Saturday, March 22, 2008

MUST READ:Obama's Whole Bird Christianity (Left & Right Wing)

At The New Republic web site E.J. Dionne offers another lengthier MUST READ essay, Full Faith: Despite Jeremiah Wright, Obama Gets Religion. Note that Dionne just published a book, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. (You can hear Dionne's interview from February 12th about the ideas in his book, with Diane Rehm, here). So he brings perspective and familiarity with the religion and politics to Obama's dilemma.

Please read the whole piece found at the link above. The ability to bridge this gap, not the one on race, is the one that attracts me so deeply to Obama. For years, I've been deeply disturbed at the lack of social justice in those who seem to speak of religion so openly in the public square, because my religious faith is so central to my politics. I started studying the Bible again a few years ago just so that I could better quote chapter and verse back at my political adversaries in discussions and debates. I'm a Democrat because of my beliefs, beliefs informed by my religion. And yet over my lifetime, those who spoke in the religious square were speaking of a faith completely alien and foreign to me - dogmatic, mean, preoccupied with narrowness and rightness, anti-intellectual, and completely lacking in humility - as well as devoid of the golden rule from Luke 6:31 "Do to others as you would have them do to you." Every major religion - Islam, Buddhism, Judiasm, Hinduism as well - has a version of the Golden Rule in their sacred texts.

And all of this was all the more disturbing to me because I felt such talk was a perversion of a part of me I held sacred.

I worried. Would my secular friends who knew me to be a church goer assume I agreed with Jim Dobson? Or if not, would they believe I'd done some strange mental gymnastics to make Christianity acceptable to me? Well, actually no to both of those. It's the likes of Dobson who've done the theological contortions to Christianity in the public square until it has become unrecognizable. This has been the central problem with recent books discredited religions - such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. They argue against religion as if it's monolithic and mostly like those anti-intellectuals. Well, against intellects the like of those, yes, a caricature of Christianity would crumble.

Cartoons are empty drawings and don't show the depths of color that is integral to a deep faith. (I would respectfully suggest that our President's faith is cartoonish. See this Slate piece on Bush's conversion.) Hitchens and Dawkins argued against the easy targets.

Separation of church and state was to protect the church from the state as it was to protect the state from the church. And in the Episcopalian church, a deep and serious rift has occurred over the treatment of homosexuality. It's no accident that at a time when gay marriage is debated in the public square that Gene Robinson's, a openly gay man, ordination as a bishop has torn my church apart. This is because of the destruction of that firewall between church and state, a firewall decimated by Republicans who used the "religious" right, and certain "social value" issues to expand their power. And because that wall is down, my beloved church is suffering.

Obama wants to re-erect that wall and doing that will help the healing. He will also bridge that increasing gap between my faith values and my political values. The former have seen no expression in the public square and I yearn deeply for that.

It's been said that Obama is uniquely qualified - because of his mixed race, because of his age - to heal the racial divide. He can heal the religious divide too. Dionne posits Obama can do so because he came to his faith as an adult. I agree.

But I also think that his age and his intelligence helps a lot too. He is my age. And I feel that people of my generation who are religious are perhaps more able to find new ways of using language (including religious language) which does not push certain buttons and cause knee-jerk dogmatic reactions to pop up as walls. His intelligence too - his knowledge of philosophy and religious intellectuals - aids him in seeing a mile off the incoming arguments and to ward them off.

And Obama is poised, uniquely poised, to stop that alienation. This is just one reason why I fervently support him. That's why for me, he is a once-in-a-lifetime leader.

Some pull out quotes to entice (again please read the whole piece):
On the few occasions I have spoken with Obama about his faith, he has evinced an understanding of the spiritual lives of Americans and familiarity with Reinhold Niebuhr's theology of skepticism and humility. When I interviewed him about his relationship with Wright last week, he told me, "Churches are institutions of men, and, as a result, they are flawed." As I paused to marvel at how this remark could have been plucked from one of Niebuhr's essays, Obama seemed to have the same realization. He quipped, "And that's as Niebuhrian as you can get."
If you don't know who Reinhold Niebuhr is (I didn't), here's a pretty good biography from the Encyclopedia of Western Theology hosted at the Boston College web site. See particularly the section on Niebuhr's book, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics.

More quotes from Dionne:
And, if he can move past the Wright controversy, his (Obama's) gospel holds enormous electoral potential. Like the civil rights preachers of old, he has found a religious language that expresses a civic faith sought by secular voters no less than by the religiously inclined-a language that could ease the Democrats' estrangement from theologically conservative Christians. In Obama's signature slogan, "Change We Can Believe In," the most important word may not be "change" but "believe."

The current fluidity in the evangelical world gives Obama his chance of supplying an alternative that would appeal to some of these (Rick) Warren-style Christians...His oft-repeated argument that social improvement requires not only "changes in government policy" but also "changes in hearts and a change in minds" appeals to the conversion impulse so integral to the evangelical spirit.

The purpose-driven pastor himself seemed eager to break old molds when he invited Obama in 2006 to join Senator Sam Brownback at Saddleback to discuss the global aids problem, an issue on which both politicians had worked. Right-wingers said Obama's support for abortion rights obligated the pastor to withdraw the invitation. Warren wouldn't budge. "People ask me, 'Rick, are you right-wing or are you left-wing?' " Warren told ABC News. "I'm for the whole bird."

Obama has been preparing many years for Whole Bird Christianity.

Obama told me "the essential failure" of Wright's words "is that they lacked the sense of redemption which is the essence of the Christian faith."
I agree with this and is generally the key aspect of Obama's speech - when he noted that Wright failed to see dynamic change. It was, for me, the key Christian aspect of the speech and probably why Andrew Sullivan, a gay Catholic conservative who supports Obama, called Obama's speech deeply, deeply Christian. "This is a candidate who does not merely speak as a Christian. He acts like a Christian," wrote Sullivan. And I would submit the possibility that that sense of redemption is something that Obama picked up from Wright, in another sermon, in other teaching.
Civil Rights Christian language has many political advantages; most notably, it is resolutely centered not on the defeat of adversaries, but on their conversion. The conversion theme, and Civil Rights Christianity's notion of building a cross-racial "beloved community," fit almost perfectly with Obama's core message of political and racial reconciliation. "We need to take faith seriously," Obama writes in his book, "not simply to block the religious right but to engage all persons of faith in the larger project of American renewal."

Obama's recipe has two main ingredients: In the Call to Renewal speech, he asserted that "secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square." You could almost hear the cheers at Rick Warren's church and others like it. At the same time, he argued that religious Americans needed to remember "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." There could be no talk of ours as "a Christian nation" since "we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers. . . . Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion specific, values."

Isn't that amazing? Hallelujah!

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