Obama and The Campaign for the Religious Vote

Nick Gillepsie stumbled upon an article (following a link from Drudge) which I read yesterday but was having a hard time deciding how to respond to. While Gillepsie’s intent was to criticize Obama, Gillepsie did place the quote in perspective and as a result I actually find this a little less objectionable than I did yesterday. This was in response to a report on Obama campaigning before an evangelical congregation in South Carolina:

The senator from Illinois delivered his campaign message to a multiracial evangelical congregation in traditionally conservative Greenville, South Carolina. “I think it’s important, particularly for those of us in the Democratic Party, to not cede values and faith to any one party,” Obama told reporters outside the Redemption World Outreach Center where he attended services.

“I think that what you’re seeing is a breaking down of the sharp divisions that existed maybe during the ’90s,” said Obama. “At least in politics, the perception was that the Democrats were fearful of talking about faith, and on the other hand you had the Republicans who had a particular brand of faith that oftentimes seemed intolerant or pushed people away.”

Obama said he was pleased that leaders in the evangelical community such as T.D. Jakes and Rick Warren were beginning to discuss social justice issues like AIDS and poverty in ways evangelicals were not doing before.

“I think that’s a healthy thing, that we’re not putting people in boxes, that everybody is out there trying to figure out how do we live right and how do we create a stronger America,” Obama said.

He finished his brief remarks by saying, “We’re going to keep on praising together. I am confident that we can create a Kingdom right here on Earth.”

Later in the article:

There are times on the stump when Obama even sounds like a pastor himself, referencing New Testament phrases and sometimes saying “I’m not gonna preach to ya!” when emphasizing a point to his audience.

According to the religion-based Web site Beliefnet.com and its “God-o-Meter” tool that measures “God-talk” in the presidential campaigns, Obama invokes religion more than any of his Democratic competitors.

I’ve previously expressed a preference for the “Arnold Vinick” attitude on keeping religion out of politics, as seen in this clip from The West Wing. In an ideal world, candidates like Obama would not be speaking of creating “a Kingdom right here on Earth” during a political campaign.

While I was somewhat bothered by this report, I also understand the political realities. Besides, Clinton and Edwards hardly have a very good record on social issues and issues regarding separation of church and state.

In response to this story, Nick Gillepsie wrote:

I’m not a fan of religiosity in politics (I’m not completely turned off by it either, and I especially savor the irony that it was a super-religious fellow, Roger Williams, who most forcefully argued for fully secularized government, God bless him).

While it was not Gillepsie’s intent to defend Obama, and he does have some criticism afterwards, it is important to recall the strong history of “super-religious” fellows like Roger Williams in defending separation of church and state. While currently the religious right has being trying to spread an alternative history in which they deny the importance of the concept of separation fo church and state in the founding of the country, in the past it was “super-religious” people who understood the importance and fought for this right.

Ultimately what matters isn’t simply displays of religion, even if I’d prefer they be kept out of political campaigns, but their views on separation of church and state. A candidate’s religious views do not matter as long as they respect this right. It is worth repeating from a previous post where I quoted Obama on this issue:

For my friends on the right, I think it would be helpful to remember the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy but also our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn’t the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn’t want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves.

It was the forbearers of Evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they didn’t want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it. Given this fact, I think that the right might worry a bit more about the dangers of sectarianism.

Whatever we once were, we’re 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. We should acknowledge this and realize that when we’re formulating policies from the state house to the Senate floor to the White House, we’ve got to work to translate our reasoning into values that are accessible to every one of our citizens, not just members of our own faith community.

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    Charlotte says:

    This is a very interesting article and I support your call for retaining the separation between the Church and the State. Here in the UK the position is slightly odd in that Bishops do sit in the upper house of our Parliament but the British public are quite suspicious of candidates who fight on a religious platform. I know many Brits find the overt role that religion seems to play in US politics quite odd and unsettling.

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