Religion and Politics

A friend emailed me a speech by Barack Obama, Senator from Illinois. It was his keynote speech to the Call to Renewal Conference sponsored recently by the Sojourners, a Christian organization. I found what he had to say rather important. He talked, in part, about the need for Democrats to speak meaningfully about the connection between progressive politics and religious faith, and also about the need for all sides to engage less in pigeon-holing and more in listening and genuine communication. He began:

During the 2004 U.S. Senate General Election I ran against a gentleman named Alan Keyes. Mr. Keyes is well-versed in the Jerry Falwell-Pat Robertson style of rhetoric that often labels progressives as both immoral and godless.

Indeed, Mr. Keyes announced towards the end of the campaign that, “Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama. Christ would not vote for Barack Obama because Barack Obama has behaved in a way that it is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved…”

I was urged by some of my liberal supporters not to take this statement seriously, to essentially ignore it. To them, Mr. Keyes was an extremist, and his arguments not worth entertaining…

But perhaps Keyes’ arguments did need to be entertained, and discussed. And that, in part, is what the rest of Obama’s speech was about. He continued:

I think it’s time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.

And if we’re going to do that then we first need to understand that Americans are a religious people. 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 in America believe in angels than they do in evolution…

[Conservative leaders] need to understand 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. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn’t the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn’t want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.

Read or listen to the whole speech at

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0 Responses

  1. Charlza
    | Reply

    Firstly, I’d like to state that I try very hard to remaim as level headed as I can on most issues; however, there are many scares left where religion is involved. As a gay man growing up (between age 15-19) in South Georgia, I have been left with many scars. South Georgia is extremely baptist. I was left ostracized by both the church and school, whom both had significant ties to each other. It was a hellish 4 years. I have since returned once to stare down those lingering ghosts a few months before my 10 year high school reunion in 1990.

    I admit that it was difficult to read your entry. I admit there must be give and take on both sides. I also acknowledge that not all of the 90% and 70% have the exact same belief systems, but there is a very real percentage out there that want nothing more than to deny me of my ‘life, liberty and persuit of happiness.’ I find it extremely difficult to resolve myself to anything other than protecting those three precious things above all else.

  2. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Thank you for sharing that, Charlza. I appreciate your willingness to talk about something that’s been a source of pain for you in the past. My first response, by reflex, is to say that a significant fraction of people of religious faith actively and passionately want you to have the same rights and respect that heterosexuals have. (That includes me–obviously, I hope.) When you say, “not all of the 90% and 70% have the exact same belief systems,” that’s a major understatement.

    But then, I haven’t been dealing with what you’ve had to face, and of course you’re right that another significant fraction of religious people want to deny you your rights and dignity. In my opinion, they’re utterly misreading the message of the Gospel, and substituting judgmentalism for the genuine good news–which is that God loves us and tells us to love each other. But unfortunately, they’re not asking my opinion.

    All of which illustrates Obama’s point, which is that we need to find ways to reconcile the political process with a large variety of religious beliefs. Religion (in particular, Christianity) is not supposed to be about barriers or “them versus us” thinking. It’s supposed to be about taking care of each other, even with our differences.

    But progressive people of religious faith have not yet found a strong enough voice to get that message across over the noise.

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