Barack Obama: A Faithful Democrat

Joseph M. Knippenberg

February 1, 2008

This campaign season, we’ve been treated to an interesting spectacle. Where in the past few campaigns, it was easy to assume that Republicans had cornered the market on religion and religiosity, this year, there’s much more activity on the Democratic side, the lion’s share (but not all) of it coming from Barack Obama, who is surely no less willing to wear his faith on his sleeve than are George W. Bush and Mike Huckabee.

Leaving aside the discreditable efforts to make him into a closet Muslim, it is worth the effort to make sense of the various things Obama has said over the years about how his faith informs his character and his political activity. He has given two major speeches that address the intersection of religion and politics—two years ago at the Call to Renewal Conference and just a couple of weeks ago at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, as part of a service honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. He also took questions last year at a forum sponsored by Jim Wallis’s Sojourners group, and gave two interviews last month, one to Beliefnet’s Dan Gilgoff and the other to Sarah Pulliam and Ted Olsen of Christianity Today.

As is well-known, Obama didn’t grow up as a Christian. His father and step-father, neither of whom played a major role in his life, were secularized Muslims. His mother seems to have been more interested in exotic cultures and locales than in her mundane Kansas roots. As a result, Obama came into adulthood with an obvious moral passion but no religious faith. Here’s how he describes how he found faith:

It wasn’t until after college, when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma.

I was working with churches, and the Christians who I worked with recognized themselves in me. They saw that I knew their Book and that I shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me that remained removed, detached, that I was an observer in their midst.

And in time, I came to realize that something was missing as well—that without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.

What Obama seems to have recognized is that religious faith is the ground of genuine community, that individuals on their own can’t create or organize communities.

This is a version of an old and orthodox argument, made with exceptional power by St. Augustine in The City of God: there is no community without justice and a right ordering of souls, and there can be no justice and a right ordering of souls without God. Of course, well-educated as he is, Obama probably hasn’t spent a lot of time reading the Church Fathers, so he uses the language of liberal individualism and existentialism, speaking of commitment and loneliness.

Still, this way of speaking about belonging is better than its most obvious contemporary alternative—the identity politics of race, class, and gender, which assumes that that there are “objective” material—not spiritual—interests that serve as the basis of community. The differences emphasized in identity politics can’t be transcended, only accommodated by a kind of political logrolling. Politics is about making demands, not seeking mutual understanding, which is by definition impossible because individuals can’t transcend their particular identities: “It’s a black thing; you wouldn’t understand.”

By contrast, the way Obama presents his adult religious experience serves as the backbone of the message of unity he, er, preaches all over the country. Community is, in a sense, voluntaristic, the result of commitments made by individuals. But the individuals recognize their loneliness and incompleteness, and recognize that they can be made whole only in a spiritual community. Here, once again, is Obama:

They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They’re looking to relieve a chronic loneliness, a feeling supported by a recent study that shows Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than ever before. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them—that they are not just destined to travel down that long highway towards nothingness.

This is an important recognition, both of the limits of identity politics and of the limits of individualism. It’s a recognition Obama shares with successful evangelists and thoughtful theologians. What distinguishes him from them is that, while he’s aware of our character as sojourners—in, but ultimately not of, the world—his eyes have always clearly been on earthly things. Here, for example, is how he speaks of the black church:

I believed and still believe in the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change, a power made real by some of the leaders here today. Because of its past, the black church understands in an intimate way the Biblical call to feed the hungry and cloth the naked and challenge powers and principalities. And in its historical struggles for freedom and the rights of man, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source of hope.

It’s not enough for faith to be “a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death,” a recognition of our finitude and our dependence upon God’s grace. Faith has to support agency and to give hope. But the agency and the hope are principally about worldly, not otherworldly, things, about “social change,” “freedom,” and “the rights of man.” Obama’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.

Obama’s worldliness is also evident in the way he uses the Old Testament story about bringing down the walls of Jericho in his speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church. While the clear import of story, and, indeed, of the whole Old Testament, is the dependence of Israel on God’s will, Obama turns it into a message about the importance of unity:

[I]f enough Americans were awakened to the injustice; if they joined together, North and South, rich and poor, Christian and Jew, then perhaps that wall would come tumbling down, and justice would flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Unity is the great need of the hour—the great need of this hour. Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country.

The deficit to which he refers is an “empathy deficit,” the apparent incapacity of some to put themselves in the shoes of others. But addressing that deficit would seem to be the precondition, not the effect, of achieving “the great need of the hour.” How can there be unity without empathy?

But perhaps Obama has something else in mind. In his view, some are already empathetic and hence capable of unity. They already feel for the needy and are appropriately outraged at, say, the injustice of executive salaries. The problem is to bring others along, which can be done by personal example and stirring speeches—the classic means of prophetic witness—but also by government coercion, if necessary. Stated another way, Obama’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.

Religion, Obama says, “tells us about our obligations to one another.” “I am,” he says, “my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper.” This one would be hard pressed to deny. But his political religion doesn’t stop there. If I don’t voluntarily live up to my obligation, if I don’t on my own care for widows and orphans, then the government will do it on my behalf, in effect answering the religious call whether or not I hear or heed it. Here’s how he put it at the Sojourners forum:

[T]he starting point is that, “I’ve got a stake in other people, and I’ve got a set of responsibilities towards others, not just towards myself,” and that those mutual responsibilities, those obligations, have to express themselves, not just through our churches, and our synagogues, and our mosques, and our temples, not only in our own families, but they have to express themselves in our government.

Speaking at Ebenezer Baptist Church, he made the need for action, and indeed government action, abundantly clear:

[I]f changing our hearts and minds is the first critical step, we cannot stop there. It is not enough to bemoan the plight of poor children in this country and remain unwilling to push our elected officials to provide the resources to fix our schools. It is not enough to decry the disparities of health care and yet allow the insurance companies and the drug companies to block much-needed reforms.…

The Scripture tells us that we are judged not just by word, but by deed.

Obama speaks as if the first move of someone faithful to God’s word is to call for government action, not to act directly through his or her own charitable efforts. Those who don’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, he’s not concerned with saving souls.

This obviously doesn’t mean that Obama doesn’t care about his own salvation or anyone else’s. Here’s how he puts in the Christianity Today interview:

I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and to have eternal life.

Elsewhere he says this:

You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away, because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey.

In a context where he wasn’t speaking autobiographically, the imperative construction of this last statement would be almost evangelical: you need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away.

But that’s not government’s job. Obama is very mindful of “the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy but the robustness of our religious practice.” From this constitutional principle and from his appreciation of the character of our religious pluralism, he draws certain conclusions:

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.

It’s not immediately evident how this squares with something he says earlier in the same speech:

[S]ecularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King—indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history—were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

What gives? On the one hand, I shouldn’t appeal to my understanding of God’s will. On the other, much of our law is “grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.” On the one hand, I can’t use exclusively religious language. On the other, that’s what many of our great reformers did. Perhaps the apparent contradictions can be reconciled by emphasizing that the appeals of the reformers weren’t exclusively religious, that they could be addressed and understood by all people of good will. Religious people don’t have to eschew what Mike Huckabee has called “the language of Zion,” but they do have to be prepared to invoke “the laws of nature” (and nature’s God) as well.

Of course, there are complications here that Obama doesn’t begin to address. If it is permissible to use religious language in the public square, how do we enforce the requirement that everyone also appeal to “some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all”? Is that just a practical requirement of success in a pluralistic political order or a legal/constitutional hurdle that has to be surmounted in order to establish the constitutional legitimacy of a law? Would Obama call upon judges to enforce his implicit standard of “public reason” (to use the late John Rawls’s term) or leave it to the political process to discourage narrowly sectarian appeals?

I fear that he would leave it to judges because the political process can’t be expected to look out for the concerns of a “discrete and insular minority” like “those with no faith at all.”

In other words, Obama is happy to harness the moral energy and prophetic witness of religious folks, so long as what they propose passes muster with judges who protect the concerns of the secularly minded.

It’s hard not to understand this position as designed, above all, to protect the so-called right to an abortion. Here’s how Obama speaks about it when he’s addressing a religious audience:

I don’t know anybody who is pro-abortion. I think it’s very important to start with that premise. I think people recognize what a wrenching, difficult issue it is. I do think that those who diminish the moral elements of the decision aren’t expressing the full reality of it. But what I believe is that women do not make these decisions casually, and that they struggle with it fervently with their pastors, with their spouses, with their doctors.

Our goal should be to make abortion less common, that we should be discouraging unwanted pregnancies, that we should encourage adoption wherever possible. There is a range of ways that we can educate our young people about the sacredness of sex and we should not be promoting the sort of casual activities that end up resulting in so many unwanted pregnancies.

Ultimately, women are in the best position to make a decision at the end of the day about these issues. With significant constraints. For example, I think we can legitimately say—the state can legitimately say—that we are prohibiting late-term abortions as long as there’s an exception for the mother’s health. Those provisions that I voted against typically didn’t have those exceptions, which raises profound questions where you might have a mother at great risk. Those are issues that I don’t think the government can unilaterally make a decision about. I think they need to be made in consultation with doctors, they have to be prayed upon, or people have to be consulting their conscience on it. I think that we have to keep that decision-making with the person themselves.

Because, Obama says, abortion is an issue of great moral depth and difficulty, the state should—or must?—leave it to the woman to decide in private, consulting with husbands, doctors, and pastors. He respects the decision of the woman to keep her child, just as he does the decision to terminate a pregnancy. Everything is fine, politically speaking, so long as people agonize over it. Well, he says he’s willing to countenance certain limits on this choice—with regard to partial-birth abortions—but only if an appropriate exception is made for the health of the mother. Of course, as many have argued, this exception—granted at the discretion of a doctor (an abortionist?)—potentially swallows the rule. In other words, Obama’s language affords a certain respect to opponents of abortion without encouraging or even permitting them to enact many restrictions on the practice.

When he addresses a different sort of audience—say, the National Women’s Law Center—his tone is somewhat different:

Now, the ability for a woman to make decisions about how many children to have and when—without interference from the government—is one of the most fundamental freedoms we have. We all know, becoming a parent is one of the most—if not the most—important jobs there is. No one should make that decision for a woman and her family but them. And we must keep defending their right to make this choice in the years to come.

The right to choose is, just that, a right, indeed, “one of the most fundamental freedoms we have.” It is non-negotiable, not subject to the political process. Those inspired by religion to oppose it can’t be permitted to win, even if they use language and arguments calculated to appeal to our reason. Their position is by definition unreasonable, beyond the political pale. To be sure, even in this context Obama professes to acknowledge the difficulty of the choice, but he’s also quick to offer advice on how to frame the debate politically:

I also think that whenever possible, we need to frame choice within the broader context of equality and opportunity for women. Because when we argue big, we win. But when the entire struggle for opportunity is narrowed, it plays into the hands of those who thrive on the politics of division; who win by fueling culture wars.

Note how he questions the motives of those who oppose abortion politically. They can’t be sincerely moved by their faith to offer witness. They’re cynics “who thrive on the politics of division; who win by fueling culture wars.”

For someone who voted against the confirmations of Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito because he feared, he said, that they would side with the powerful against the powerless, Obama ought to have a harder time explaining why he doesn’t want concern for the truly vulnerable and powerless—the unborn—to gain more than the slightest foothold in our legislative process.

Obama professes to be concerned that the contact between church and state can impinge upon religious freedom. As he tells his Beliefnet interviewer in the course of criticizing—unfairly, I think—President Bush’s execution of his faith-based initiative,

I don’t think that we promote the incredible richness of our religious life and our religious institutions when the government starts getting too deeply entangled in their business.

As he says elsewhere, “One of the things that I think churches have to be mindful of is that if the federal government starts paying the piper, then they get to call the tune.” In itself, this isn’t an unreasonable concern. But in the context of Obama’s conception of the political role of churches and prophetic witness, it doesn’t ring altogether true. Churches that have as significant a role in political advocacy as he ascribes to them are going to be sorely tempted to conform to the world for the sake of influence in it.

That Obama apparently isn’t troubled by this may be a product of his rather worldly conception of the role of religion in our social and political order. 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 won’t be permitted to persuade. Or they can be criticized and resisted as irrational, divisive, and unconstitutional, not to say hypocritical and un-Godly.

They do worship an awesome God in the blue states. And He unfailingly votes Democratic.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University.