Belaboring the Obvious

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Obama the Scold....

Barack Obama wants us to embrace envangelicals. He said so a few days ago. What I don't understand is why evangelicals should be singled out for a big political hug, since at least one branch of that group has been far too willing to cozy up to the proto-fascists and oligarchs in the right wing of the country, in the hope of gaining some traction for their own desires for the political life of the country.

More to the point, why do politicians today feel the need to occupy public political discourse with matters of religion in the first place? We have a Constitution which puts the matter quite plainly, that the affairs of government are intentionally secular, so what is it that prompts politicians of all stripes to want to make religion an issue?

Votes, certainly. And that makes it pandering. Oh, not in the way that some politicians grovel to the rich and powerful for campaign contributions, but it's pandering, nevertheless. What Obama, and other politicians like him, are saying by espousing alignments with religion is: elect me (or, elect me again) because I'm on your side. I think the same way you do.

And, what does that say about the separation of church and state? It says that even so-called progressives are willing to undo it, in theoretical, if not practical terms, for the sake of votes. It also suggests that the bogus argument--that "moral values" can't exist unless they exist inside a religious context--is taken as conventional wisdom by a lot of people on the left who ought to know better.

The First Amendment is quite clear on religious rights. You can pray to whatever god you choose. You can even walk up and down the sidewalk with a sign proclaiming your choice. You can pray at home, at church, in the car, anywhere you choose. And, because the voting booth is private, you can express your religious views there, too.

The problem arises when politicians start telling you how much they love you because of your religious nature, or your particular brand of religion. The problem gets worse, much worse, when politicians, like George Bush and his ilk, begin telling you how much they want government to help you in your religious aims. Michelle Goldberg (author of the recent Kingdom Coming) thinks that's probably okay, but Jefferson's impenetrable "wall of separation" was meant to be absolute. One chink in it, and it starts to crumble.

Bush has used his faith (and his self-professed closeness to his higher father) to justify all manner of horrors--torture, war and extraordinary rendition (a polite non-descriptive term meaning state-sponsored kidnapping). This, perhaps, shows the extent to which religion has been willingly corrupted by politics in order to gain advantage--those are not New Testament values, but such has been the cross-branding of evangelical Christianity and the Republican Party that the values of the one are indistinguishable from those of the other.

The even greater problem is that there can be a de facto melding of state and church without formal dicta enabling such, if the courts look the other way. And when the courts say that it's okay for the majority to tyrannize the religious minority, the way is paved for state sponsorship, by formal or informal means, of religion.

Contrast what is going on in this country with "old" Europe. France is a typical case. It's an extraordinarily political country--arguing politics might as well be the country's national sport--and yet, with a historically strong Catholic backdrop to the country, the ultimate political gaffe for a politician is to invoke God in public. It's an empirical truth there that religion and politicking don't mix, and a politician daring to violate that understanding is met with general and wide opprobrium.

That standard was the intention of the Founders. Not to eliminate religion from society, but to separate it from the business of government and politics. Barack Obama tells us, in effect, that we are obligated to acknowledge religion in political life. To do so would be to invite the sort of trouble that inspired the Founders to embrace secularism in the first place. Keeping religion out of politics and government is neither the logical nor ethical equal of an attack on religion. To suggest that they are one and the same requires measures of disingenuousness and sophistry, such as is seen in the religious right's leaders' attempts to portray themselves and their flocks as victims of governmental repression because their theocratic aims have been constrained by law originating in the First Amendment.

It would be a sign of the nation's recovering mental health if candidates could say, without engendering admonition and recrimination, that religion should not enter into either campaign politics or the administration of government--as the Constitution prescribes in the latter instance--and that religion is a private, not a public, matter. But, if we take Barack Obama's advice, we'll likely be going further down the opposite road, where candidates will have to pass either an explicit or implicit religious test to obtain public office, something the Constitution also forbids. For such a bright guy, with excellent legal credentials (Harvard Law Review editor, e.g.), Obama seems to understand neither the letter nor the spirit of either the First Amendment or Article VI of the Constitution, nor does he grasp the unpleasant fact that any governmental endorsement of religion, however benignly intended or informally drawn, furthers the interests of the American equivalent of the Islamists.

When Arlo Guthrie was born, so the story goes, his father, Woody, was asked by a nurse what religion should be inscribed on Arlo's birth certificate. Woody said, "all." The nurse told him she couldn't put that down. Woody said, "okay, then, put down 'none.'" That's sort of the thinking behind the First Amendment. Human nature being what it is, herd instincts being what they are, "none" was the correct choice for the public religious interests of a government which was structured with the intent for it to mature and grow into a body which served everyone equally, and "all" was the correct choice for the protection of the private religious interests of that country's citizens. The First Amendment does both of those things, simultaneously, and has to have both concepts operating simultaneously for both to work.

The Founders, through the First Amendment and Article VI, sought to avoid future trouble for the country. That there are those in our midst who would chip away at Jefferson's wall is a sign of incipient trouble. It doesn't matter what their political tendencies--left, right or middle--may be. They're bringing us trouble.


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