I want to weigh in today on Dr. James Dobson’s criticism of Barack Obama. Dobson recently responded to a 2006 speech that Obama gave, which discussed the role of faith in politics. Obama said the following (see here for the complete speech):
“[G]iven 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.
“This brings me to my second point. Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”
Dobson and his guest, Tom Minnery, gave at least four responses to Obama’s speech (click here to listen to their comments). First of all, Minnery pointed out that most Americans are Christians, according to the Pew Forum’s research, meaning that America is not a Muslim nation or a Buddhist nation or a Hindu nation.
Second, Dobson denied that he wants to expel unbelievers or deprive them of their constitutional rights. He also took offense at being equated with Al Sharpton, whom Minnery called a racial bigot.
Third, Dobson argued that Obama is the one who doesn’t understand the Bible. According to Dobson and Minnery, many Old Testament laws applied only to ancient Israel, whom God was trying to purify after he had delivered her from Egypt. That means they don’t apply today. The implication is that God needed to run a tight ship in order to cleanse his people of paganism and hold them together as a godly nation. Consequently, God separated Israel from the nations through his dietary laws, and he mandated the death penalty for a child who defied God, embarrassed his family, and lived a drunken lifestyle. Dobson and Minnery also dispute Obama’s pacifist interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, for they argue that Jesus and Paul acknowledge the existence of real evil in the world.
And, fourth, Dobson assumed that Obama was saying we should exclude religion from public policy debates, as we focus instead on the “lowest common denominator of morality.” Dobson translates this to mean that, for Obama, a Christian cannot oppose partial-birth abortion on moral or religious grounds, but must conform his beliefs to the views of people from other religions (or no religion at all). Dobson sees that as anti-democratic.
I have some responses to Obama and Dobson:
First of all, Obama did not attack Dobson. He did not accuse Dobson of wanting to expel unbelievers or deprive them of their civil rights. His whole point was that, even if America were a Christian nation, there would still be difficulties if we attempted to teach Christianity in public schools, or use it as a guide for public policy. Would we embrace the approach of the Christian right, which James Dobson exemplifies? Or would we draw on the ideology of the Christian left, which Al Sharpton represents?
This dovetails into my second point: Obama is not for excluding religion from public policy. He clearly acknowledges the importance of faith in America’s heritage, including its political activism (e.g., abolitionism, the Civil Rights movement). He explicitly states that “our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
The problem is that people will get nowhere by hurling proof-texts at one another. I can say that the Bible is against abortion, but that won’t convince someone who doesn’t believe in the Bible. Plus, what would happen if proof-texting became the basis for public policy? Would Catholics be justified in banning birth control for all Americans, non-Catholics included? There’s nothing wrong with having a religious motivation for our political positions, or with appealing to Christianity as a way to draw from our common national heritage. But we should also come up with secular arguments. That’s what Obama is saying (even though he may question the “common national heritage” part).
And Dobson does this! When he argues for the Federal Marriage Amendment, for example, he doesn’t just appeal to Leviticus. He also refers to the decline of marriage in countries that legitimate homosexual unions. He argues that forsaking the traditional definition of marriage can allow it to mean anything and everything. He explains how recognizing gay marriage can completely damage America’s Social Security system. It is not reducing ourselves to the lowest common moral denominator to come up with secular arguments for our public policy positions. The religious right does this all of the time!
Third, Obama was pretty condescending when he said that Christians do not read their Bibles. Evangelicals have their ways of explaining (or explaining away) the difficult passages of Scripture. I may not find them convincing all of the time, but Obama shouldn’t act as if they’re unaware of the Bible’s troubling aspects. And, in some sense, he acknowledges later in the speech that Christians do wrestle with them, for he states: “Even those who claim the Bible’s inerrancy make distinctions between Scriptural edicts, sensing that some passages–the Ten Commandments, say, or a belief in Christ’s divinity–are central to Christian faith, while others are more culturally specific and may be modified to accommodate modern life.”
Fourth, I do feel that Obama contradicts himself, on some level. He argues that Christians should not have to leave their faith at the door when they enter politics, then he cites “problems” with bringing Christianity into the public square. He is for allowing “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance that students recite, yet he opposes teaching religion in public schools. Personally, I see nothing wrong with public schools acknowledging the importance of the Christian faith in America’s heritage. Sure, non-Christians should not be forced to do so, but why should we have a nationwide ban on school prayer, especially when there are many areas of the country that are predominantly Christian?
Obama wrestles with some hard issues, and, in the process, he looks like he’s talking on both sides of his mouth. Dobson takes Obama’s speech more personally than he should, plus he quotes it rather selectively.
I appreciate your comments about Obama and Dobson. I saw a report on their argument on cable news, and I found Dobson’s response very discouraging.
Not that I agree with Obama on everything he said, but I tend to be much more troubled by someone expressing a point of view close to mine poorly than I am by someone expressing a point of view that I disagree with well.
I think that Dobson and Minnery have chosen the wrong battle lines to fight with Obama over in this case. What does it mean to say that America is a “Christian nation”? There are a lot of ideas about that– does it merely refer to heritage, does it refer to the fact that a majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians, does it mean that our nation’s laws should be based on the Bible? You’ll find a lot of disagreement over what the term means, and I think it’s dangerously close to becoming a meaningless label.
I doubt that Dobson and Minnery are really arguing that our country’s laws should give preference to Christianity in some way because Christians make up a majority of the population according to that poll, but their quote makes it sound like they are. The argument that “a majority agree with us” is not very strong, because the majority can be wrong. Also, who knows what majority opinion will be in a year, or in twenty years? Even though I disagree with Obama about many things, I am glad he doesn’t see the President’s job as one of just pleasing the majority.
The way that Obama reasoned about abortion actually makes a lot of sense to me, in that I see some Christians try to make arguments with non-Christians simply by appealing to what the Bible says. But that just doesn’t get you anywhere if you don’t both give the Bible the same authority.
I have sometimes wondered if it has hurt the pro-life movement that opinions on abortion are so often closely linked to religious beliefs. An argument about abortion usually turns into an argument about how much part religion should play in government.
Obama’s reasoning is “I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”
To be honest, it is at this level that I actually find the pro-life argument most convincing; is it not in our best interest as humans to zealously protect human life, to treat it as valuable apart from utility or convenience, and in cases of uncertainty, to err on the side of caution until we know more? These do not seem to be uniquely Christian or even uniquely religious values; they are human values. Of course, Obama comes to the opposite conclusion about abortion from me, so I know it is not that simple.
Getting back to Dobson, one thing that I find strange about his criticism is that I have always thought that President Bush exemplified what Obama was talking about (at least in his speeches; I know there will probably be disagreements about his actions). Despite the fact that Bush says that his conversion to Christianity is personally very significant to him, he does not speak as if he is the President of a nation where everyone is Christian, or as if that is the way things ought to be. He has mentioned people of many faiths in his speeches, even in some cases drawing criticism from Christian leaders for speaking positively about Islam in America. (I can’t remember if Dobson has been one of those Christian leaders.) But I find it strange that they are blasting Obama for something that President Bush already does!
And finally, I really wish that Dobson hadn’t used the word “fruitcake” in his criticism of Obama’s interpretation of Scripture. Again, I doubt he meant it, but I’m sure some people saw it as a slur on homosexuals.
Thanks for your insightful comments, Nathan.
That’s a good question: What’s it mean to say that America is a Christian nation? I think some of it has to do with America’s historical heritage, since Minnery quoted the usual George Washington and John Adams sayings on morality and the Bible. And some of it has to do with the vast majority of Americans being Christian, since Minnery made that precise point.
Does it mean that America’s laws have to be based on Christianity?
I suppose that, for the Christian right, it does, in some sense. Dobson says that he would not expel non-believers, so I don’t think he wants to institute an Old Testament theocracy in America. And, yet, he wants the government to honor the Christian definition of marriage. He has criticized the Supreme Court striking down anti-sodomy laws. As I said, he has secular justifications for these things, but religion also plays a role.
I agree that pro-lifers can make a secular justification for abortion. In my experience (watching them on news shows, talking with them, reading their literature), they have, for they appeal to what the baby can do in certain stages of the pregnancy in their attempt to show that he’s an authentic human being. But Bible verses get thrown around as well.
I didn’t hear Dobson call Obama a “fruitcake” on his broadcast, though I’ve heard all of the news media say that he did so. Maybe I ignored it when he said that, I don’t know.
To clarify, based on the report I saw, Dobson didn’t call Obama a “fruitcake”; I think he said that Obama was using a “fruitcake” interpretation of Scripture.