23 June 2008

Jim Wallis is about to flip out.

AP: Dobson accuses Obama of 'distorting' Bible
A couple of thoughts:
  1. People at Sojourners/Call to Renewal loved this speech when Obama delivered it in 2006. Not only was it exciting to have him at the conference; what he said resonated pretty well with the kinds of things Jim Wallis had been saying in recent years.
  2. There are many other people Dobson could've accused of having a "fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution."
  3. Jim Wallis is going to fly off the handle tomorrow.
  4. When you cut through the typical Dobson crap, there is an important bit of truth to his critique - truth that applies to Sojourners as well as to Obama. The idea that religious people must translate their beliefs into the language of universal morality in the public square is nothing more than a dangerous temptation.
Watch Jim argue for this sort of translation in January 2008:

The danger of this approach is described well by my favorite quote from William T. Cavanaugh's Theopolitical Imagination: In the public square, "Christian symbols must be run through the sausage-grinder of social ethics before coming out on the other side as publicly digestible policy." In other words, when we change in order to play by the rules of liberal, pluralistic, secular society, we never end up saying what we mean to say. Instead, we end up saying things like, "Barack Obama is our hope for the future."

I understand the political pragmatism. Believe me. But for my money, I'm a lot more comfortable these days with something like what Tim Kumfer wrote about on the God's Politics blog this afternoon. Our real work is to explore the political dimensions of personal relationships. The transformation of public policies will follow.


Steve Thorngate said...

I guess I don't see why we have to choose between the two models you lay out here. Obama and Wallis are arguing for a particular way of engaging the public square, not that we should do so to the exclusion of exploring the political dimensions of personal relationships.

Are you arguing that the latter is the ONLY way for Christians to influence public policy, or that speaking in universal terms in the public square NECESSARILY inhibits our ability to engage in the model you endorse?

Dave said...

I guess my concern is more the latter, Steve. I’m worried that speaking in universal terms in the public square does inhibit our ability to speak Christian language in our churches. That’s how you end up believing in good news to the poor, freedom for the captives, and recovery of sight for the blind, but you forget to believe that Jesus is Lord. Public policy replaces theology as the ultimate goal. I think that’s one way of seeing the story of my liberal mainline Protestant tradition, and I see Sojourners pretty well aligned with that approach.

Like I said, I understand the political pragmatism. I really want to see my government stop relying on war and start to represent the interests of poor people, and I would probably do anything to make that happen. And I understand that we live in a pluralistic society where in order to reach the most people, you need to be able to articulate moral reasoning that doesn’t depend upon Christian dogma. That’s why I’m okay with Obama’s speech as the sort of approach a politician must take.

What unnerves me is to see Christian leaders cheering him on without any apparent reservation. Taken alongside the confession that in Christ all are made into one new humanity, a project like reforming the Farm Bill is an act of worship: it is a way of honoring God’s new creation and loving your neighbor. But divorced from that confession, political advocacy ceases to have meaning as a Christian practice. And that’s the precise danger that I see regarding this question of translation.

Steve Thorngate said...

"That’s how you end up believing in good news to the poor, freedom for the captives, and recovery of sight for the blind, but you forget to believe that Jesus is Lord."

Fair enough. I agree that good works and sociopolitical engagement should be the fruit of belief and confession, not a substitute for them. And yes, the all-praxis-all-the-time wing of the mainline always risks redundancy, irrelevance, or at the very least a shortage of anything distinctly CHRISTIAN--as do organizations such as Sojourners. (You might/might not be interested in seeing how I dealt w/ this--writing for general readers, not nerds like you and me--in a recent article: http://www.utne.com/2008-05-05/Spirituality/Faith-in-Action.aspx?blogid=28).

But I think it's important to remember a couple of things. First, pluralism is different from both universalism and secularism. While Obama used the word "universal" in the speech, the thrust of his view of the role of religion in government is one of pluralism: Christians need not be ashamed of or secretive about their religious motivations for advocating for one thing or another in the public square, but they should acknowledge and respect the fact that they aren't in church and thus can't appeal to exlusively religious authority. In other words, Obama's not talking about least-common-denominator moral theology so much as the U.S. separation tradition--and the robust religious culture that it's always supported.

Second, the context of the speech itself: Not the Pentecost conference particulars, which B.O. pretty much ignored, but the fact that this vision of separation, pluralism, and religion in the public square was at the time a sharp departure from Democratic orthodoxy. (It's easy to forget this, as it didn't take long for Hillary Clinton and others to borrow it.) But discussing separation in pluralistic, rather than secular, terms put Obama at odds with the Dem establishment and with the 2004 Kerry campaign in particular.

I'm not wild about the Matthew 25 approach. (And I hate the name.) If I were a member of the clergy, I'd feel pretty uncomfortable endorsing a candidate publicly--not for fear of the IRS so much as for the reasons you name here. But as a voter, one of the things that I like most about Obama is his views on the role of religion in the public square. So at one level this comes down to the question of how to live simultaneously as a person whose primary allegiance is to Christ, who believes in the power of Jesus to transform lives, relationships, communities, and societies--AND as a citizen with a great stake in and appreciation for the values of pluralism and separation.

Which is, of course, an old question and a huge one...

Dave said...

Good points throughout, Steve. The distinction between pluralism and secularism or universalism is a helpful one. You are one smart cookie. If you feel like getting another Master's or something, you should come to Duke.

John Potter said...

The problem, for me, is something Obama also addressed in the speech: if we’re not using the language of universal morality, whose biblical agenda/interpretation are we to follow?

I agree that it should be the role of the Church to push the powers and principalities toward a Kingdom vision, but I also acknowledge that it’s my hermeneutic I’m advocating.

While I understand the argument that legislation is not the only means of providing social change, shouldn’t we do everything we can to ensure that it provides as much change as possible, and isn’t that change more likely if the advocacy employed is universal?