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.
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.