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Theological Notebook: Steinfels on the Iffy Beginning of Democratic Discourse Regarding Religion

Huh. I missed this, but I would have been fascinated to watch. It was so clear after the 2004 election that the Democrats were being killed by having embraced the Secularist over-strong reading of "separation of church and state" having morphed into "separation of religion/spirituality from reality." In our polarized political landscape, as long as the Democrats kept sounded like they were opposed to any religious motive being acceptable for public and political action, they were going to drive far too much of the population into Republican voting as the only seeming possibility of free political exercise, no matter how opposed people might be to various Republican platforms. The Democrats needed to not try to suppress the use of religion in the public sphere (for which there is really no justification in the tortured First Amendment) but to rediscover the religious articulation of their own politics.

This sounds like a move in that direction, but Steinfels rightly points out it's a weak one. If the American Left is going to be as weak, shallow and misleading in its articulation of religious reflection and motivation as the American Right has been in recent years, that isn't much of an improvement: just more bumper-sticker philosophy. And for a country that's so anti-intellectual and so religiously/philosophically illiterate, it certainly won't "raise the bar" on the level of public discourse. (Here of course we must also point the finger at the American news media for collaborating with our politicians in dumbing things down to the lowest-common denominator.) The Democrats may talk about beating Bush, but this type of shallowness would be more along the lines of being just about winning and simply "becoming Bush." Steinfels' comments on the kind of questions that ought to be being asked seems right on target.

A Tentative First Step in Addressing Faith and Politics

The New York Times
June 9, 2007

Almost a century ago, G. K. Chesterton made a comment that could most appropriately be applied to Monday night’s forum at which leading Democratic presidential candidates discussed faith and politics: anything worth doing “is worth doing badly.”

The purpose of the forum, organized by the liberal evangelical journal Sojourners and broadcast on CNN, was to hear what Democratic contenders might say about religion and whether they might convincingly enlarge the list of religious and moral (or “values”) questions to include topics like poverty, war and the environment rather than only those emphasized by the religious right.

Not a bad idea. Clearly, the nation and first of all the Democrats could use a better, broader, more sophisticated conversation about religion and politics.

Yet it is hard to imagine anyone serious about either of these subjects watching Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards on Monday without cringing at some of the questions or chafing at some of the speechifying and the general absence of intelligent follow-up.

Same for the subsequent interviews by Paula Zahn of CNN of the next tier of Democratic candidates — Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio — all of them Roman Catholics and therefore subject to obligatory questions about abortion, gay rights and how they stood these days with the pope.

The two broadcasts did produce some moving, revealing and thoughtful moments. Asked about President Bush’s evocations of “good versus evil in war,” Mr. Obama warned that such talk could dull Americans’ readiness to look critically at their own nation’s actions, but he carefully framed that warning by affirming the reality of evil in the world and the moral obligation it sometimes created to take up arms.

Mrs. Clinton acknowledged that faith, although it had sustained her in her very public marital trials, did not always survive “being tested in cruel and tragic ways.” Mr. Biden spoke powerfully of his anger at God and religious alienation after his wife and infant daughter were killed in 1972 in an automobile accident.

Mr. Edwards was burdened by the silliest questions from the moderator Soledad O’Brien, and also by a manner more testimonial than analytic, but he adroitly fielded her inquiry about “the biggest sin you’ve ever committed” with the good evangelical reply: “I sin every day. We are all sinners.”

His response was one of several beams of self-disparagement — like Mrs. Clinton’s admission of sometimes praying, “Oh, Lord, why can’t you help me to lose weight?” — that pierced the cloud of poll-driven piety always threatening to descend on the proceedings.

Questions about prayer, for example, are normally one of the best entry points for probing the reality of anyone’s religious life, including one’s own. But just as found objects look different when they are mounted in an art gallery, talk of prayer sounds different when it occurs on television in the midst of a presidential campaign.

It is not hard to imagine Richard M. Nixon and George Wallace waxing as pious as any of the candidates on Monday evening. But it is hard to imagine a candidate so truthful as to say, “Well, Soledad, I reach out for whatever divine help I can get in times of great stress — you know, like asking George Soros for a contribution, or waiting for the returns from Miami-Dade County. Otherwise I’m afraid my campaign schedule is pretty tight. If God wanted us to pray daily, why did he create primaries?”

On Monday, Ms. O’Brien kept describing the forum as one about “faith and politics,” and Ms. Zahn was backed by a logo with the same phrase. But there was no “and” there. These conversations were about faith. They were about politics. They just weren’t conversations about faith and politics.

Think of questions that could have explored that “and.”

What does the Bible or any other religious source tell you about fighting poverty — and what doesn’t it tell you? Likewise for writing tax legislation or extending health care.

Does your faith dictate any absolute principles, ones you would never compromise, for using military force? For interrogating prisoners? For making peace in the Middle East? For legal provision of abortion? For recognizing gay marriage?

What is your reaction to the claim that religion is “a conversation stopper” that should be kept out of political debates because it appeals to emotionally powerful convictions beyond rational examination?

Do you agree with the large proportion of voters — perhaps half or more — who say they wouldn’t vote for an atheist for president, even one generally qualified for the office?

What do you say to those who fear that even conversations like this one constitute a religious test for the presidency?

Some of these questions were implied Monday, and a number of candidates suggested answers between the lines, insisting on their respect for different views and talking about a spirit or vision rooted in faith, on the one hand, and the political need for consensus and compromise, on the other.

But too much about the complex relationship between faith and politics was left unarticulated. That did nothing to dispel the uncomfortable feeling that Democrats are merely aping the religious form of identity politics that Republicans have successfully practiced.

In a post-forum wrap-up, the Rev. Jim Wallis, founder and editor of Sojourners and a tireless campaigner to get poverty on the nation’s political agenda, told Ms. O’Brien: “We were off to a good start tonight. Finally, a better conversation about faith and values.”

Maybe so. But only a start.
Tags: church and state, constitutional, cultural, faith and reason, media, mysticism/spirituality, new york times, political, secularism/modernity, theological notebook

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