Democrat Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, has made headlines recently by talking about religion and politics. In the process, he has alienated Democrats and Republicans alike: Democrats were offended when he said “not every mention of God in the public square is a breach to the wall of separation,” and conservative Republicans were outraged when he kept referring to religious conservatives as “those people” and described them as “heavy-handed.”
Democrats were just as uneasy as Republicans when he argued that his political party ought to make a place in public discourse for religious rhetoric and a place in public policy for faith-based issues. While Obama’s warning to the left that “nothing is more transparent than inauthentic expressions of faith” was greeted across the board as long overdue, there was considerable discomfort with his assertion that the secularists were wrong to insist that believers should “leave their religion at the door before entering the public square.”
Overriding everything, though, was Obama’s tone. There is no question that he is smooth and rhetorically gifted. Nevertheless, he can also come across as patronizing and condescending to the religious right, even though he wants to bring enough of them under his party’s tent to win majorities in the midterm election.
While Obama’s remarks were described aptly by Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, as “secularism with a smile,” at least he doesn’t have a tin ear when it comes to understanding the importance of faith. He likened inauthentic efforts to reach out to evangelicals and other religious Americans to “clapping off-rhythm to the choir.” Far too many politicians –– from the right as well as the left –– are happy to resort to religious rhetoric when they think it will be helpful in relating to a particular voting demographic. The left is especially adept at wrapping a cloak of moral certainty around their controversial priorities: poverty, economic parity, the environment, social justice and gay marriage.
Hardly anyone questions Obama’s faith, but following the axiom that “actions speak louder than words,” we must point out that he has a 100-percent pro-choice voting record, and he argues that Christianity embraces “universal values” such as “inclusiveness and diversity” –– both code words for a liberal agenda.
His actual words, too, can be suspect. For instance, in describing his faith he once noted, “There are many paths to the same place.” He believes in a “higher power” but admits that he grew up going to church only on Easter because his mother was a “lonely witness for secular humanism” who believed that “rational, thoughtful people could shape their own destiny.” He is a follower not just of Christianity, he declares, but also “of our civic religion.” He claimed a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” that began nearly 20 years ago. He denied that it was a conversion experience; instead, he said it raised as many questions as it answered for him.
When Obama challenges members of the left to express their “hopes and values” to make them more relevant to evangelicals –– by which he means to capture more of the values voters –– he claims that leftist evangelical Jim Wallis “gets it” in terms of the political left’s “religious” values. Obama was alluding, of course, to Wallis’ book, "God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It."
Anyone who dared to criticize Obama’s efforts to graft progressives into the religious fold was loudly accused of believing that religious conservatives have a corner on Christianity. Jerry Falwell pointed out, however, that “the issue has never been the genuineness of someone’s faith. The issue has always been the platform.”
Even so, media coverage of Obama’s recent remarks focuses exclusively on his positive statements about faith and his attempts to connect his party to the religious center. Most accounts of his recent speeches praise his statement about “the power of faith in the lives of American people.” But, as Mohler rightly assessed, Obama’s comments are actually “far more critical of the cynical use of religion by the religious right” than a challenge to progressives to embrace faith and agree that personal beliefs should play a role in some public policies.
At a recent “Take Back America” conference, Obama titled his talk, “The End of Small Politics” and described it as an attempt to “reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic society.” He proclaimed a desire for a “deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country.” Yet, he began the discussion with long paragraphs of blatant political criticism of the current administration and Congress. He framed his whole argument as a counter to the “2,500 flag-draped coffins that have arrived at Dover Air Force Base.” He declared that the president, while he “loves this country,” has brought a “smallness of politics” and produced a Washington that “hasn’t been willing to make us believe again.”
The problem is simple, according to Obama; progressives need to tell their story in the right context. When they get that right, they won’t run into “ideological walls and partisan roadblocks.”
Frankly, Obama had to do something to move to the front of the Senate pack. He is at the bottom of seniority and has little legislation to his credit. He has stated publicly that he doesn’t “get an opportunity to frame legislation.” His only path of influence is his expertise at and access to the bully pulpit. He found the perfect route to get attention without alienating his Senate colleagues too much: He votes straight far left on the political issues while speaking with mesmerizing rhetoric about mainstream values.
That his more senior colleagues have taken on Obama’s challenge of bridging the “God-gap” is obvious in the July 12, 2006, issue of The Hill newspaper. The center story features four Democratic leaders who try to provide a record of their party’s recent efforts to “close the faith gap with the GOP.” They clearly state their intention to capture enough of the “values voters” in the upcoming midterm elections to retake Congress and win the White House in 2008. They blatantly signal their intention to portray the budget as a “moral” document. They are even devising ways to “widen the tent” regarding abortion.
Some Democrats worry, though, that the party will seem to be “fudging our principles” by manipulating conservative issues for electoral benefit; others blame “angry and activist” party leaders for placing “individual rights” ahead of “morality.”
Most of his colleagues can’t help but be glad that Obama is putting a positive face and religious patina on the tired, liberal policies –– now relabeled and marketed under the “progressive” brand name –– that have doomed his party at election time. While some of his leftist colleagues seem coolly calculating or awkward when they talk about faith and values, he comes across as a man of conviction and integrity who is comfortable in his own skin. He is quite adept at splicing together his personal religious experiences with talk about faith and politics. Unlike those junior senators who appear politically motivated when they talk about faith and who seem always to be gauging how the establishment senators will react, Obama seems amazingly comfortable and confident while handling politically sensitive issues. He also has the canny ability to grab the spotlight while, at the same time, appearing to be deferential to his more senior colleagues.
That talent just might propel him ahead of his colleague Hillary Clinton, the junior senator from New York, in the 2008 primaries; at least, it will make him a viable candidate for the second spot on the general election presidential ballot.