“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?”
This is one of the reasons I was behind Obama early. He’s able to speak about religion, clearly, openly and directly, to people like me as well as to Christians and people of all other faiths, without dragging us down the rabbit-hole of choosing sides and deciding what God wants “us” to do or not do. But James Dobson has a problem with this (and specifically, with this two-year old speech).
Dobson took aim at examples Obama cited in asking which Biblical passages should guide public policy — passages like Leviticus, which Obama said suggests slavery is OK and eating shellfish is an abomination, or Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, “a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application.”
Aside from MSNBC pussing out by saying “Obama said” Leviticus suggests slavery is OK and eating shellfish is an abomination (because, um, A: Obama didn’t just say it, he quoted it, and B: the bible doesn’t suggest it, it confirms it. This “Obama said” thing is intended to keep MSNBC out of the debate and make it sound as though they’re just reporting on Obama’s “interpretation”. Thanks, pussies!), I can’t wait to see what James has to say!
Dobson … accused Obama of wrongly equating Old Testament texts and dietary codes that no longer apply to Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament.
“I think he’s deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology,” Dobson said.
“… He is dragging biblical understanding through the gutter.”
As Obama said, is this traditional understanding of the Bible Dobson’s understanding, or Sharpton’s understanding? Because they ain’t the same thing. James, you’re not the arbiter of tradition, as much as you’d like to think you are. But hey, thanks for making Obama’s point for him! There are many thousands of biblical literalists whose traditional understanding of the Bible does call for them to avoid shellfish and avoid touching anything a menstruating woman touches (read more about them in this great book). Anyone who’s spent any time with Christians understands that they’re, um, human. And being human, they are complex, and within even one congregation you will find many different “traditional” understandings of the Bible. So Obama’s point stands. Which would the government choose to teach in schools?
Continuing in his twisting of Obama’s speech (likely) or inability to comprehend it (also likely), Jimmy D says this:
Obama, who supports abortion rights, is trying to govern by the “lowest common denominator of morality,” labeling it “a fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution.”
“Am I required in a democracy to conform my efforts in the political arena to his bloody notion of what is right with regard to the lives of tiny babies?” Dobson said. “What he’s trying to say here is unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe.”
What is Dobson referring to here?
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.
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. 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.
Those are the words Obama spoke, and some of which Dobson will presumably replay in his 18 minute radio screed. But Dobson is (probably knowingly) very wrong in his interpretation of these words. Obama doesn’t say Dobson’s followers “have no right to fight for what we believe”…quite the opposite. He’s saying they have to fight for what they believe through the democratic process – by convincing non-believers that the evangelist’s values and policies are right and good. Is this not evangelism defined? Is this not what Jesus himself calls on his followers to do?
And far from being a “fruitcake interpretation” of the Constitution, this is in fact a brilliant reading of it, and is a roadmap for Christians who seek wider political acceptance of their views. And lest we think Obama’s just a big ol’ anti-religion, ‘keep God out of the public square’ liberal, let’s look at one more quote from that speech.
But a sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation – context matters. It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase “under God.” I didn’t. Having voluntary student prayer groups use school property to meet should not be a threat, any more than its use by the High School Republicans should threaten Democrats. And one can envision certain faith-based programs – targeting ex-offenders or substance abusers – that offer a uniquely powerful way of solving problems.
I wonder, does Dobson think this is a “fruitcake interpretation” of the Constitution? Perhaps he would do well not to argue the Constitution with a professor of Constitutional law…