February 24, 2008

Obama's Public Religion

I never cared to read Obama’s Audacity of Hope, but I recommend you do as it is helpful in understanding the nature of his political aspirations.

Negative Campaigning & Partisan Politics
For those of you fearful of being accused of “negative” or unnecessary “partisan politics,” check this out. Obama hopes that the weight of such accusations are stronger than your own convictions. He writes,

Perhaps my greatest bit of good fortune during my own Senate campaign was that no candidate ran a negative TV ad about me. This had to do with the odd circumstances of my Senate race, and not an absence of material with which to work. After all, I had been in the state legislature for seven years, and had cast thousands of sometimes difficult votes.” (chapter 4, page 132)

This “good fortune” is unfortunate, but seems to be continuing.

One of the messages we hear from Obama is that the focus on what divides conservatives and liberals are really small and incidental issues, and that they should be abandoned for the sake of unity. The notion that taking a firm stand on conservative convictions amounts to nothing more than partisan politics is condescending and philosophically fraudulent because it seems that the issues he thinks ought to be abandoned are those that typify conservatism—I don’t see any concessions coming from him.

Obama’s Postmodern View of Truth
A look at his childhood reveals how he has come to understand truth, and that his political views are really an extension of his religious views, thus his religious beliefs are clearly being communicated in the public square. Speaking of his mother, he says that

In her mind, a working knowledge of the world’s great religions was a necessary part of any well-rounded education. (p. 203)

She’s not entirely wrong, but to what end does this knowledge serve in her mind? We should understand the teachings of other religions, but not embrace them all as equally valid.

He continues,

In our household, the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology. On Easter or Christmas day, my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and the ancient Hawaiian burial sites. But I was made to understand that such religious samplings required no sustained commitment on my part…Religion was an expression of human culture, she would explain, not its wellspring, just one of the many ways…(p. 204)
And yet for all her professed secularism, my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I’ve ever known. She had an unswerving instinct for kindness, charity, and love, and spent much of her life acting on that instinct…Without the help of religious texts…she worked mightily to instill in me the values that many Americans learn in Sunday school; honesty empathy, discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work. She raged at poverty and injustice, and scorned those who were indifferent to both. (p. 205)
Christianity is not just about values, nor is it about “personal values,” it is about ultimate truth. This obviously escapes him as he clearly emulates this state of “spiritually awakened” he attributes to his mother. Kindness, honesty, and hard work values that can be seen in the day-to-day life of an atheist. These behaviors should be seen in all believers (fruit), but the presence of these does not make one a Christian.
But it was my mother’s fundamental faith—in the goodness of people and the ultimate value of this brief life we’ve each been given—that channeled those ambitions. (p. 206)

Obama knows that this sort of religiosity is empty as he states that the dilemma his mother faced was passed on to him—that he had “no community or shared traditions in which to ground [his] most deeply held beliefs.” But Obama never really convinces himself—or me—that he has fully embraced orthodox Christianity. I’m not suggesting that he might not be a believer (nor am I suggesting that he is), but he offers several statements that suggest his system of belief outright rejects the historic Christian faith.

Almost by definition, faith and reason operate in different domains and involved different paths to discerning truth. Reason—and science—involves the accumulation of knowledge based on realities that we can all apprehend. Religion, by contrast is based on truths that are not provable through ordinary human understanding—the ‘belief in things not seen.’ When science teachers insist on keeping creationism or intelligent design out of their classrooms, they are not asserting that scientific knowledge is superior to religious insight. They are simply insisting that each path to knowledge involves different rules and that those rules are not interchangeable. (p. 219)
This is almost unfair to Obama because the flaws here are so many and so obvious. His argument suggests that science doesn’t start with presuppositions or pre-understanding. The truth is, science does not operate in a vacuum, outside of the influence of personal bias—and brute facts simply do not exist. Obama’s political philosophy is clearly seen in this statement as he falls into a Rawlsian trap, that moral assertions in the public square can never be grounded in religious reasons because of the pluralistic nature of our society. For religious reasons to have a bearing in the public square is to infringe on the freedom of nonreligious persons according to Rawls. This is where secularism gets some of its philosophical footing, as if it is religiously neutral, as if it is even possible for any idea or philosophy to be religiously neutral. Religious neutrality is a myth and reasons asserted by anyone in the public sphere eventually find their way back to a religion or worldview.

Another statement that impugns Obama on his claim to Christianity is his postmodern hermeneutic that pits certain passages of Scripture against others. It’s reminiscent of a feminist hermeneutic in that he is filtering the biblical text through his experience. Pitting verse against verse, he states,

I am not willing to have the state deny American citizens a civil union…nor am I willing to accept a reading of the Bible that considers an obscure line in Romans to be more defining of Christianity than the Sermon on the Mount. (p. 222)

Its unclear how he determines that the Romans passage is “obscure” or how the Sermon of the Mount is to be understood in isolation of Romans or any other area of Scripture. But it is clear that Obama, despite his great spiritual notoriety, is no theologian.

Finally, Obama’s view of Scripture is best understood in his own words.

When I read the Bible, I do so with the belief that it is not a static text but the Living Word and that I must be continually open to new revelations… (p. 224)

This statement is clearly problematic. While we may refer to Jesus as the Living Word, we must accept the Scriptures as unchanging in meaning and intent, though we as fallible humans may not always understand what read. We cannot confuse our inability to always discern the meaning of the text with God revealing new meanings unrelated to the text. The Bible was written by men in time and space with specific messages, not with ambiguous and every-changing purposes. To be generous, it’s unclear exactly how far Obama wants to take his method of interpreting Scripture, but it is safe to say that he has kept the door open for interpreting Scripture according to experience. His is a faith of values and experience, not of knowledge.

Concluding Remarks
The hype over Obama in the last year has been about nothing—literally. His campaign could be an episode of Seinfeld. He’s gone to great lengths to be not only the candidate of change, but the candidate of charisma….so shallow that it might actually work to win the general election. This is more of an indictment on the American voters than it is on Obama, unfortunately. But realize that he is equally a product of this shallow society. What are the dangers for America if he is to become the most powerful leader in the world? An increase in access to birth control, fewer parental rights, tighter restrictions on religious expression, higher taxes, naïve foreign relations that put America at risk……


Collin Brendemuehl said...

I think postmodern is not a correct general assessment, though it is a component. His greater structure is clearly and primarily pagan.

Mrs. Y said...

I think postmodern is a correct assessment and also a thought path through which many GenXers raised in primarily secular contexts are able to intellectually embrace the tenets of Christianity. I'm not saying it's a good thing, I'm just saying that it is.