What's the Matter With Barack Obama?

What's the matter with Barack Obama?

The trouble with Barack Obama's controversial recent speech about religion and the Democratic Party is not his embrace of religious language in the service of liberalism. Religious speech can be transcendent, and genuinely Christian ideals about justice and mercy can inspire even non-believers. The right has successfully convinced much of the country that the Democratic Party is hostile to people of faith, and speeches that work to counter that myth are valuable. Unfortunately, Obama's rhetoric ends up reinforcing Republican myths about liberal Godlessness instead of challenging them.

There's much in the speech to admire, particularly Obama's call for us to take the religious right's rhetoric seriously, to engage and argue with the movement's ideas rather than brushing them off as mere fanaticism. He gets the spiritual void at the heart of American life, and the need for social movements to offer people meaning and existential solace along with practical policy solutions. "Each day, it seems, thousands of Americans are going about their daily rounds -- dropping off the kids at school, driving to the office, flying to a business meeting, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets -- and they're coming to the realization that something is missing," he said. "They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough. They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They're looking to relieve a chronic loneliness, a feeling supported by a recent study that shows Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than ever before. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them -- that they are not just destined to travel down that long highway towards nothingness."

When I was in Dover, PA during the intelligent design controversy, a preacher's wife told that if evolution is true, life has no meaning. "Where's this universe heading?" she asked. "What's the purpose of it all? There's no standard, no guidelines." Obviously, Democrats should not join Republicans in pretending that they have a lock on divine truth, but they can speak to people's anxiety, their hunger for community and purpose. The religious right offers people a narrative arc, not just about their own lives, but also about America's decline and imminent resurrection. Democrats need a mobilizing vision as well, one that speaks to the despair that underlies so much of our politics.

Obama recognizes this, but he errs in taking Republican propaganda as fact, or, to put it in Lakoff's terms, in accepting the GOP frame. He perpetuates the fantasy that there really is a liberal war on faith. "[A] sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state," he says. "Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation -- context matters. 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. 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."

Let's unpack this. It is a common right-wing talking point that liberals want to take the phrase "under God" of the pledge of allegiance. Undoubtedly, some of us regret that, during a moment of Cold War panic in 1954, our government amended the historic pledge to put the word God in it. However, there is now no organized movement to take it out. The California man who sued over the pledge a few years ago represented no one but himself, and in 2002, when the 9th Circuit voted in his favor, many ardent defenders of church/state separation groaned. "This is a godsend for the religious right," Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State told me that day. "They're going to raise millions of dollars on this issue. I'm sure even as we're speaking, there are presses running overtime printing fundraising letters saying, 'Save the Pledge of Allegiance!'" Meanwhile, the Supreme Court had recently ruled that public money could be used for religious school tuition. "We're on the verge of tax-supported religion in this country. It's a startling change of policy, and instead of taking a hard, serious look at that, we're going to spend a couple of months arguing about the Pledge of Allegiance."

The fact is, no liberal of any stature -- and certainly no Democrat -- is fighting against the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Indeed, the day that decision came down, the Senate unanimously voted to condemn it.

Similarly, no one is stopping religious kids from gathering together to pray at school. Last year, when I was writing about the myth of the War on Christmas, I interviewed Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and an expert on religion in public schools. He's presented as a heroic voice of sanity in John Gibson's ridiculous book "The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought." This is what he told me: "The big picture is that there's more religion now in public schools than ever in modern history. There's no question about that. But it's not there in terms of the government imposing religion or sponsoring it, and that bothers some people on the right. They miss the good old days when public schools were semi-established Protestant schools."

In the last two decades, Haynes said, "religion has come into the public schools in all kinds of ways ... many schools now understand that students have religious liberty rights in a public school, so you can go to many public schools today and kids will be giving each other religious literature, they will be sharing their faith. You go to most public schools now and see kids praying around the flagpole before school." In this evangelical climate, I suspect many students who practice minority religions, or no religion at all, are made to feel far more alienated than when I was in school during the 80s and 90s. Nevertheless, when schools have stopped kids from engaging in religious speech -- say, not letting them hand out religious tracts at lunch -- the ACLU has stepped in to defend them, and they've been correct to do so. Liberalism, at its best, stands for free speech, even when that speech is annoying.

The relevant argument, then, is not about whether there will be prayer in public schools. It's about whether there will be government-mandated prayer in public schools. The argument is not whether religion can do good things in people's lives. It's whether the government should fund religion. The argument is not even whether religious groups should contract with the government to provide social services -- Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army and others have been doing that for decades. It's whether religious groups that do receive taxpayer funds should be permitted to proselytize on the public dime, and to refuse to hire those of the wrong faith. The relevant debate is about government-financed religious discrimination. The rest is just a smokescreen to make it seem like defenders of the First Amendment are the ones on the offensive.