Barack Obama: religious divide or a great manipulation?

I’m finally sorting out my thoughts about the speech Senator Barack Obama gave, weeks ago, in which he talked about religion and politics. First I think it’s important to put the speech in context. That’s where some people seem to have a disconnect in their criticism of what he said. I did, too, when I first read about it, and I declined to read it. I’ve only since learned where he gave his speech. The occasion was Call to Renewal’s (whose stated purpose is, “A faith-based movement to overcome poverty”) Pentecost 2006: Building a Covenant for a New America. Senator Obama gave the a keynote address at the conference held in Washington, D. C., on Wednesday, June 28th, 2006.

By the way, if you haven’t read the speech, Lynn Sweet provides a transcript at the Chicago Sun-Times website.

His context was about as religious as he could get, short of preaching in a Christian church. He was speaking to a group composed mostly of Christian church leaders.

So how can I put his words into context for myself, as a non-Christian, a deeply spiritual but non-religious person? Even as I read through them I have to stop every couple of paragraphs and remind myself he’s talking to a group of Christians rather than a general audience. Otherwise I start to feel marginalized.

I agree with this:

“For some time now, there has been plenty of talk among pundits and pollsters that the political divide in this country has fallen sharply along religious lines. Indeed, the single biggest “gap” in party affiliation among white Americans today is not between men and women, or those who reside in so-called Red States and those who reside in Blue, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don’t.

“Conservative leaders, from Falwell and Robertson to Karl Rove and Ralph Reed, have been all too happy to exploit this gap, consistently reminding evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design.

“Democrats, for the most part, have taken the bait. At best, we may try to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that – regardless of our personal beliefs – constitutional principles tie our hands. At worst, some liberals dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word “Christian” describes one’s political opponents, not people of faith.”

I see the same thing online, on blogs, in comments on news boards, and in the opinion pieces at the news sources themselves. Obama points out that the divide has been present in politics for thirty years, and he may be right, or perhaps longer, because a definite change took place in Southern voters after President Johnson took a stand on civil liberties. That was closer to forty years ago.

What I observe is that the religious divide seems to have split voters much wider apart just since the second President Bush took office.

Looking back I suspect the exploitation he speaks of really began to take shape during the presidential election campaign in 2000, sometime around the South Carolina smear campaign against Senator John McCain during the primaries, which involved distributing leaflets in church parking lots. The South Carolina smear started with accusations, phoned in to pollsters, that McCain’s adopted Bangladeshi daughter was his black love child. There were also rumors that he was gay, had cheated on his wife, and that his wife was a drug addict. These constituted hot, emotional issues in the Bible Belt. Religion became a divide, right then and there, with many white, churchgoing voters turning away from the moderate Vietnam veteran and former POW from Arizona, toward the more conservative, born-again Christian, George W. Bush.

The religious divide later escalated to include liberals and conservatives who voted against and for Bush in the general election. Add to that an election recount that some liberals still consider to have been interrupted and its result stolen, and you have a lot of emotions involved, pitting voters, states, and parties against each other. Add a heavy dose of fear from terrorist attacks by non-Christian extremists, and hot-button religion-based issues kept alive on top of that, such as abortion, intelligent design, and gay marriage, and now we have the extreme religious divide that flavors the beginning of this new millennium in America.

This divide finally became obvious to me sometime after 9/11, or perhaps when Bush stood in front of that “mission accomplished” banner on an aircraft carrier. Later, I recall being so angered during the 2004 campaign, by a flyer reported to have been distributed in Arkansas and West Virginia, that I wrote a scathing email to the Republican National Committee. The flyer in question purported that the Bible would be banned if “liberals” won in November.

I’ve considered myself a moderate liberal, and have continued to be a swing voter at times, even as a registered Democrat. That one flyer pretty much convinced me that until a sea change takes place in the integrity of the Republican Party, I want nothing to do with it. The party, as it stands ethically today, has lost me for good—on moral grounds. Because, you see, I care about one thing in politics much more than I care about wedge issues like intelligent design, and that’s honesty. I care as much about honesty as any person of any religion. I also think it’s a leader’s responsibility to unite us, not to divide us, and that was even a campaign promise made on the very side that set out to divide us, which is exactly what the Republican Party did, used religion to divide us. This deliberate creation of the illusion of a religious bias in one party demonstrates that we’re not divided among ourselves along religious lines, so much as we’re being manipulated to think we’re more divided than we actually are.

I suppose that’s exactly the point Obama is making, though he couches it in softer tones than I do. Clearly he’s a more committed peacemaker than I am. He goes on to point out that Americans are predominately people of faith:

“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 believe in angels than do those who believe in evolution.”

Obama goes on to talk about his affirmation of his Christian faith and how it came about, then to compare that with how people of many religions come to affirm their faith, pointing out that it’s usually through a similar need unfilled elsewhere, and that we currently have a vacuum to fill in political discussion that must include language people recognize as coming from genuine moral or faith-based grounds.

“Because when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations towards one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome – others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.”

Again I had to put his words in context, because I think what he’s saying is that progressive Christians in this country have lost their voice. The cry of Christianity we hear loud and clear is that of conservative evangelicals, and not even mainstream Christians. It would be easy, as a non-Christian, to take offense at Obama’s message if I didn’t realize who his audience was. In context it leaves me a little relieved, because in a lot of political discussion these days, when I hear a strident Christian voice, it seems too often to be an ultra-conservative one, and an overly zealous one at that. I wish others with more moderate tones would speak up.

But his message still bothers me. As a non-Christian American who doesn’t even fit into one of the smaller big labels like Muslim or Jew, I now must acknowledge that I’m in a minute minority when it comes to faith. Do I need to be reminded of that every time I turn around? It’s difficult, in any discussion of morality, to get others to understand what moral basis I come from, because my brand of spirituality has no name, and that’s something that’s usually not recognized as real faith or moral standing at all. People consider it more like a perpetual state of indecision, and sweep my faith into a category somewhere near atheist or agnostic and look at it as something of an oddity, as flaky or frightening or, worse yet, nonexistent.

Still, I wish that the Christian voice we hear in this country these days was more progressive, more of the time, because I have a certain amount of faith in that voice, that it won’t leave me as far behind, that it won’t leave me feeling quite so far out in the fringes. At the very least it won’t tell me I don’t count because I’ll burn in hell anyway.

Then he goes on to say:

“More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem here is rhetorical – if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.”

Here he has hit pay dirt. But I wouldn’t think so, even now, except that I took part in an online discussion of reproductive choice, in the past few days, in which I realized that the terminology we use to defend a woman’s choice is sometimes clinical, flippant, or downright violent-sounding to religious ears. I’m guilty of this, and some are out-and-out nasty in their approach (keeping in mind this was a Yahoo! message board, where the nastiest, most juvenile people in the world congregate along with a few thoughtful souls, and it is summer, so many of these are actually juveniles).

Someone approached me in a private email, asking me to clarify my position. He stopped questioning me around the time I acknowledged that belief is involved somewhere in my position—though clearly a different belief than his. At least I think that’s what ended his questions. I never heard from him again. But I found, as the public discussion went on, that I felt more comfortable taking an approach that at least made a start at acknowledging spirit and a religious perspective. That was when the discussion seemed to become more tempered and intelligent—at least for a while. It was still Yahoo! and it was still a discussion revolving around abortion.

“. . . when a gang-banger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody disrespected him, we have a problem of morality; there’s a hole in that young man’s heart – a hole that government programs alone cannot fix.”

Here Senator Obama has me by my heartstrings, because I lost a sister to gun violence. I agree with this, and even though his views and mine on gun ownership may differ, I feel that nearly any belief system or political agenda will do—if it can help our young people find a better route, help reduce violence, help people feel more at peace with one another.

“I am not suggesting that every progressive suddenly latch on to religious terminology. Nothing is more transparent than inauthentic expressions of faith – the politician who shows up at a black church around election time and claps – off rhythm – to the gospel choir.

“But what I am suggesting is this – secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.”

That quote speaks for itself, and I won’t quote more, since I fear I’ve already surpassed any fair use concerns, and I think people should read the speech for themselves, without my commentary, remembering to keep it in context as a speech made before Christian leaders.

I agree with Obama’s point, in the above quote, and have to say I’m alarmed sometimes when as soon as a Christian enters an online discussion with any acknowledgement of his or her faith, whether progressive, mainstream, or fundamentalist, others tend to trounce Christianity in a blanket, swooping attack. If we of alternative belief systems don’t recognize religious bigotry when we see it, no one can. Why do so many still take part in that kind of bashing? If we hope ever to meet the rest of the world on an even footing, we’re the ones who need to establish that footing as one of evenhandedness and tolerance.

I hope Senator Obama’s words inspire a different kind of atmosphere, one in which I can be more open about my faith, different as it may be. I also want to defend anyone who is brave enough to mention theirs, not because I think people of faith are more important than anyone else, but because there are times when mentioning it might open up a more honest, deep discussion of things that matter. It puts things in context.

I also hope the Christians who open most discussions with a statement of their faith will keep in mind that some people’s experience of Christianity so far is only negative (try asking them why), and we all sometimes feel inundated by constant mention of it for no apparent reason. Perhaps it’s mainly evangelicals who do this, but for a while I couldn’t open my local newspaper without finding people offering Christian daycare in the classifieds. I never knew what to think that meant. I still see people enter online discussions wearing their Christianity like a badge who then wonder why they’re attacked. Is it always necessary to state as soon as you enter a forum that you’re a Christian? I admit, I mention as soon as I post on some sites that I’m not a Christian, just to warn the people there who’ve already acknowledged themselves as such that I have different beliefs. Maybe it’s better to start a discussion, get to know one another, and then mention faith as it applies. I would love to discuss my spirituality with you, provided it’s not followed by a patronizing attempt to convert me (you wouldn’t believe some of the weird conversations I’ve had on that level, so forgive that caution). But my experience has been that most people don’t want to start a conversation that way. You also do the rest of us a disservice if you assume we have no morals because we’re not Christian, or that we know nothing about Christianity, that we haven’t read the Bible or tried Christianity on for size. Many of us have, and gone elsewhere to find an equally lovely and inspiring spiritual fabric—or none at all—in which to wrap our lives, and we’re happy with that. One faith doesn’t fit all.

But yes, let’s talk more about this, by all means. I love an open political or spiritual—and even spirited—discussion; and if it helps repair the divide in this country, regardless of its perceived cause, even better.

2 comments on “Barack Obama: religious divide or a great manipulation?

  1. Sophia says:

    Yes, I agree that liberal, progressive Christians have lost their voice (and liberal, progressive Muslims have never had that voice) in American politics. It’s just that the most shocking and strident voices are the ones usually heard. I think the confrontation with Alan Keyes is representative of why. The debate becomes more theological than is warrented for the casual American observer who would soon lose interest in it and wonder what the candidates stances on public policy were rather than their stance on whether they adhere more to Calvinism or Arminianism. Liberal Christians have more respect for the division between church and state than the conservatives, by and large, though it was for the protection of both such a law was enacted. The church is free to govern itself without much, if any, interference from the state and frankly, I wish the reverse were true, but conservatives claim a double standard there. The Church/State division only works for them one way.


    Anyway, big subject you opened up here.

  2. Barbara says:

    >>The debate becomes more theological than is warrented for the casual American observer<< I agree, Sophia. In my experience most Americans feel uncomfortable with any talk of religion, period. It's something that I think grew out of religious dissension and over-zealousness to begin with. Most of us think it's more polite to say nothing than to get into a religous discussion that becomes hostile or an excuse to convert or say one's own religion is correct and the other's isn't. And who hasn't had proselytizers at their front door? That gets old, and people begin to reject the entire topic of religion as a result of such pushy behavior. This is why I think progressives are reluctant to talk about their faith, and that seems normal to me. If this political atmosphere doesn't settle down soon, I fear for the future of the country, but I think the division is a result of manipulation by people who don't have the least spiritual motivation.