Obama’s Religious Speech

Several days ago, I posted a video with clips of Obama speaking in 2006 on the subject of religion. The clips were from an address in Washington DC called, “Call to Renewal,” delivered on June 28, 2006. While I agree with a lot of things Obama says in this speech (as I asked in the earlier entry, “Where is this Obama?”), it is certain that a great many Americans won’t. Obama said,

Americans are a religious people. 90 percent of us believe in God, 70 percent affiliate themselves with an organized religion, 38 percent call themselves committed Christians, and substantially more people in America believe in angels than they do in evolution.

He cited these statistics in the context of arguing why secular Americans should not so easily dismiss religion. But the video shows an attitude that will make many Christians angry, especially the expression on his face when he said that more Americans believe in angels than in evolution. Along with the crowd reaction, it’s clear that Obama mocks this belief (it is a ridiculous belief). Since Obama believes in evolution, his choice of illustration is revealing. He explains the source of religious need, and it’s no different from the remarks he made a private fundraiser that riled so many people, except that here Obama is more explicitly Marxian in his analysis. He says that religion “speaks to a hunger that’s deeper” than “the result of successful marketing by skilled preachers or the draw of popular mega-churches” and that “goes beyond any particular issue or cause.” 

They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They’re looking to relieve a chronic loneliness, a feeling supported by a recent study that shows Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than ever before. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them – that they are not just destined to travel down that long highway towards nothingness.

Recently Obama has emphasized growing up in a Christian household with a Christian mother which, he asserts, makes him Christian. But in the 2006 speech he says something very different. “I was not raised in a particularly religious household, as undoubtedly many in the audience were,” he said.

My father, who returned to Kenya when I was just two, was born Muslim but as an adult became an atheist. My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, was probably one of the most spiritual and kindest people I’ve ever known, but grew up with a healthy skepticism of organized religion herself. As a consequence, so did I.

He goes on to tell his own story of conversion, and the story sounds like the depth of his Christianity is rather shallow. This is a different account of his religious upbringing that one gets from his recent pronouncements or especially the flier he distributed throughout Kentucky. Obama says, “I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality.” And this:

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.

In the eyes of many Christians, the most damning of all things in speech are these words:

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 in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with 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 that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let’s read our bibles. Folks haven’t been reading their bibles.

The implication is that if people were reading their Bibles they would have less enthusiasm for scripture, since the Bible advocates and indeed requires all manner of immoral behavior (I have documented many more examples on Freedom and Reason). Obama claims the Bible is not inerrant (can anyone vouch for any claim the Bible makes?) and, moreover, belief in the inerrancy of the Bible is a major barrier to the rational practice of democracy – that to base policy on the Bible would be dangerous.

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.

He then gives an intriguing example: the story of Abraham and Isaac.

Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his only son, and without argument, he takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded. Of course, in the end God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute, and Abraham passes God’s test of devotion. But 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.

Since we cannot see or hear God, then it would be dangerous to base our policies on it. That’s perfectly rational. However, this is a rather curious argument in light of another statement he makes in the same speech that “secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.” And “to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

Obama frequently contradicts himself in his speeches. This is one of the reason why his speeches aren’t very good.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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