This week has seen the spectacle of James Dobson attempting to pick a fight with Barack Obama over his theology and interpretation of the Bible. I have dealt a couple times with this, as have many others. Today's Washington Post offers a surprising op-ed piece by Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and also a former member of the Bush Administration, who takes Obama's side in this latest attempt by Christian conservatives to impose theological and Biblical conformity upon the nation. If any more evidence is needed that Christian conservatives are no longer a monolithic group moving in lockstep, I'm not sure where one could find it.
Earlier this week, Focus on the Family's James Dobson criticized Sen. Barack Obama, accusing him of "deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit ... his own confused theology," of having a "fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution" and of appealing to the "lowest common denominator of morality."
Dobson's judgment was based on Obama's keynote address at a "Call to Renewal" conference on June 28, 2006. In fact, this speech was impressive in many respects. As an evangelical and conservative who has deep concerns about Obama's policies and political philosophy, I nonetheless welcome such a statement by a leading Democrat.(emphasis added)
This is the opening, which should make the eyes pop on anyone who has been paying attention for the past couple decades as the differences among various Christian sects - fundamentalist, evangelical, dispensationalist - became blurred as all these groups were recruited by Republicans to support their party, while getting little but lip service in return. What is both surprising and pleasing about this opening is we have the honest acknowledgment by a conservative that a liberal might actually be saying something important. Shoot, I'm trying to remember the last time I did the same yet opposite number . . .
Anyway, the most interesting and critical aspect of the column follows:
Dobson was critical of Obama's biblical references here and suggested that he had set up a series of straw men to support his "confused theology." But as I understand him, Obama was pointing out why the words of Scripture do not provide a ready policy blueprint for modern American society. Indeed, many of us have grappled with how to arrive at a theologically informed and fair-minded reading of the Bible that takes its moral principles seriously without simplistically applying to our time the cultural norms of previous eras. The chief defect of Obama's speech was that he didn't provide more insight into how to navigate these theological waters.
The passage of the speech that prompted Dobson's "fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution" and "lowest common denominator of morality" comments was this: "Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. What do I mean by this? It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, to take one example, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all."
Dobson paraphrased this as "unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe in." But that's not what Obama was saying at all. Rather, he was arguing that in a pluralistic nation like ours, politics depends on people of faith being able to persuade others based on common and accessible ground and appeals to reason -- which sounds entirely reasonable. Christians who oppose abortion can make an effective case by talking about sonograms, fetal development and the moral imperative to protect the most vulnerable. That doesn't mean one's faith shouldn't inform the question of abortion -- or, for that matter, war, poverty and other issues. After all, President Lincoln's argument against slavery was partly grounded in faith. But appeals to the Bible or church teaching aren't sufficient in a pluralistic nation. That's why Lincoln talked primarily about the Declaration of Independence.
This should be surprising precisely because so many liberals did not hear what Obama was saying as clearly as this conservative did. I remember well this speech and the reaction to it. Many liberals thought that Obama had jumped the religious shark on this one, even as I thought he had managed to send the message to liberals that he would not resort to religious rhetoric for his appeal to religious voters (something the Republicans increasingly have forgotten to do). Furthermore, Wehner acknowledges Obama's deeply American understanding of what constitutes public discourse. While I have problems with the word "universal", one does not need to deal too much with it because the intent is clear. The issue is using a general vocabulary stripped of the particularity and exclusionary intent and history of religious rhetoric. Wehner is doing something I have yet to hear many religious conservatives do, which is accept that religious concerns, when brought in to the public square, need a bit of tweaking in their presentation in order to make a broader appeal. Using the example of Lincoln may not be the best (Lincoln himself wasn't much of a believer beyond vague references; he never attended church, and probably couldn't get Republican Party support today), but it does show how a wise, intelligent, and cagey politician understands the way to "do" political debate in America, with that most American of Presidents as a guide.
I do so love the ending of this column:
If Christian conservatives want to be taken seriously, they need to make serious arguments and speak with intellectual integrity. In this instance, Dobson didn't. He has set back his cause and made some of us who are evangelicals and conservatives wince.
Not just conervatives winced, Mr. Wehner.