Mixing Church and State: Is Obama Un-American?

Obama said yesterday that his life “has been a journey that began decades ago on the South Side of Chicago, when, working as a community organizer, helping to build struggling neighborhoods, I let Jesus Christ into my life. I learned that my sins could be redeemed and that if I placed my trust in Christ, that he could set me on the path to eternal life when I submitted myself to his will and I dedicated myself to discovering his truth and carrying out his works.”

He then said, “The challenges we face today—war and poverty, joblessness and homelessness, violent streets and crumbling schools—are not simply technical problems in search of a ten-point plan. They are moral problems, rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness, in the imperfections of man. And so the values we believe in—empathy and justice and responsibility to ourselves and our neighbors—these cannot only be expressed in our churches and our synagogues [not mosques], but in our policies and in our laws.

Whatever feelings of satisfaction religion has given Barack Obama, it has no official role to play in public policy making—not if the First Amendment means anything. As Obama said in his 2006 speech on religion, “To base one’s life on [the] uncompromising commitments [of religion] may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.” Yet Obama’s advocacy of faith-based government interventions in social problems contradicts his formerly-held principled stance in defense of church-state separation. Obama’s mixing of church and state is no mere pragmatic move to the center (whatever that might mean). Obama’s advocacy of faith-based government-funded programs are tantamount to pushing down the central pillar supporting enlightened civilization.

Obama’s argument about technical and moral problems is deeply misguided. Joblessness and homelessness are indeed moral problems, but their solutions lie not in religion, but in reform and revolution. Joblessness is a consequence of capitalism’s inability to put everybody to work, the result of the pursuit of profit rather than human need. Worse, capitalism is predicated on the exploitation of many families by a few families. A truly moral society would be one in which no person is compelled to rent her body to the minority of families living in unearned opulence. Restricted access to the means of production and sharp constraints on the ability to generate adequate incomes that result from he imperative to generate wealth for those who run the economy make it impossible for everybody to provide for themselves and their families.

It’s not secularism that fails us, but capitalism. Joblessness and homelessness are the inevitable material consequences of the economic system in which we (do not choose to) live. The only capitalist countries that have approached the moral goals of eliminating joblessness and homelessness are those societies that have used government to ameliorate the social harm of capitalism. These societies are the more secular of all societies. These societies have low rates of poverty and do not often make war. Most of their citizens are atheist or agnostic.

The immorality of the present situation of humankind—poverty, war, and insecurity—issues from violations of universal human rights, rights embedded in the objective needs of human beings, not in any religious conception of morality. Joblessness and homelessness have nothing to do with the “imperfections of man,” an oppressive concept embedded in particular mythological conceptions of the world, the chief one being Christianity, in which an invisible being represents all that is good in the universe and human beings, polluted and sinful, are held to fall far short of that godly standard. 

In this mythology, humans are believed to be perfected only after death and then only after submitting their lives to the tyranny of religious doctrine. Failure to submit oneself to the love of the invisible being exposes the person to eternal torture, contradicting the premise of a loving god. Christianity is an essentially authoritarian ideology if conceived of in the manner in which Obama has articulated his faith. Eternal life and redemption require him, Obama says, to place his “trust in Christ.”

Obama concludes that “the values we believe in—empathy and justice and responsibility to ourselves and our neighbors—these cannot only be expressed in our churches and our synagogues, but in our policies and in our laws.” Here Obama has switched premise and conclusion to mitigate the fear progressives and secularists may experience upon examining his words. 

Putting premise and conclusion in the right order yields, and I paraphrase: “Secular policies and laws cannot alone realize the values we believe in—empathy and justice and responsibility to ourselves and our neighbors. Our government must rely on our churches and our synagogues to bring to our citizens the religious understanding necessary to solve our moral problems, and therefore I propose to expand Bush’s faith-based initiative, which will transfer tax payer dollars from the public trust to the bank accounts of religious institutions.”  

This is the real conclusion of Obama’s argument, and this conclusion represents a profoundly un-American stance—if patriotism is to be judged in terms of how committed a person is to the bedrock principles of American civilization as articulated in the US Bill of Right: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” If patriotism is anything, it is this.

Published by

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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