Religion in Politics: An MLK Day meditation

Glenn Greenwald has questions about an Obama brochure explaining that the Senator is a "Committed Christian":

Finally, just to underscore the point (again), I'm not arguing that Obama has done anything wrong here. As I said, I thought much of the criticism of Huckabee for making overt religious appeals was overblown because that's become the norm for our political culture. My point is simply that, with regard to this specific tactic of appealing to voters based on shared religious beliefs, Huckabee and Obama seem to be engaged in more or less the same exercise, and therefore, it's irrational to criticize one while defending the other. Atrios makes the same point in a slightly different way.

He acknowledges that Obama is replying to a whisper campaign claiming that he is secretly a Muslim (or, perhaps simultaneously, an atheist). But Greenwald's acknowledgment is so perfunctory as to miss the point. For Huckabee, the message is "I'm more Christian than you are." It's a divisive message that taps into a sense that a presidential campaign is a referendum on religion. The lies about Obama require a response, and his response is not the same divisive and sectarian message found in Huckabee's ads.

Huckabee, in his ads and the policies behind them (which Greenwald also treats as irrelevant to the discussion), aims to set religion and religious explanations at the core of his decision-making and rhetorical process. This explains his promise to amend the Constitution to reflect "God's law," his emphasis on a history as a "Christian leader," and his notion that the President shouldn't be able to teach 8th grade science, but should be able to lead a Sunday school.

It's a message also emphasized in Mitt Romney's defense of his Mormonism. Where Kennedy, in similar straits, emphasized that his policy decisions would be driven by his own moral judgments and not by the Pope's dictates, Romney placed his process, and American governance, in the hands of the clergy.

This is to say, the problem with Huckabee's use of the cross is that, for him, the cross symbolizes his commitment to enforcing his own religion on others.

In Democratic politics (and in my ideal of democratic politics), the relevance of religion is exactly opposite to the view Romney and Huckabee present. Where they think religion should set forth your worldview, great religious Democrats present their religion as a result of and evidence of their particular world view. I see this in Barack Obama's discussion of religion, and in honor of the day, I'll also mention that it was the approach taken by Martin Luther King, Jr. The point Democrats make is not that the Bible says X, and therefore that policy should be embraced by Christians.

When King spoke, he spoke in religious terms. But his call for a better world were not couched in Biblical commandments. His was a unifying language, a language of hope, unity and brotherhood (or sisterhood, we add in more enlightened times). He came to the church because of his worldview, and he called on others who shared that worldview to stand join with him on the political front, recognizing that others had followed that worldview to other churches, or had followed it away from religion altogether.

In African-American churches, the theology that developed emphasized freedom, and for obvious reasons. The notion of a better world to come is hardly exclusive to that tradition, and the same concept drove men like Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, none of whom seemed to have any strong ties to a given church. In the 1950s and '60s, America stood at a crossroads, with many people arriving from many places. It turned out that they all wanted to go in the same direction, though, and Martin Luther King was capable of leading them where they all wanted to go. He did so without abandoning his religion, but he did not bring them to that crossroads by simply insisting that doing otherwise was against God's law, nor did he chart their course with reference only to religious doctrine.

In his theology, like that of Obama's church and many Christian groups outside of the evangelical tradition, it is not just acceptable but necessary to bring human experience to bear in interpreting the Bible. As Lincoln put this principle, "my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side." The latter position, Huckabee's, uses God as a cudgel to drive people against their will. The latter concerns itself with finding the right decision, and bringing people to that position regardless of ideology.

In the mid-'60s, church leaders and their congregations stood with Jews and (atheist) communists from the North, protesting against segregation, lynchings and the generalized racism of American society. "We shall overcome," the crowds insisted. They said so as firehoses and dogs drove them back from the bridge in Selma, and they said so outside of the White House. Presidents met with men like King, men who led churches on Sunday and led communities the rest of the week. And finally, LBJ, the man who had led his share of filibusters in the Senate, stood before Congress and took the message from those churchmen to Congress.

His message was not, as Huckabee's or Romney's might be in their State of the Union address, that God's word compelled particular action.

I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of Democracy. I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause. At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom.

Where he could have cited Moses and the burning bush or other figures commonly used in Southern spirituals to make this exact point, he turned to America's civic religion, the historic battles at Lexington and Concord, and at Appomattox, and on that bridge in Selma. Turning again to our civic religion, and the language of Christian preachers like Dr. King and Obama's minister in Chicago, Johnson declared:

But there is cause for hope and for faith in our Democracy in what is happening here tonight. For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great government--the government of the greatest nation on earth. Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country--to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man. …

to deny a man his hopes because of his color or race or his religion or the place of his birth is not only to do injustice, it is to deny Americans and to dishonor the dead who gave their lives for American freedom.

By this fair standard, neither Obama's Christianity nor Huckabee's should block their election to the Presidency. What we should judge is whether these men will uphold the secular beliefs, the civic religion of liberal democracy underlying America: belief in the power of America to improve itself, the importance of open debate, of political freedom and equal rights for all. For Huckabee, the cross represents something to be forced on others, an argument against which all Americans ought to concede, and that belief runs counter to our national identity. Obama's is a different sort of religion, one more deeply rooted in the faith of the men who drafted and signed the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Far from assaulting it, his is a faith builds on the civic religion and strengthens it.

Candidates rely on assertions of their Christianity as shorthand for a range of issues, but the analysis above strongly suggests that it is a shorthand which ignored more than it reveals. There are elements within Christianity which work against the mission of our civic religion, and there are others which helped craft that secular religion and which continue to sustain it.

That explains the difference in reactions from the left. The right's response is driven by a different set of concerns. They prefer not to make a point of Obama's Christianity, since they profoundly hope to use lies about his religion to muddy him in the general election. On Huckabee, their objections seem to stretch between a concern that Huckabee (unlike Bush or Reagan) actually believes what he preaches, to the claim that he doesn't really believe in the Republican Party's secular religion, the secular religion of modern conservatism. Huckabee's religion, the complaint goes, doesn't just drive him to think the government belongs in a woman's uterus, but that it also has a role in public schools, public roads, and even in public health and welfare. They worry that he might even think one should raise revenue to pay for such programs.

This opposition between Christian faith and faith in the power of government to improve people's lives is a far cry from that advanced by men like Dr. King or Lyndon Johnson. Johnson borrowed the civil rights protestor's call "We shall overcome" first to defend the proposition that "This time, on this issue, there must be no delay, or no hesitation, or no compromise with our purpose. We cannot, we must not, refuse to protect the right of every American to vote in every election that he may desire to participate in." Then he invoked the spiritual call again,

This great rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all--all, black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are our enemies, not our fellow man, not our neighbor.

And these enemies too--poverty, disease and ignorance--we shall overcome.

There is little doubt in my mind that such things are taken on faith. But I would never vote for a President who did not share that faith with me, and did not have faith in the basic human ability to argue rationally and bring people together across political, religious and racial lines.


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