Barack Obama: Another Reason to Leave the Christian Left

First, given what I’ll say in a moment, let me state for the record (again!) that I am no fan, supporter or sympathizer of the Religious Right. To the contrary. But there seems to be no shortage of Christian scholars, pundits, and armchair cultural critics pointing out the inadequacies, inconsistencies, and injustices of the Religious Right. Why repeat it here?

Instead, I tend to be more motivated to point out the deficiencies of what passes for the “Religious Left” in this country. (“Left” is clearly a relative term, since I rarely hear the Christian “left” in this country really challenge the mechanisms of capitalist, market economies. Here a Victorian, Christian socialist like F.D. Maurice makes Jim Wallis sound like a PR rep for Wal-Mart. But I digress…) Unfortunately, however, in the bifurcated world we inhabit, if you’re not with us, you’re against us. So my critique of the Christian Left is too often immediately mistaken as an indicator that I’m a card-carrying member of the Religious Right, or my critique of the Religious Right is (mis)taken as evidence that I’m part of that motley crew which is the Religious Left. Neither is the case. But enough preliminaries…

Granted, Jim Wallis has tended to bear the brunt of my frustrations with the Christian Left–that stems, I suppose, from his visibility, and perhaps even from a kind of attitudinal proximity. Perhaps because I share so many of his concerns and criticisms (let that be noted for the record!), it becomes even more important to highlight the differences–because I think alot is at stake in the differences.

But I’ll leave Jim Wallis alone here. Instead, I’ve been intrigued by the attention garnered by Senator Barack Obama’s address to a recent “Call to Renewal” Conference (a Jim Wallis outfit that does alot of good work). [For a summary of news comment, see here.]

What’s most disheartening in this is the way that Democrats still consider “religion” instrumentally; that is, they instrumentalize religion insofar as they see it as a strategy for accomplishing a goal. Look at the speech and consider closely just how “religion” is invoked by Obama:

Now, such strategies of avoidance may work for progressives when our opponent is Alan Keyes. But over the long haul, I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in people’s lives — in the lives of the American people — and I think it’s time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.

The concern is what will “work.” And religion is seen as a way of connecting with the electorate, not as the basis for justice. Progressives need to “get religion” according to Obama so that Democrats can communicate with religious people. But that is a rhetorical, not a religious point. This is confirmed later in Obama’s speech when he says:

And that is why that, if we truly hope to speak to people where they’re at – to communicate our hopes and values in a way that’s relevant to their own – then as progressives, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.

Even when he later suggests this is “not just rhetorical,” the direction of the point is still about how religious discourse will be “effective.” (I do agree with Obama’s point regarding the false requirements of “secularity.”)

One even sees this instrumentalization of religion in Obama’s testimony. He testifies that he was “drawn to the church,” to be “in” the church, because of “the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change.” Now, I certainly believe that justice is an essential aspect of the Gospel, and I believe that being a disciple entails doing justice. But the temptation of the fundamentalism of the left is to make justice an end in itself. It might seem scandalous, but the Gospel is not just–maybe not even primarily–about securing social justice. This is why worship and liturgy and Eucharist play such marginal roles in what the Christian left has to say about “church”–the Left Church is an organization of activists, not a community of worshipers. (This is also why the Left is more comfortable talking about “faith” than “the Church.”)

But even if the goal is a good one (like eradicating poverty), if Christian faith is seen as an instrument to another end, then faith is de facto penultimate. And that, I would suggest, is precisely the formula of idolatry–and, in fact, a mirror of the way religion is “used” by the Religious Right (just for different “ends”).

Finally, Obama sells the farm when, like Jim Wallis said here at Calvin College, religion must be disciplined by the demands of democracy. Obama puts it this way:

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.

I recognize the unique constraints of inhabiting a pluralist state. But Obama opens himself up to a disturbing logic here (and treads on question of faith & reason that are out of his league, I think). With this formulation, Obama creates a kind of “two truths” framework: I can know or be convinced that something is true in (at least) two ways: (1) based on “religious reasons,” stemming from revelation, and (2) based on “universal” principles of (just plain) “reason.” While I reject the existence of the latter, I’ll set that aside here. Let’s take Obama’s framework: what this means is that while I might believe and know something to be wrong on the basis of “religious reasons,” unless I can find a “universal” reason to make the case for that in the “public” sphere, then I cannot expect to legislate the point. I can’ expect something to become policy by appealing only to religious reasons.

I agree with the opposition to theocracy, and I agree that distinctly religious positions should not be legislated by the state. But what Obama can’t seem to imagine is that one might, in fact, pass on the state in order to hold the integrity of what one “knows” on the basis of “religious reasons.” I just can’t imagine the kind of bifurcated identity that Obama’s framework requires–a fractured identity in which, when there is conflict, it is the requirements of “universal” reason which must trump what one knows on the basis of religious faith. From what I can gather, Obama is pro-choice precisely because he doesn’t think he can come up with a “universal,” rational argument against abortion. (I think it’s also because, like almost everyone–Democract and Republican–he’s a libertarian at heart.) And so, as a politician, he is pro-choice. If he’s going to play by the rules of the pluralist state, and stay within the bounds of the Constitution, he has to set aside his religious beliefs.

But what about another possibility? What about setting aside participation in a state and politics which requires such bifurcation? What about opting out of a democratic rationality which demands ultimate allegiance?