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Obama on church & state: A look through the lens of his words PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jeff Huett   
Monday, 01 December 2008

Obama on church & state:
A look through the lens of his words

By Jeff Huett
Editor of Report from the Capital

Parade magazine, in its Oct. 19 issue, asked Jon Meacham what candidates vying for the most powerful post on the planet could learn from his new book on President Andrew Jackson.

His response – five ideas for the next president – was a “to do” list of sorts for the next commander-in-chief. “Find people who tell it like it is,”and “turn weaknesses into strengths,” Meacham wrote. “Speak to the electorate,” and “always have a backup plan,” he reminded. The fourth idea listed, and the sole thought devoted to an area of law, implored the next president to keep church and state separate.

According to Meacham, Jackson thought “public life was complicated enough without turning political disputes into religious ones.” With Barack Obama a month away from becoming the nation’s 44th president, a look at his church-state philosophy through the lens of his writing, interviews, speeches and debates could prove instructive about how he will govern.

The 2008 campaign provided a relatively large sample of material to examine on Obama’s thoughts on the proper relationship of faith to politics and government, but perhaps no interview affords a better look than a March 2004 interview U.S. Senate-candidate Obama gave to a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

In an unknowing nod to Meacham’s description of Jackson, Obama told columnist Cathleen Falsani that “particularly as somebody who’s now in the public realm and is a student of what brings people together and what drives them apart, there’s an enormous amount of damage done around the world in the name of religion and certainty.”

But it was a question from Falsani on the perils of talking about faith as a public figure that elicited this response about how he expresses his faith:

“Alongside my own deep personal faith, I am a follower, as well, of our civic religion,” he said. “I am a big believer in the separation of church and state. I am a big believer in our constitutional structure.

“I am a great admirer of our founding charter and its resolve to prevent theocracies from forming and its resolve to prevent disruptive strains of fundamentalism from taking root in this country.

“I think there is an enormous danger on the part of public figures to rationalize or justify their actions by claiming God’s mandate. I don’t think it’s healthy for public figures to wear religion on their sleeve as a means to insulate themselves from criticism, or dialogue with people who disagree with them.”

While acknowledging such perils, Obama speaks more openly and more often about his personal faith than any Democrat since Jimmy Carter, says Beliefnet editor Steve Waldman. In talking about his own faith in a June 2006 speech, Obama relayed his thoughts on religion in the public square.

“Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square,” Obama said. He continued the thought in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, “to say that men and women should not inject their personal morality into public policy debates is a practical absurdity; our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

”What our pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.”

While chastising those who would strip religion from the public square, Obama said in the June speech to Call to Renewal that conservative leaders also have work to do, namely to acknowledge certain truth related to religion and government.

For one, they 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 forbears of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religion, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.

Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America’s population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.

And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson’s or Al Sharpton’s? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount — a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let’s read our bibles. Folks haven’t been reading their bibles.

In the speech, he also counseled a sense of proportion as the boundary between church and state is policed. “Context matters,” Obama said. “Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation.”

It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase ‘under God,’ I didn’t,” he said. “Having voluntary student prayer groups use school property to meet should not be a threat, any more than its use by the High School Republicans should threaten Democrats. And one can envision certain faith-based programs — targeting ex-offenders or substance abusers — that offer a uniquely powerful way of solving problems.”

And the way Obama has signaled he will tap the faith-based programs is by retaining the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives that President George W. Bush opened in 2001. While claiming in a July speech that the office never fulfilled its promise, Obama has promised a real partnership between the White House and faith-based social service providers, “not a photo-op.” His plan features a new Council for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

“I believe deeply in the separation of church and state,” he said, “but I don’t believe this partnership will endanger that idea – so long as we follow a few basic principles.”

The principles include protecting social service recipients and potential employees of the social service providers from religious discrimination. Second, federal funds that go directly to churches and other houses of worship are only for use in secular programs. Finally, only successful programs will receive funding.

“I want to keep [the office] open, but I want to make sure its mission is clear,” Obama said at an April event sponsored by Faith in Public Life. “It’s not to simply build a particular faith community,” he said. “The faith-based initiatives should be targeted specifically at the issue of poverty and how to lift people up.”

The principles he suggests are safeguards, meant to protect rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, a document Obama considers to be living, rather than static. “While much of the Constitution’s language is clear and can be strictly applied,” Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, “our understanding of its most important provisions … has evolved greatly over time.

“What the framework of our Constitution can do is organize the way by which we argue about our future,” he wrote.

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