EJ Dionne takes note of the controversy created by former left-wing hero Barack Obama, who alienated a number of pundits when he scolded Democrats for eschewing religion in their politics. Dionne, whose writings often touch on matters of faith, schools Democrats to pay attention to Obama when he counsels an outreach to the faithful:
[T]here is often a terrible awkwardness among Democratic politicians when their talk turns to God, partly because they also know how important secular voters are to their coalition. When it comes to God, it’s hard to triangulate.
So, when a religious Democrat speaks seriously about the relationship of faith to politics, the understandable temptation is to see him as counting not his blessings but his votes. Thus did the Associated Press headline its early stories about Barack Obama’s speech to religious progressives on Wednesday: “Obama: Democrats Must Court Evangelicals.”
Well, yes, Obama, the senator from Illinois who causes all kinds of Democrats to swoon, did indeed criticize “liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant.” But a purely electoral reading of Obama’s speech to the Call to Renewal conference here misses the point of what may be the most important pronouncement by a Democrat on faith and politics since John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech in 1960 declaring his independence from the Vatican.
Obama, as Dionne explains, wants to move past the church-state separation arguments by emphasizing the benefits to the faithful of such an arrangement. However, this seems rather patronizing and pointless. Very few among the faithful — I won’t say none — expect the US government to recast itself into a theocracy, where a Guardian Council of high priests pass judgement on all legislation. (We already have that with the Supreme Court, in some ways, which is why so many of us argue for the literal interpretation of the Constitution.)
We value the power granted to the people in crafting legislation, based on shared values and limited by the Constitution. What we do not appreciate is the systematic exclusion of the voices of the faithful in these debates. The secular underpinnings of the modern Democratic Party has done their level best to make religious belief a disqualifier for public service. All we need remember are Charles Schumer’s thinly veiled attacks on “deeply held personal beliefs” of Catholics such as the reason why he would not vote for their confirmation to understand the hostility felt by Democratic leadership to people of faith.
Dionne has a good point when he reminds people that the Bible contains many teachings, among them service to the poor and disadvantaged. The teachings of both Christianity and Judaism extol the values of tolerance and ethics, the holiness of working for those who have nothing or nobody, and the essential requirement of living in the world but not being of the world. In earlier times before Democrats became Christophobes, they relied on those passages to attract support for well-intentioned social programs intended to eliminate poverty and hunger. Even conservatives of faith acknowledge the strength of those arguments, and at least it provided a commonality of purpose, even when we could not agree on the means.
Now, however, the Democrats have abandoned the morality of our faith while demanding tribute to a government that has shown itself incapable of delivering any progress on the programs that their faith at one time demanded. In fact, they use the same government that forces us to support an ever-expanding set of social programs that also demands the removal of all symbols and speech of faith from the public square. The Democrats have replaced the church with the bureaucracy, and up to now have purged all that supported public expressions of faith.
It appears that the same dynamic has come into play with Barack Obama. When he made the common-sense statement that government cannot cure the soul of a man who would shoot indiscriminately into a crowd — a crime that happened recently in Minneapolis, resulting in the death of a random bystander — the Left excoriates him for what essentially amounts to heresy. We see no mere rhetorical device in the argument that the Left has created their own religion out of secular humanism, and the demand that Obama repent for his apostasy confirms it.
Dionne provides one of the few voices of the Left still around to speak on faith in public policy. Democrats should heed his words and get over their own form of religious intolerance. Don’t force Obama to mutter E pur si muove under his breath.
UPDATE: Howard Kurtz has more on the blogospheric reaction to Obama’s speech.