Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Obama and Religion

I'm an atheist. Obama is very religious, perhaps the most religious of all the first-tier presidential candidates, perhaps the most religious since Jimmy Carter. Yet I continue to support him. Last night, blog-neighbor and longtime (in blog-years) correspondent Mark at Pseudo-Polymath asked how I could support Obama, given quotes like the following:
Sometimes this is a difficult road being in politics. Sometimes you can become fearful, sometimes you can become vain, sometimes you can seek power just for power’s sake instead of because you want to do service to God. I just want all of you to pray that I can be an instrument of God in the same way that Pastor Ron and all of you are instruments of God . . . We’re going to keep on praising together. I am confident that we can create a Kingdom right here on Earth.

The remarks were made at the Redemption World Outreach Center in South Carolina, an evangelical church.

Mark insinuates that I would have sharply criticized Bush for making similar statements and I think that's true. So how can I continue to support Obama? The short answer is that religion isn't everything. For the longer answer, keep reading.

I think there are two distinct but important prongs to the question of how Obama's religion affects his potential presidency. First, how does his religion inform his character? Second, how would it directly affect his policy choices if he were elected?

How does Obama's religion inform his character?

Religion can be a positive or negative influence on one's character. On the one hand, it can lead to humility, compassion, and selflessness, but on the other, it can lead to intellectual dishonesty, intolerance, and inflexibility.

Obama does not seem to suffer from the kind of intellectual dishonesty that plagues many religious people; nor is he afraid of doubt. Here's an enlightening exchange from an interview he did with Andrew Sullivan:
AS: This is I think one of the more (to me at least), the most interesting part of your candidacy. Because we live in a world in which atheism - militant, contemptuous atheism - is on the rise. Religious fundamentalism is clearly the strongest force. Your faith - this thought-through intellectual faith, in many ways, but also a communal faith – is beleaguered, isn’t it?

BO: You know, it doesn't get a lot of play these days. But, you know, reading Niebuhr, or Tillich or folks like that—those are the people that sustain me. What I believe in is overcoming - but not eliminating - doubt and questioning. I don't believe in an easy path to salvation. For myself or for the world. I think that it’s hard work, being moral. It's hard work being ethical. And I think that it requires a series of judgments and choices that we make every single day. And part of what I want to do as president is open up a conversation in which we are honestly considering our obligations - towards each other. And obligations towards the world.

Hard to imagine Bush reading Niebuhr or Tillich.

Although it's inconceivable to me that a presidential candidate would be extremely humble, Obama's faith does not seem to have given him the same lack of humility that I've mocked Bush for.

Here is Obama on gay marriage, for example, which I posted about here:
It is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided, just as I cannot claim infallibility in my support of abortion rights. I must admit that I may have been infected with society's prejudices and predilections and attributed them to God; that Jesus' call to love one another might demand a different conclusion; and that in years hence I might be seen on the wrong side of history.

"I must admit that I may have been infected with society's prejudices and predilections and attributed them to God." Wow. Could you imagine George Bush doing that kind of introspection? "... that Jesus' call to love one another might demand a different conclusion." Wouldn't our country be better off if that sentiment were more common?

Obama appears to see faith as something that compels him towards compassion and social justice. From the CNN story above:
Obama said he was pleased that leaders in the evangelical community such as T.D. Jakes and Rick Warren were beginning to discuss social justice issues like AIDS and poverty in ways evangelicals were not doing before.

It's true that George Bush ran on a platform of "compassionate conservatism," but compassion and social justice do not appear to have played much role in his presidency, to say the least. Obama, like many or most liberal religious thinkers, appears to see social justice as a preeminent focus of religion. (Indeed "social justice" might be said to be the core value of Reform Judaism, something which is mocked by many Orthodox Jews.)

In the past few decades, politicians have invoked religion almost exclusively as a way of denying other peoples' rights (gay rights, abortion rights) or as part of the rhetoric of war (evildoers, etc.) I think that Obama sees himself as having the potential of undoing that disservice to both religion and our country:
"I think that what you're seeing is a breaking down of the sharp divisions that existed maybe during the '90s," said Obama. "At least in politics, the perception was that the Democrats were fearful of talking about faith, and on the other hand you had the Republicans who had a particular brand of faith that oftentimes seemed intolerant or pushed people away..."

"I think that's a healthy thing, that we're not putting people in boxes, that everybody is out there trying to figure out how do we live right and how do we create a stronger America," Obama said.

As I see it, Obama's faith has given him (or, more precisely, Obama has identified faith for giving him) a strong drive for social justice without the arrogance that the faithful sometimes have. He also indicates that he would stop the use of religion as a wedge issue in America and I think there's reason to believe that an Obama presidency could end much of the divisiveness in America and strip the religious right of some of its power.

How would Obama's religion directly affect his policy choices if he were elected?

I've already addressed the role Obama could play in re-balancing religion's influence on controversial issues like gay rights, abortion, and social justice. What about the separation of church and state? Well, here's the big man himself:
For my friends on the right, I think it would be helpful to remember the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy but also our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn't the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn't want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves.

It was the forbearers of Evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they didn't want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it. Given this fact, I think that the right might worry a bit more about the dangers of sectarianism.

Whatever we once were, we're 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 non-believers. We should acknowledge this and realize that when we're formulating policies from the state house to the Senate floor to the White House, we've got to work to translate our reasoning into values that are accessible to every one of our citizens, not just members of our own faith community.

In summary, I believe Obama to be the best kind of religious person: authentic, humble in his beliefs, compassionate, and driven towards social justice. He and I differ on the question of God's existence, but I believe that we share the same values. I post about atheism a lot because it's an important issue in my own life, having grown up in a community I had to leave, but I don't see being an atheist as more important than being a good person and I certainly don't think that people should vote for a candidate solely because he or she is more or less religious than another one.

9 comments:

Lubab No More said...

Speaking of first tier candidates, I get the impression that Guiliani is a closet atheist.

CyberKitten said...

I'm not sure that I could totally trust any politician who wanted to do "God's Will in the world" - even someone who was a moderate theist. Though I agree that a moderate is *much* better than a hardliner.

Luckily I won't be involved in this election so I won't be required to make this choice.

cipher said...

Hard to imagine Bush reading Niebuhr or Tillich

Hard to imagine Bush having heard of Niebuhr or Tillich.

cipher said...

And, cyberkitten - Carter was a man of faith, and, leaving aside his subsequent controversial views about Israel - he was a whole different animal.

The Atheologist said...

"Hard to imagine Bush reading Niebuhr or Tillich."

"Hard to imagine Bush having heard of Niebuhr or Tillich."

Does Bush know how to read?

Comrade Kevin said...

I am a Liberal Christian, and I find the current challenge towards faith to be fundamentalism of all stripes.

Fundamentalism is a militancy that unfortunately plagues to both atheists and believers alike. We must preserve a sense of irony and furthermore, a sense that we believe what we believe, but we could be wrong.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

A key Obama quote on this topic:

"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 [NB. in fact, Obama is pro-choice], 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.

"Now this is going to be difficult for some 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 what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of 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, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing. And if you doubt that, let me give you an example.

We all know the story of Abraham and Isaac. … It's fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason."

Having read the whole speech, I think it's clear that Obama is trying to build bridges, as is his wont, between people of faith and people without. Whatever else voters think of him, they should understand that he practises a "big tent" approach to politics. He wants believers in the tent; but not at the price of making it impossible for non-believers to stand with him.

Foofooness 6 said...

Obama is trying to get elected. No leader is a good person. To be a leader you have to be charismatic, agressive, narcissistic, and highly competitive: nice people don't make it there.

Phil said...

Why an athiest should still support Obama: "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." (Barack Obama - 2006)