Dems 2008: Revisiting Obama’s faith-based appeals [Karl]
In order to better understand theÃ‚Â controversy over Barack Obama’s relationship withÃ‚Â the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity United Church of Christ — as well as its inevitability — it might be useful to take a brief stroll down Memory Lane.
In June 2007, Obama was the first of the Democratic presidential contenders to launch a religious outreach website.Ã‚Â At the time, Joshua DuBois, Obama’s Director of Religious Affairs, told the press:
Barack’s faith has long informed his values and public service, as it does for millions of Americans.Ã‚Â We’ve seen overwhelming support from people of faith on this campaign so we wanted to build a web community to help grassroots supporters connect with one another, tell folks a little about what Barack believes, share stories and ideas, and organize to change our country for the better.
Later that month, Obama told aÃ‚Â a national meeting of the United Church of Christ that some right-wing evangelical leaders have exploited and politicized religious beliefs in an effort to sow division.
In September 2007,Ã‚Â the Obama campaign launchedÃ‚Â “40 Days of Faith and Family” in South Carolina — “an opportunity for people of faith to come together, across racial and denominational lines, to talk about how they live their faith outside the four walls of the church, what they want to see from their presidential candidates and how ObamaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s faith informs how he thinks about the issues of our time.”Ã‚Â Indeed, by January 2008, Obama was making overt religious appeals to South Carolina voters — with the approval of lefty bloggers like Rick Ellensburg and Atrios.
In early February 2008, the Obama campaign did a mass e-mailing to people who do religious outreach and charity work, which Greg Sargent properly characterized as “appealing directly to religious voters by putting the call for a new politics in a religious context.”Ã‚Â At about the same time, Obama gave a speech in Ohio claiming that the Sermon on the Mount justifies his support for legal recognition of same-sex unions.
Even the speech Obama gave on the Wright-Trinity controversy opens with Obama suggesting that Americans are Ã¢â‚¬Å“stainedÃ¢â‚¬Â by the Original Sin of slavery as allowed by the founders.Ã‚Â Indeed, much of what Obama said in that speech about why he joined Trinity and the need for everyone to be their brother’s and sister’s keeper are things Obama has been saying from the outset.Ã‚Â Prof. Joseph M. Knippenberg analyzed these and otherÃ‚Â Obama comments last month, concluding that:
ObamaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s religion seems to be emphatically political and only secondarily spiritual; he “believes in” the “power” of “the African-American religious tradition.” The church is the best means of organizing, embodying, and empowering a community to pursue its earthly ends.
Stated another way, ObamaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s view of the role of the church elides the difference between religion and politics. His religion is emphatically a political religion, calling us not only to charitable action in civil society, but to political activism, justifying not only prophetic witness but also governmental coercion.
Obama speaks as if the first move of someone faithful to GodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s word is to call for government action, not to act directly through his or her own charitable efforts. Those who donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t engage in political action of the sort he approves are apparently hypocrites, satisfied with mere words. His religious commitments are a kind of conversation-stopper, as the late Richard Rorty once said.
Note also that the action he calls for is aimed at satisfying the bodily needs of those who receive the help. As a matter of social or political action, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not concerned with saving souls.
For him, religion is principally a source of reformist energy, to be checked in its excesses by a rationalist, non-majoritarian judiciary. The reformist energy that supports and promotes the agenda of the Democratic Party is to be welcomed and harnessed. Those who have other ideas in mind can be treated with a disarming respect, as conversation partners who can be persuaded but wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be permitted to persuade. Or they can be criticized and resisted as irrational, divisive, and unconstitutional, not to say hypocritical and un-Godly.
Without naming it — and perhaps without knowing it –Ã‚Â Prof. KnippenbergÃ‚Â describes major features of the sort of liberation theology upon which Obama’s church is founded, particularly the part about eliding the difference between religion and politics.
In sum, ObamaÃ‚Â courted the faith community.Ã‚Â He entreated people of faithÃ‚Â to learn what he believes.Ã‚Â Ã‚Â He madeÃ‚Â overtly religiousÃ‚Â appeals to voters.Ã‚Â He gave interviews in which heÃ‚Â elides the difference between religion and politics.Ã‚Â HeÃ‚Â has invoked Scripture in explaining political positions.Ã‚Â Given this history, the Wright-Trinity controversy was bound to arise, even in the absence of the Rev. Wright’s more hateful and incendiary comments.Ã‚Â Obama can pick whether he would prefer the analogy about sowing and reaping or the one about chickens and roosting, but the longer he chooses to stonewall questions about his religion, instead of addressing it in the manner of JFK or Mitt Romney, theÃ‚Â less credible he will seem.