Does evangelical leader James Dobson have a point when he recently resurrected his high-pitched criticisms of Obama’s 2006 “Call to Renewal” speech, accusing him of making a “fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution”?
Not really, but the controversy, in which Dobson accuses Obama of pandering to the “lowest common denominator of morality,” calls attention to an important unresolved tension in Obama’s position on religion and politics.
Obama sent a rallying cry to liberal Christians in his now famous speech “Call to Renewal,” telling his followers to not cede ground to religious conservatives, arguing that there are many ways to apply the Bible’s moral principles. The speech recognized a place for religion in public life.
As he said: “If we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice… Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square.”
But confusion has ensued over the demands Obama placed on these believers: “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.”
To Dobson, that meant believers must adopt Obama’s “universal values” before entering the public square.
But Obama’s position certainly is more sophisticated than Dobson’s characterization indicated. He seems to be arguing for negotiation across the religious divide in a world in which no single claim to moral righteousness can automatically trump all others. In such a world, both secular and religious precepts, perspectives, and faiths inform debates over public policy. Religious values are not subordinate to their secular rivals.
Obama does not advocate a hierarchy of beliefs in which his own (whether expressed in religious or secular terms) sit on top of the moral totem pole, with the commitments of others down below. No universal—secular or religious—stands above the fray.
Obama isn’t descending to Dobson’s “lowest common denominator of morality.” Rather, in his call to translate faith-based claims into a “universal” language he seems to be challenging conventional secular-religious divisions and the tired political stalemates that follow in their wake.
This is no fruitcake position. As many religious believers who support Obama have already acknowledged, it may be the only way forward in a religiously pluralistic society.