Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The AP Willfully Misinterprets Barack Obama --
Cross-posted to Daily Kos

While the reaction from the religious left has been somewhat positive, other reactions Barack Obama's recent speech on religion and politics have not been as positive.

The AP's David Espo has been criticized in the past for occasional inaccuracy, laziness, and repetition of Republican talking points.

So, of course, we have an AP story by David Espo picking quotes to fit the GOP talking point of a Democratic Party hostile to religion, totally missing the point of Obama's speech to a religious left group. In fact, Espo misleads when he claims that Obama mentions leaders of the Religious Right "briefly" when the heart of the speech is about how the Religious Right must accept the separation of church and state and not support laws based solely on religious arguments.

A reporter could have easily written a less sexy story with the headline "Obama Criticizes Religious Right, Calls for Separation of Church and State" using quotes such as:

For some time now, there has been plenty of talk among pundits and pollsters that the political divide in this country has fallen sharply along religious lines. Indeed, 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.

Conservative leaders, from Falwell and Robertson to Karl Rove and Ralph Reed, have been all too happy to exploit this gap, consistently reminding evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design.

Pastors like Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes are wielding their enormous influences to confront AIDS, Third World debt relief, and the genocide in Darfur. Religious thinkers and activists like my friend Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo are lifting up the Biblical injunction to help the poor as a means of mobilizing Christians against budget cuts to social programs and growing inequality.

The tensions and suspicions on each side of the religious divide will have to be squarely addressed, and each side will need to accept some ground rules for collaboration.

While I've already laid out some of the work that progressives need to do on this, I think that the conservative leaders of the Religious Right will need to acknowledge a few things as well.

For one, they 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. That during our founding, it was not the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of this separation; it was the persecuted religious minorities, Baptists like John Leland, who were most concerned that any state-sponsored religion might hinder their ability to practice their faith.

Moreover, 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, who's Christianity would we teach in the schools?

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.

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.

Both Espo and some on the left totally miss the boat here. Obama gave a speech that appeals to many people of faith, not just evangelical Christians. The junior Senator from Illinois was addressing a progressive religious group, arguing for the separation of church and state, while maintaining that religion has a place in the public sphere. He is not criticizing Democrats for being hostile to religion, but he is accusing them of being timid on religion and ceding the debate to the Religious Right. These are two different things.

And evangelical Christians aren't all bad. African-American Protestants, many of whom are evangelical, are more socially conservative than white Protestants yet vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Maybe the Democrats will not get a majority of theologically similar whites, but there's no reason why the percentage of white evangelicals voting Democratic can't be upped 5%. It's not as if more evangelicals voting Democratic would cause a knee-jerk reaction of people abandoning the party because they can't share. The theory behind it is similar to Republican outreach to Hispanics. Howard Dean subscribes to the same ideas. He was right when he aspired to be a candidate for "guys with Confederate flags in their pick-up trucks." A 50-state strategy includes the South and you can't win in the South without picking up some votes from evangelical Christians.

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