Barack Obama’s speech on religion in America

I just watched Barack Obama’s recent speech on religion in America. I *really* like what he had to say.

Obama discusses a few key interrelated topics: his personal religious background, the religious divide in America, and the importance of upholding church-state separation.

 Obama’s Religious Background

Obama was raised by a Muslim-turned-atheist father and a spiritual Christian mother who was the daughter of moderate baptists. Obama’s mother had what he described as a healthy skepticism of organized religion, based on her observations of the hypocrisy that some of these organizations have displayed. Obama claims to have inherited a similar skepticism for organized religion. If memory serves me correctly, Obama basically described himself as growing up being a person of fairly undefined faith. He believed in the Christian God, but was not a member of any particular church. His faith more of the personal/spiritual variety rather than the social denominational type. For a while he attended a particular congregation but claimed to be described by others as more of an observer than a member, as he always seemed to maintain a degree of detachment. He claimed that eventually he came to want to become apart of this church more fully—as a member rather than a regular observer. He claimed to have knelt in prayer and experienced the will of God. He remains a member of this South Chicago congregation of the United Church of Christ.

 The Faith-Based Fissure That Divides America

America is divided along a number of lines (e.g., race, wealth, gender, Iraq), but none runs deeper than the faith factor. One of Obama’s main focuses in his speech was discussing the need to work toward bringing Americans together. He lists a few things that secularists and progressives need to do. Firstly, they need to appreciate that America is a religious nation, population-wise. He says that 90% of Americans believe in God. Quick rebuttal: this number is surely an over-estimate. While it is based on survey research, at least one major survey has shown that nonbelievers constitute 16% of the population. However, there is of course survey-to-survey variability as a function of random fluctation, differences in wording, etc. In his quick run-through of the statistics, he points out that there are more Americans who believe in angels than in evolution. After saying this, he gave a marked pause for emphasis, clearly indicating that he believes that there is something wrong with that. Next, they need to understand that not all Christians, and not all who are motivated in their social and political behaviour by Christianity, are right-wing ideologues. Secondly, he argues that it is absurd to ask religious people to check their faith at the door when entering into the public sphere. Since many people interpret issues of morality and justice in terms of their faith, it is simply absurd for one to ask a religious person to abandon their moral framework when they enter into political discourse. Note to secularists: don’t get exasperated by this point; as I’ll discuss below, Obama affirms secularism beautifully. He also argues that religious moderates need to become more active in speaking for their faith, for if they do not, the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of the world will speak for their faith for them. Lastly, he states his wish that nonreligious politicians will be able to openly state their political and moral views without having to pretend to hold those views on the basis of religion. Of course, secularists and progressives are not the only ones that Obama argues needs to make changes. He makes a few recommendations to conservatives, as well. Firstly, he reminds the Christian Right that secularists and progressives are not morally vacuous or valueless. Secondly, he emphasizes the importance of the separation of church and state, which will be expanded upon in the next section.

 Obama: A Champion for a Secular America

Obama is a true champion for church-state separation. He put it most beautifully when he said that while a person can subscribe to a belief and personal code of conduct on religious grounds, but for that belief to be institutionalized the person must be able to defend it based on secular principles that are accessible to people of all faiths and to nonreligious people. It was such an elegant synthesis of everything that secularism stands for, and everything that America was rooted in. In an effort to encourage a greater respect for secularism among evangelicals, Obama reminded us that the institution of American secularism was pushed for most adamently not by nonbelievers and civil liberties activists, but by the early forebears of modern evangelical Christianity who were the minority at the time and did not want to have the dominant congregations interfering with their abilities to engage their faith as they saw fit. He also spoke of the plurality of Biblical interpretation. He asks what parts of the Bible we look to when considering particular moral issues. Do we look at the more punitive sections of the Old Testament (e.g., Leviticus and Deuteronomy), or to the more forgiving, loving, and less judgmental passages of the New Testament. Discussion on this topic linked to his synopsis of an event in which his Republican adversary for Illinois Senate asserted that Jesus would not vote for Barack Obama. The reason being primarily that Obama is pro-choice and favours gay rights. Obama took exception to his adversary’s claim to know the will of Christ.

 Overall Assessment

I very much like what I heard from Obama. Really, he seemed to be about as much as an atheist could hope for in America in this day in age. He is religious but has a healthy skepticism of religious organizations. He has expresses a strong affirmation of secularism and human rights (e.g., gay rights, abortion rights—I wonder if I may be challenged to an abortion debate for calling abortion a human rights issue…). He also speaks of the importance of various social justice issues (e.g., healthcare and insurance, education). I very much hope that he would walk the walk on this if he is elected.

There is really only one thing that I can recall disagreeing with him on, though perhaps readers may be able to jog my memory on other things I might have taken exception to. Obama said that having “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is not a form of religious brainwashing. While I definitely do not accuse him of dishonesty in this, I personally believe that the citing of God in official national statements is a form of subtle but nevertheless powerful religious endorsement. The citation of God in a daily-rehearsed national pledge conveys a very strong affirmation of God. From a young age, the child is taught that the highest earthly authority it knows endorses God. Moreover, the child rehearses this statement daily in a context of age mates and other authority figures, usually teachers. Children take their cues on reality from those around them, particular authority figures. Given this, having God cited in the Pledge is absolutely a subtle, mild but nevertheless powerful religious endorsement that can be expected to play a significant role in leading the child to at minimum tacitly accept the reality of God. And of course the assumed God, of course, is the Christian God.

A brief personal story. I held a tacit belief in God until roughly age 19. To my recollection I never really questioned it. Neither of my parents nor any of my relatives introduced me to religion. My parents weren’t atheists, they just didn’t really care about religion. Same with the rest of my family that I had regular exposure to. I can only imagine, then, that my tacit belief in the Christian God was generated primarily by the surrounding culture, which included a daily-rehearsed national anthem, Oh Canada, which cites God, a Christian or otherwise theistic majority,  and constant religious references in day-to-day life (e.g., “thank God”). I speculate that having God cited in the national anthem carried a lot of weight given that the endorsement was coming from the heighest authority I knew: the entirety of Canada.

Anyhow, to conclude: Obama really impressed me. By upholding secularism, reason-based political discourse, the protection of religion, dignity for non-believers, and gay and abortion rights, he seems like a candidate that could effectively represent many nonbelievers and believers alike. Moreover, he speaks well, is very intelligent, and is a both an embodiment and an advocate for a progressive America. And having a young non-White religious but secular President could do a lot to help America internationally, I would imagine.

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21 Responses to “Barack Obama’s speech on religion in America”
  1. scaryreasoner says:

    Wow, this is extremely different from PZ’s assessment.

  2. ronbrown says:

    Really? I’ll take a look.

  3. ronbrown says:

    I just read PZ’s post. Now, I might have to rewatch the video and re-assess (as when I watched the first time I was also doing something else simultaneously and so I might not have been paying enough attention at certain points), but when I watched I didn’t interpret Obama the way PZ did. Obama also said in this speech that nonreligious people should be able to express their nonreligious views on morality without having to pretend that these views are linked to religion and that secularists are not immoral. Further, he said that it would be absurd to ask religious people to leave their religion at the door when they enter the public sphere as religion is the framework through which they interpret morality—it was actually during this section of the speech that he made the comments about needing Christians, Muslims and Jews on the Hill to bring in morality; it would’ve been greatly preferred, though, if he threw in nonbelievers, too, though. Lastly, he said that if religious moderates do not speak up for their faith, people like Pat Robertson will do the speaking for them.

    Anyhow, if check out the transcript of the speech you’ll see that he does speak of nonbelievers being moral and that they should be able to speak up without pretending to be religious, that religious moderates need to speak up because if they do not people like Robertson will be the most heard, that church-state separation should be maintained, and that if one wants to make a policy argument they need to do it based on reason, not religion.

    It seems that Obama is about has good as a secularist could hope for in present day America. PZ clearly thinks he’s the best person out there as he is voting for him in the primaries and will vote for him in the election if Obama gets the Democrat endorsement.

  4. lookingoutforyou says:

    Kay in Maine aka WhiteNoiseInsanity is no friend to Barack Obama.

    On her blog on January 24 she called him “republican-lite.”

    “(Hillary, Obama, Edwards) are nothing but republican-lite.”

    proof: “http://whitenoiseinsanity.com/2008/01/24/dennis-kucinich-has-dropped-out-of-the-presidential-race/”

    On January 26 she called Obama a “warmonger.”

    “…warmongers such as Stallone, McCrazy, Edwards, Hillary, Romney, George Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Obama, Guiliani, and others who keep wars going and continue to fund them even though they know the “war” is now an illegal occupation of a sovereign nation?”

    proof: “http://whitenoiseinsanity.wordpress.com/2008/01/26/john-mccain-has-ramborocky-on-his-side-he-must-be-desperate/”

    It is quite possible she will remove the above posts because of her unflattering assessment of Obama, but the proof and original postings have been documented here: “http://whitenoiseinsanitywatch.blogspot.com/2008/02/kkkay-calls-barack-obama-warmonger-and.html”/

    Make no mistake, Kay is no friend to any Obama supporter or anyone else, for that matter.

  5. abutua says:

    And I quote: “Obama said that having “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is not a form of religious brainwashing. While I definitely do not accuse him of dishonesty in this, I personally believe that the citing of God in official national statements is a form of subtle but nevertheless powerful religious endorsement.” It reminds me of Bush’s expression: “God bless America” after his speech on invasion of Iraq. I agree with you that by bringing God to the context means an endorsement of religion. I don’t know why Obama had a different thought on that.

    I don’t know if I like or dislike Obama, but, after reading your article, I have a different thought. If he got elected, would he totally change the US? Well, 90% Americans may believe in God, but 90% of how many? It’s true that lot of Americans are conservative Christians, and, if Obama were elected, does it mean hypocrisy? Considering Obama is not religious.

  6. Erik says:

    Hi!
    I only say Obama will make it :-)
    Regards, Erik

    ————————————————————-
    la vie est belle :-)

  7. Allan in South Africa says:

    I think Obama is the not best person to rule such a powerfull nation, it does not matter what ever his views are about worldly things but what God would want him to do, for instance his views about gay’s.

    Before we look at gay marriage / same sex marriage, first we have to remember what the Bible says about homosexuality. While the Bible doesn’t address the concept of gay or same sex marriage, the Bible does clearly and consistently tell us that homosexual activity is a sin (Genesis 19:1-13; Leviticus 18:22; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9). God does not create a person with homosexual desires. A person becomes a homosexual because of sin (Romans 1:24-27), and ultimately because of his or her own choice. A person may be born with a greater susceptibility to homosexuality, just as people are born with a tendency to violence and other sins. That does not excuse the person choosing to sin by giving in to their sinful desires. If a person is born with a greater susceptibility to anger / rage, does that make it right for them to give into those desires? Of course not. The same is true for homosexuality.

    We also have to remember that homosexuality is just as forgivable a sin as all other sins. God’s forgiveness is just as available to a homosexual as it is to an adulterer, idol worshipper, murderer, liar, proud man, etc. God’s love and desire to save extends to homosexuals (John 3:16; Romans 5:8). God also promises the strength for victory over sin, including homosexuality, to all those who will believe in Jesus Christ for their salvation (1 Corinthians 6:11; 2 Corinthians 5:17).

    To give sanction to homosexual marriage would be to give approval to that lifestyle, which the Bible clearly and consistently condemns as sinful. I believe that Christians should stand firmly against the idea of gay marriage / same sex marriage. Marriage is ordained by God to be between a man and a woman (Genesis 2:21-24; Matthew 19:4-6). Homosexual marriage is a perversion of the institution of marriage and an offense to the God who created marriage. God forbids and condemns homosexuality, so He clearly is opposed to homosexual marriage. As Christians, we are to seek to share the love of God and salvation through Christ with homosexuals. We are to be loving and kind to homosexuals, while at the same time not condoning their sinful lifestyle.

    Other problems are that we accept abortions and call it free will; we don’t discipline our children and say in increases their self esteem; we abuse power and call it politics; we abuse the world with porn and gay marriages and swearing and call it human rights; we give excuses for our preverse actions and call it a different lifestyle and I say lets say no to all of this, REMEMBER don’t exchange your eternal life with GOD for your worldly one.

    This is just a start, a nation must not be ruled by a person but by God. We dont know what we want but only our Creator knows.

    Beware of the wolf in sheaps clothing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. joe says:

    I do not see why those of you without faith must try to destroy the faith of those who do. I’m sorry but just because yall want to be ignorant and foolish it means that the rest of us should have to suffer. The Pledge of Allegiance is not brainwashing it is a part of what our country was founded on. I don’t see why schools seem to think the need to edit God from history because of those who dont see the truth. We would not have history if it was not because of him. If yall are so against Christianity, i would love to see you try to live else where, where god is not known. History should be taught as it was and not how yall want to perceive it.

  9. thisbusymonster says:

    I’m sorry but just because yall want to be ignorant and foolish it means that the rest of us should have to suffer.

    As an atheist, I couldn’t agree more. Keep your ignorant a foolish religious nonsense to yourself. Haven’t we all suffered enough for your delusions?

  10. lordshanguar says:

    Um, really kids? Obama refused to meet with Jews because they disagreed with his beliefs. Yep. That is change we can believe in.

  11. larry w says:

    “The Pledge of Allegiance is not brainwashing it is a part of what our country was founded on. I don’t see why schools seem to think the need to edit God from history because of those who dont see the truth.”

    Sorry, Joe, but the phrase “under God” in the Pledge is not what the country was founded on, nor is the language of such historical significance.

    The Pledge was originally written in Francis Bellamy, an American, a Baptist minister, and an active Socialist, and first published in a children’s magazine Youth’s Companion. It read:

    “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

    I’ve read that he considered including the word “equality” in the pledge, but decided against it because he knew that many Americans were opposed to equality for women and African-Americans. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). In any case, it became somewhat popular and took on some air of officiality.

    In 1924, the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution changed the Pledge’s words ‘my Flag’ to ‘the Flag of the United States of America.’

    In 1953, the Knights of Columbus mounted a campaign to add the words “under God” to the Pledge. This was during the McCarthy era, and some wanted to distinguish the US from the Soviet Union — an officially atheistic state. But it wasn’t until a sermon by one Rev. George Docherty in Feb, 1954, attended by Eisenhower and the Press Corp, highlighting the anti-Soviet argument, that it got traction. The bill modifying the Pledge was signed into law on Flag Day, June 14, 1954 by Pres. Eisenhower.

  12. lordshanguar says:

    Hi,I havent been around for a while, and I wish I had come back sooner. “One nation under God” is definetly what our nation was founded on. This country wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for a group of RELIGIOUS CHRISTIANS that left England to found a better country based on Christianity! So I don’t care if you are an athiest, muslim, or new ageist, this country was founded on the Christian God, and that is all that is important. If any of you want to talk to me personally about this, my email is lordshanguar28@yahoo.com. I look forward to hearing from you.

  13. lordshanguar says:

    I should have put this in my last post. I totally agree with joe. That man has some sense.

  14. lordshanguar says:

    Hmm. You all seem very quiet. Run out of rhetoric to spew? Or just too ignorant to understand the truth?

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  17. cal says:

    same old story of a man going along to get along to please mankind, when his heart should be set preparing a nation for the return of its savior. every president that has ever been, have compromised themselves for the concern of mankind instead that of god. every leader of the world will bow before me on that frightful day, so it is written, so it is done.

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  1. [...] The Frame Problem: Obama really impressed me. By upholding secularism, reason-based political discourse, the protection of religion, dignity for non-believers, and gay and abortion rights, he seems like a candidate that could effectively represent many nonbelievers and believers alike. [...]

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