Frederick Douglass and Randall Terry

The other day ‘hanmeng’ said in a comment on ‘God-talk as an unstated norm’ that the bible is Obama’s favourite book and later quoted from a keynote address he gave in 2006. The quotation was worrying – especially this bit –

[W]hat I am suggesting is this – secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas[s], Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant [Bryan], Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.

I was going to dispute that, but reading the whole address I found that Obama did some of the disputing for me. He doesn’t mean what that passage in isolation would seem to indicate that he means.

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, 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.

Well – that’s what I was going to say, and he’s already said it, in the same address, so I don’t need to bother. I had already thought he knew that, must know that, being 1) sensible and 2) a Constitutional scholar; but the quotation worried me. But if all religious people understood and agreed to that principle, we would all have a lot less to worry about.

I was going to say that it’s all very well to talk about Douglass and King, but they are not the only reformers in American history who were motivated by their religion and use religious language. Fred Phelps and Randall Terry are a couple more; so are throngs of people who opposed everything Douglass and King stood for. It always irritates the bejesus out of me when opponents of secularism cherry-pick their reformers and movements in order to defend the place of religion in politics, as if Christian defenders of slavery and segregation had never existed. I was prepared to give Obama a damn good scolding for doing that, but he doesn’t really do that (although I think he ought to have mentioned the anti-Douglasses, since he brought it up). He doesn’t really do that and, more important, he doesn’t shy away from stating the principle involved.

Gene Robinson states it too.

The Anglican church’s first gay bishop and the United States’ first black President-elect discussed in depth the place of religion in the state. Bishop Robinson said: “He and I would agree about the rightful place of religion vis-a-vis the secular state. That is to say, we don’t impose our religious values on the secular state because God said so. Our faith informs our own values and then we take those values into the civil market place, the civil discourse, and then you argue for them based on the Constitution. You don’t say to someone, you must believe this because this is what God believes.”


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