Rick Elgendy: Who's right ... Obama or Dobson (or neither?)

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Rick Elgendy is a Ph.D. student in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.]

Last week, Focus on the Family's James Dobson took issue with a 2006 speech made by Senator Barack Obama at a meeting of "Call to Renewal," a movement of politically activist Christians. A religious figure criticizing a presidential candidate is nothing new, but an important exchange about the place of religion in the life of a democratic society ought not to be lost amidst the presidential politics of this election season.

In his speech, Obama wondered not whether an emerging plurality of religious traditions spells chaos for a once-monolithic public discourse, but whether even a solely "Christian" population would have fewer disagreements about public policy: "[W]hose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's?" Obama here echoes a point made by Jeffrey Stout in Democracy and Tradition: Under the circumstances of "secularized discourse" – wherein the participants of a common public conversation cannot take for granted a basic religious agreement, either in conviction or in application – a simple appeal to a single religious authority as arbiter of public conflict will fail. Stout's claim is demonstrated is Obama's question, "Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy?" The debates that would ensue in response to that question would not be settled by the establishment of Christian (or any other) faith as normative for American citizenship. Thus, we ought to expect disagreement between people of good faith, and cultivate the virtues of civic life which allow conversation to continue in spite of disagreement. Based on Dobson's criticisms, which focus on his objection to being considered a co-religionist of Al Sharpton and on Obama's scriptural examples, Dobson seems to have missed this point.

Yet Dobson does voice a concern worth serious consideration. Later in his speech, Obama departed from Stout, gesturing in the direction of John Rawls' notion of public reason: "Democracy demands," Obama claimed, "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." Dobson worries that Obama is "trying to make the case that it is anti-democratic to believe or fight for moral principles in the Bible that are not supported by people of all faiths," and asks if he is required as a citizen to conform his advocacy to a "lowest common denominator of morality."

Obama should care about this, having spoken of the non-neutrality of telling citizens where and how their religion should not be practiced (i.e., in matters of public policy), and having asserted that it is a "practical absurdity" to expect men and women not to "inject their 'personal morality' into public policy debates." Yet he also noted that, were we to see a modern-day version of Abraham commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, "we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham," valid as his religious experience might be. Here, Dobson's fears about Obama's Rawlsian side resonate: If we have recourse only to "common laws or basic reason," (whatever constitutes those suspicious entities), then society cannot accommodate the burden of certain robust religious convictions (and, by extension, certain religious persons). While tradition-specific theology is surely a poor tool for consensus-building, a situation in which the state must disenfranchise any religious conviction or action outside the grasp of "public reason" would seem a tragic defeat for religious freedom. How, then, do we move forward as a society seeking both public consensus and space for citizens to be religious?

Several authors have recently offered reconceptions of our approach to public space itself. Charles Mathewes' suggestion in A Theology of Public Life turns on the distinction between a public theology and a theology of public life: A public theology is a statement of Christian conviction stripped of its particularity and rendered acceptable to others, while a theology of public life is a description of the place of public life in the economy of God's creative and salvific agency. A theology of public life involves engaging in the political arena as an ascetical enterprise, a practice in discipleship that works through the building of the virtues of faith, hope, and love; Mathewes thus underwrites Stout's suggestion that discursive virtues, and not necessarily religious consensus, make for a healthy public conversation. Another analysis comes from William T. Cavanaugh, who, in his Theopolitical Imagination, highlights the ways in which material political conditions open up avenues beyond state-sponsored policy debates. Cavanaugh describes concrete practices – from participation in community supported agriculture to certain ways of understanding and performing the Eucharist – as a means of dialogue with the wider world, without the translation of religious convictions into something they are not.

These prescriptions do not finally resolve the perennial problem of comprehensive conviction amidst democratic plurality, nor do any of the claims made by Obama or Dobson. However, as theologians and ethicists elaborate reasons for religious citizens to engage the public sphere charitably, and with more in mind than mere competition for public goods, we can hope that the conversation will be both more civil and more fruitful.

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