Op-Ed: Rev. Wright and the Church-State Divide

[This article was written before yesterday’s speech. The full text and video of Barack Obama’s speech on the Jeremiah Wright flap and race in America can be viewed in full here —Ed.]

Barack Obama’s repudiation of controversial remarks made by his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has dominated the campaign news in the last few days. But in all the hoopla, some crucial words in Obama’s statement of condemnation have been largely overlooked—words that may be the most important of all: “Rev. Wright preached the gospel of Jesus, a gospel on which I base my life. In other words, he has never been my political advisor; he’s been my pastor.”

“In other words”? The missing logical link here seems to be an implicit argument: The gospel, on which I base my life, has no direct bearing on my political decisions. What can this mean? Are Obama’s political decisions, which are presumably based on political thinking, something apart from his life? How could that be?

At the Call to Renewal conference last June, in a major statement on religion and politics, Obama gave this example:

I think we should put more of our tax dollars into educating poor girls and boys, and give them the information about contraception that can prevent unwanted pregnancies, lower abortion rates, and help assure that that every child is loved and cherished. But my Bible tells me that if we train a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not turn from it. I think faith and guidance can help fortify a young woman’s sense of self, a young man’s sense of responsibility, and a sense of reverence by all young people for the act of sexual intimacy.

What’s the point? The political process can choose to educate poor children about contraception. (Though why not rich children too, one might ask.) And biblically-based religious institutions can train the same children about sexuality. The two could, theoretically, be kept quite separate. But if a President Obama had to decide how much public money to allocate to the first kind of education, would he really ignore that on which he claims to “base my life”?

That hardly seems likely. Indeed, in the very same speech he went to say “Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.”

Yet a moment later, intending to justify that claim, he complicated the issue: “To say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity; our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

If Obama had merely said that he, as a Christian, must ground his personal morality in his Christian faith, it would raise some interesting issues of church and state. But he seems to have gone further, saying that “our law” codifies a “personal morality” that is largely grounded in specific religious traditions, one of them being his own. So apparently he claims that it’s not only okay, but inevitable, that he brings his religion into the political arena. The issue of sex education for children seems like one obvious place to do so.

Now, though, he has told us that the gospel on which he bases his life is somehow detached from his political decision-making process. If he still identifies “personal morality” and law with his religion, then is he saying that “personal morality” and law have nothing to do with his political decisions? Surely not.

The best way out of this logical muddle is to begin with the premise that logic has little if anything to do with it. Candidates (and their staff writers) craft their words for one purpose only: to get more votes. They are smart enough to know that logic has precious little to do with the process by which voters make their choices. Heavy doses of illogic are no impediment to getting elected. On the other hand, saying the wrong words (or failing to say the right words) at the right time can be a major impediment to getting elected.

If reason prevailed, the question of what Obama’s pastor did or did not say would be so far down the list of campaign issues that no one would ever notice it. Since unreason prevails, and boosts media ratings handsomely, the manufactured “controversy” over Rev. Wright eclipses war, economic collapse, climate chaos, and a long list of other genuinely urgent concerns.

Beyond the general principle that people vote largely from the “reptilian brain” down, there is a more specific dynamic at work in the American political process when it comes to the thorny issue of religion and politics. Voters demand seemingly contradictory things from their candidates.

On the one hand, while some voters want their own religious doctrines translated into specific political policies, many more voters want to be protected against having any doctrines, and often religion itself, forced upon them. They want to be reassured that the wall of separation between church and state will stand firm. It’s a matter of having their freedom protected, which the candidates say is their number one priority.

On the other hand, most voters want assurances that the candidate is deeply rooted in a faith, any faith. (Perhaps Dwight Eisenhower knew more than he gets credit for when he famously said that our way of government makes no sense unless it is founded in faith, “and I don’t care what it is.”)

Smart candidates figure out ways to heed both demands. At long last, Democrats as well as Republicans have managed to do that. They have finally understood that the demand for “faith” is not about policies. It’s about symbolizing a sense of moral certainty, a conviction that there are indeed eternal moral truths that endure in this era of rapid cultural, and hence ethical, change. A candidate can score political points using any words about religion, as long as they carry that symbolic message of certainty along with a promise of freedom kept safe and secure. It need have nothing to do with any specific policy issues. And it need have nothing to do with logical consistency.

That’s what Obama has been doing, and no doubt will continue to do. I’ve cited him here as an example, merely because it’s his religious life that has been in the news this week. Next week it could well be Clinton’s, or McCain’s.

I mean only to point out that all the agonizing analyses about the proper relation between church and state, as logically astute as they may be, too often miss the point. A politician’s job is to win elections. That’s their professional skill. Since words are their principal tools, a major part of their skill is knowing what words will gain most favor with the most voters.

Those of us whose professional skill is analyzing religion and politics can offer our own views on the correct relation between the two realms until we are blue in the face, and it probably won’t make much difference. We can serve the public better by shedding light on why the candidates choose the words they do, which means understanding why the voters respond to some words rather than others; which means, in turn, understanding why the voters want what they want and don’t want what they don’t want. That’s the most important question we can ask in an election year.