’m sure this line got a laugh. But what IS he saying to candidates without faith? What do they do? Why, they do what they always do, either clap akwardly OR they remain silent on issues of faith and hope it doesn’t come up in the campaign. The elephant in the room is the bigotry of the electorate against atheism. To not address it is to build a false worldview to argue from.

    ” But what I am suggesting is this – secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.”
    I’m sorry, but straw man. I never ask that. What I do ask is that believers not use the power of the government to prosthletize, either with forcing my daughter to swear oaths to God in schools, or by removing science from classrooms. Big, huge difference. What I DO ask is that judges decide what is and isn’t an infringement of my rights, not a senator saying I shouldn’t fight for them, because it might lose politicians some votes.
    He can speak about his faith all he wants. It’s a free country. It might even, you know, win him votes. But he’s wrong to admonish others in his party to talk about faith more, unless he’s speaking purely in the cynical sense of “this will win you votes.” Because someone telling others to talk more about faith is to assume they HAVE faith. The faithless will be noted by their silence on the issue, and that’s a terrible place to be.
    In Obama’s worldview, silence on the issues of faith is the same as demeaning faith. I see nothing of the sort. Silence is the only pragmatic and yet honest reaction that an atheist candidate for national office can have.

    In other words, Obama’s a typical politician. Pandering for votes. Telling other people how they should live, and how they should be authentic, like he is.

    And all the while, he completely ignores the real issues.

    (crossposted from off the map)

  • http://www.friendlyatheist.com Hemant

    Siamang– Maybe I am giving Obama the benefit of the doubt here because I like the guy. But I don’t think he’s trying to push the Republican way of thinking onto Democrats in terms of religion. He’s saying there’s a disconnect between the Christian public and the Democrats and if the Democrats want to talk to the public, they have to do a better job of speaking their language. It’s not saying to bring in God anywhere and everywhere, but to take note of the fact that religious people are out there.

    To me, if a Democrat is talking about gay rights, they have to acknowledge what the religious people are thinking and why we must instead choose a non-Biblical path. Same goes for abortion. When talking about Terri Schiavo or the like, it’s not connecting with the public to talk about the science behind her condition and simply ignore those who say God would want her to live.

    Obama is not telling Democrats to change any of their positions. He’s telling them to make them relevant to the religious (Christian) public. It’s something any politician can do, regardless of their own beliefs. At least, that’s what I’m hearing in his speech…
    I’m definitely *not* hearing Obama tell anyone to “swear oaths to God in schools, or [remove] science from classrooms.” He’s made it clear this is not what he wants.

  • Siamang

    He’s not, Hemant?

    Here’s Obama’s speech:

    “But a sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation – context matters. It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase “under God;” I certainly didn’t. ”

    He isn’t talking about removing science from classrooms, but he is advocating God in the pledge of allegiance. He’s saying that we shouldn’t fight for that freedom because of “context.”

    It seems to me the real “context” is that Democratic politicians want to win more elections.

    Excuse me, but that is not a battle being waged by the Democratic party. It’s being waged by a private citizen bringing a lawsuit. And here we have a United States Senator conflating the views of the Democratic party with the Pledge controversy. Has anyone heard any national democratic office holder voice any support at all for Newdow? No. But to hear Obama say this, you’d think removing Under God from the pledge is a plank in the party platform.

    I understand when Fox News pundits seek to tar the Democratic party with the unpopular position of taking God out of the pledge. I do not understand when a democratic politician does it.

    And so in my eyes we have a US Senator and probable future presidential candidate telling private citizens that they SHOULDN’T take their grievance to court, because it hurts the electoral chances of a gaggle of politicians. He invokes the memory of civil rights leaders. I’m sure that in the Civil Rights era similar arguments were made to Dr. King: “Calm down, don’t fight this, you’ll make the progressives lose elections.”

    You wrote:
    “When talking about Terri Schiavo or the like, it’s not connecting with the public to talk about the science behind her condition and simply ignore those who say God would want her to live.”

    Yeah, but the VAST majority of Americans were AGAINST what the Republicans did in the Schiavo case. They did it anyway, and told Democrats that they were the ones who didn’t know how to speak to the common people. You seem to have bought that argument.

    From Wikipedia:

    “According to an ABC News poll from March 21, 2005, 70 % of Americans believed that Schiavo’s death should not be a federal matter, and were opposed to the legislation transferring the case to federal court. In the same poll, when ABC said “Terri suffered brain damage and has been on life support for 15 years. Doctors say she has no consciousness and her condition is irreversible,” 63 % said that they support the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube. Sixty-seven percent agreed with the statement that “elected officials trying to keep Schiavo alive are doing so more for political advantage than out of concern for her or for the principles involved.”
    A poll by CBS News reported on March 23 showed that 82 % of respondents believed Congress and the President should stay out of the matter, while 74 % thought it was “all about politics.” Only 13 % thought Congress acted out of concern for Schiavo. Furthermore, the approval ratings of Congress sank to 34 %, its lowest since 1997. ”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_opinion_and_activism_in_the_Terri_Schiavo_case

    Okay, so 82% of Americans were against the Republican position on Schiavo. It was a phenomenally unpopular move. Are you sure that Democrats don’t know how to connect with the public on this?

    You wrote:

    “But I don’t think he’s trying to push the Republican way of thinking onto Democrats in terms of religion. He’s saying there’s a disconnect between the Christian public and the Democrats and if the Democrats want to talk to the public, they have to do a better job of speaking their language.”

    I think he’s bought into the Republican way of throwing democrats under the bus on the topic of religion and morality.

    Listen, if Democrats want to win elections, they need to up the God talk. I’ll say that, purely cynically speaking. Obama is welcome to talk about his faith all he wants to. This could have been a wonderful speech where Obama talked truthfully and movingly about his experience with faith. Instead it was him turning to his fellow democratic politicians and saying “shame on you, you aren’t as religious as I am, and that’s why you lose elections.”

  • Siamang

    I’m reading now from the Americans United website that there is a battle in the House Judiciary Committee over the “Pledge Protection Act.” This is a law that would strip the courts of jurisdiction over issues involving the Pledge of Allegiance.

    http://blog.au.org/

    So my assesment of Obama’s speech is incorrect, there ARE Democrats who are fighting for the Judiciary’s power to hear and decide such a case.

    It’s Obama’s right, of course, to speak his mind about this fight. And if his opinion is that it’s a fight democrats shouldn’t engage, then that’s his opinion.

    He’s not going to get my campaign donations or volunteer support arguing that position, but as he so pointedly put it, there’s more people who believe in angels than believe in evolution. Guess my rights are secondary to his electoral victory.

    He can win by trumpeting his faith. I guess that’s what matters to him.

  • http://www.friendlyatheist.com Hemant

    Siamang– Maybe I should’ve made myself more clear; Obama is referring to the Pledge in context, and to him, that’s not forcing anyone to say yes or no to God. I obviously disagree and think he needs to be more educated in this regard. But pandering aside, I still don’t think he’s telling anyone to put God, in a religious way, in public schools. He’s certainly not advocating ID in Science class. And that’s a position I could accept.
    Let it be clear I don’t agree with having “Under God” in the Pledge, but to hear him say it as he did, it’s a stance I can accept in a politician.
    If you listen to many of the national secular organizations, the Under God issue is not the most important church-state issue; it’s quite low on their list of priorities. It only gets attention because of the high-profile nature of the case. I think putting it on its own pedestal, as if it was the most important church-state issue we have to deal with, is Obama’s problem with it.

  • Siamang

    I just see his end-goal is “winning elections.” It’s to be expected in a politician. But I don’t see where I come into the picture in his speech.

    Obama seems to think there’s a secular elite running the party, and that may be the case.

    Obama seems oblivious to the very idea that behind the mask, “secularists” probably are atheists who don’t want to be denied a seat at the table because of the bigotry against atheists. That remains unsaid and perhaps unnoticed by Obama.

    The fact that christians are HOSTILE to people without faith is ommitted from the speech and from the discourse altogether. While he’s preaching to the church members in attendence of how secularists should treat christians better, I don’t hear how christians should treat secularists any better.

    What should I, as an atheist, take away from Obama’s speech?

    I take away that I shouldn’t be part of the conversation, because I harm democrats’ chances.

    If I had the money to stand up and make a big giant TV commercial that said “I am a friendly atheist, and a proud democratic supporter of Barak Obama for president” I get the feeling he’d run a million miles in the opposite direction.

  • http://www.conversationattheedge.com/ Helen aka Ir

    Maybe Obama lacks awareness of some things. What I would want to know is: can he learn? Does he want to learn?

  • Eliza

    So, his remarks weren’t perfect from the atheists’ point of view.

    First, he was speaking at a Christian conference, in a Christian church, to a Christian audience. He’s a politician; he knows how to try to reach the audience – yet to try not sound ridiculous when his comments are taken out of context on the 5 o’clock news.

    Second, I really think that it’s going to take liberal Christians pushing acceptance of people of all religions, and of no religion, for atheists to reach any kind of reasonably widespread acceptance in the U.S. This is being discussion on the Conversations on the Edge Discussion Board right now (between Siamang and Marty) – I’ll let someone else link to it, as my attempts to link in posts here seem to invariably send my stuff to the “spam” bin.

    Barack Obama might be the person to spearhead this. He’s being eyed as a future presidential candidate. Especially given that possibility, he would have to be careful about sounding too “pro-atheist” – sad but true, being friendly to atheism could be the position that dashes a candidate’s chances in this “great” country of ours.

  • Siamang

    Let’s try a link to the discussion Eliza talked about:

    http://off-the-map.org/ebayatheist/viewtopic.php?t=318

    I would have hoped that Senator Obama might be a leader in this way, but he seems to be merely tacking right.

    Although, I agree, a lot more groundwork would need to be done before we see a national candidate speak as we’d like them to about people who share the atheist worldview.

    But we’ve got openly gay members of congress. Someday I wouldn’t mind an openly atheist member of congress.

  • http://www.conversationattheedge.com/ Helen aka Ir

    Siamang, I think the problem which needs solving is public misperception of atheists. Until it is I wonder if it’s fair to expect a politician to bear the burden of the public misperception? After all, if he (or she) is sympathetic to atheist concerns, he (or she) could do more good by getting voted in, so he (or she) can bring change, than by openly supporting atheists in the current climate where doing so might prevent them getting voted in (unfortunately).

    Also – I’m thinking I’d rather see a focus on ‘this is who thoughtful people vote for, than ‘this is who atheists vote for’. Since one of the main reasons I would side with atheists in choosing a candidate is that in my experience atheists tend to be smart, thoughtful, people.

    If I had the money to stand up and make a big giant TV commercial that said “I am a friendly atheist, and a proud democratic supporter of Barak Obama for president” I get the feeling he’d run a million miles in the opposite direction.

    Rather than this, I’d like to see the problem I named worked on with TV commercials by atheists which show atheists are decent people. I don’t know if it would work but it would be interesting to see the effect of ads which went something like this…(and someone else could do this much better than me)

    “I’m friendly and thoughtful…I volunteer at my childrens’ school…

    [more things that show this person is a caring responsible parent/spouse/community member].

    There’s something else I’d like to tell you, if I could be sure it wouldn’t make you forget everything good you know about me. I’m an atheist.”

  • Natalie

    I just wanted to say that I find your site really encouraging :)

  • jim

    I dropped by to listen to atheists argue with each other for a change – it was fun to take a break from Christians doing it. Siamang continues to impress me with his tenacity for the truth, Hemant for his commitment to giving others (especially those he deeply disagrees with) the benefit of the doubt and Eliza for her willingness to go for the. big picture. And Helen… well we managed to get her running the OTM blogosphere.

    I miss talking with all of you regularly but I have houses to paint and blogs to comment in.

    Jim

  • Siamang

    Interesting obama follow-up interview on Street Prophets:

    http://www.streetprophets.com/storyonly/2006/7/11/213428/301

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