Last week, in a spoken commentary aired on the Focus on the Family radio program, Dr. James Dobson and his VP of Public Policy, Tom Minnery, came out swinging against Sen. Barack Obama, with Minnery accusing him of "dragging biblical understanding through the gutter." I guess Dr. Dobson won't be voting for Obama this fall.
The impetus for this rant was a speech given by Obama two years ago at a conference sponsored by Call To Renewal, a liberal/progressive association of Christian pastors, authors, and lay-workers.
You can read Obama's speech in its entirety here. Obama doesn't have anything earth-shattering to say; he is merely preaching to the choir on subjects that liberal Christians hold dear, particularly finding shared strengths and working toward common goals, rather than emphasizing differences and working against compromises. (Curiously, this is something that liberals seem eager to initiate with anyone except conservatives and Christian fundamentalists. Go figure.)
Obama begins his speech by citing an ad hominum attack from Alan Keyes, his opponent during the 2004 Illinois senate race. Toward the end of the race (when Keyes was down 40 points in the polls) he charged that, "Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama. Christ would not vote for Barack Obama because Barack Obama has behaved in a way that it is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved."
Conservative leaders have been all too happy to exploit this gap, consistently reminding evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design.
Democrats, for the most part, have taken the bait. At best, we may try to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that - regardless of our personal beliefs - constitutional principles tie our hands. At worst, there are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word "Christian" describes one's political opponents, not people of faith.
Now, such strategies of avoidance may work for progressives when our opponent is Alan Keyes. But over the long haul, I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in people's lives -- in the lives of the American people -- and I think it's time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.
... Because when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations towards one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome - others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.
In other words, if we don't reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, then the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Alan Keyeses will continue to hold sway.
Following this, Obama cited a lengthy list of examples of Christian social activists who used their faith to influence progressive public policies. Then he made the comments that twisted Dobson's panties into a knot:
While I've already laid out some of the work that progressive leaders need to do, I want to talk a little bit about what conservative leaders need to do -- some truths they need to acknowledge.
For one, they need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of 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 the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.
Moreover, given 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.
It seems that Dobson and Co. missed the joke here, which is a long-running observation by Christian leaders that the liberal/secularist fear of a "theocracy" is totally ridiculous simply because the Baptists, Pentecostals, and Methodists would never relinquish control of anything to the other. Did Obama really "equate" -- as Focus on the Family charges -- Dobson and Sharpton? Only if you take Obama's comments completely out of context, which is what Dobson and Minnery do. It seems very clear to me that Obama intentionally chose two high-profile religious leaders with extremely different worldviews and understandings of how Christianity should be applied in public policy discussions.
If you want to appreciate just how far out of context Dobson and
Minnery have to take Obama in order to use his speech as a proof text
of their talking points, listen to this seven minute excerpt from
Dobson's radio program:
If Focus On the Family's talking points require such a deliberate misrepresentation of opposing views in order to be coherent, then how far should we trust their interpretation of Scripture? For that matter, how far should we trust Barack Obama's?
Obama has recycled one of the oldest and most cliche attacks against Christian fundamentalism's belief in biblical inerrancy, namely the accusation that no one could ever espouse a complete literal interpretation and practice of the Bible, because doing so would require practicing the entire 600-plus commandments of Law as revealed to Moses by Yahweh in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
Of course Christians have never made the practice of the Law a part
of their faith. One of the earliest theological battles between
non-Jewish and Jewish Christians was over the role that Law was to play
in the Christian faith. In Acts 10, the apostle Peter was forced to confront his belief (as a devout Jew) that strict adherence to dietary laws was a
prerequisite for holiness. And the apostle Paul devotes nearly all of
his letter to the Galatians to explaining why it is not necessary for
the Galatians to become circumcised or observe Jewish law in order to
be considered holy in the sight of God. Christian doctrine teaches that the imitation
of Christ -- dying to oneself and being transformed by the work of the
Holy Spirit -- is the most fundamental requirement of holiness.
Because of this, it is highly unlikely that any Christian, regardless of his particular religious heritage, would suggest a return to the full observance of Law as a way to justify our society. Perhaps Obama is being cute, pointing out to a progressive audience things that contemporary progressives would obviously consider to be barbaric. (He did get a laugh from the crowd with the Leviticus line.) But in doing so he seriously deflates the legitimacy of his argument by attacking a straw man that Christians have never taken seriously.*
That being said, Obama's point about out-of-context Biblical literalism is right on the money. The truth is that no Christian believes in literal interpretation of the entire Bible. The fact that we have so many denominational schisms within Protestant Christianity bears witness to the fact that we have never had widespread agreement about which passages of scripture to take literally, and which to understand in a figurative or metaphorical context. What Obama is asking is simply this -- would those who read numerous verses from Leviticus literally as proof texts in support of capital punishment by the state also take The Sermon on the Mount literally and insist that the state use the Beatitudes to shape public policy related to individual welfare and defense? Would those who believe executions to be Biblically mandated also support foreign policy based around a literal, plain text interpretation of "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," or an economy based around a literal, plain text interpretation of "Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you"? An interesting question, to be sure.
Dobson accuses Obama of "deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible," but in doing so he reveals Protestant fundamentalism's most glaring flaw, which is an assumed monopoly on the truth. This is the same error made by Alan Keyes when he dismissed Obama as a man completely at odds with Jesus Christ. Growing up in the Church of the Nazarene during the 1940's and 1950's, James Dobson surely learned traditional Protestant fundamentalist doctrine. Dobson's worldview is what it is, and it is shared by millions upon millions of Americans. But none of that gives Dobson or Keys divine authority to diminish Barack Obama or declare that his faith is heretical, even though Obama has consistently identified himself as pro-abortion.
I am mystified by the pro-abortion stance of many Christians that I know. I pray for them, that they may feel as passionately about ending abortion on demand as they do about ending the death penalty. But nowadays I feel more discomfort around conservatives who are moral absolutists than I do around "liberal" Christians who tolerate behaviors that I find repulsive. For some reason, moral absolutists seem to have a much more difficult time connecting with people who are suffering. They are very good at preaching, but struggle with solidarity. This is why "Moral Majority" types tend to alienate people rather than win widespread support among communities at large.
Fundamentalists say that this is because Satan blinds unbelievers to the truth. I say that people like James Dobson should spend more time reading their Bibles.
My Godblogging friend LaShawn Barber has also responded to Dobson's critique of Obama. She provides an easy-to-understand explanation of the Reformed Christian understanding of the relationship between the Levitical Law and its fulfillment through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This was the classic understanding that I was taught in Sunday School, but as I began a deeper study of theology I found this explanation to be somewhat lacking. Perhaps sometime in the near future I'll write an exposition of Leviticus and the alternative community established by God for the Israelites. Of course such a project will be difficult and time-consuming, particularly because it will demand clarity and brevity, the latter I struggle with greatly.
* Yes, I have heard of Rushdoony and The Institutes of Biblical Law. While many his philosophies have influenced a number of influential "Religious Right" leaders, there has never been a consensus among any group of serious Christians that we should move our nation immediately toward his concept of a "theonomy."
My title is drawn from the classic 1961 jazz album by the Dave Bailey Sextet entitled One Foot In the Gutter. One of the best jazz albums of all time, it holds a sure spot on my "desert island" list of music.