Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The role of religion under Obama

A report from the Christian Science Monitor

[Washington] - After decades of ceding God to the GOP, at least in the public square, Democrats – with President Obama in the lead – are speaking with a fuller religious voice. The watchword? Inclusiveness.

It's a voice that signals openness at a time when diversity in American religious life is rising.

"We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and nonbelievers," Mr. Obama said in Tuesday's inaugural address.

Wednesday's National Prayer Service, a tradition since George Washington's inauguration, featured faith leaders chosen "to symbolize America's traditions of religious tolerance and freedom," said the 2009 Presidential Inaugural Committee. It included, for the first time, a sermon delivered by a woman.

For Obama, the broad outreach into the faith community isn't confined to ceremonies but is emerging as a key element in his approach to coalition-building, say religious leaders who worked on the transition.

"Barack Obama is himself a person of faith, but he also believes that the faith community has a real role to play in creating the kind of social change we need now," says the Rev. Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, a network of Christian social activists.

Indeed, religious groups have been broadly advising the Obama transition team on issues ranging from poverty to criminal justice to foreign policy. "To move from a consuming, polluting, poverty-creating economy to one that conserves, is a good steward of the environment, and focuses on bringing people out of poverty, that's more than a structural crisis, it's a spiritual one," says Mr. Wallis.

Obama's predisposition to stake a big tent that includes a broad range of faith traditions has been evident early.

Who leads the prayers at presidential inaugurations is usually about as controversial as whether to put an American flag near the podium. Preachers such as the late Billy Graham typically struck a broad, ecumenical tone acceptable to a wide range of religious adherents.

Not so this inaugural cycle. Obama's choice of the Rev. Rick Warren – a popular Evangelical who has campaigned against gay marriage – to deliver the inaugural invocation riled many liberals. Obama's subsequent invitation to V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, fired up the other end of the religious spectrum.

"Bless this nation with anger: anger at discrimination at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people," said the Right Rev. Robinson at Sunday's opening of inaugural ceremonies.

Obama's choice of two spiritual leaders with such distinct and controversial views signals that differences are not to be avoided but are an essential part of the conversation.

"Rick Warren and Gene Robinson are symbols and represent large constituencies – and were in that sense daring choices," says Charles Haynes, a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington. "But I think the mood of the country is to say: This is what we want. People want to see the president trying to represent the country as a whole. If there ever was a moment when we have to have a cease-fire in the cultural wars, it's now. Given the nature of the problem the country faces, we cannot afford to demonize each other, to tear each other down."

Many presidents have tried to build coalitions, including those involving religious leaders, but Obama is working from an exceptionally inclusive template.

"President Obama, like most presidents, is a coalition-builder, but this president sees a broader end product," says John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "Obama seems to have a more inclusive view of religion than some people on the right and some people on the left.

"This is a very productive place to be but a very difficult place to be in a pluralistic society," he continues. "It is often difficult to recognize the authentic spirituality of different faiths without bringing them into conflict with each other."

At the same time, boosting religion's prominence in Democratic Party politics could deepen rifts within the party establishment.

"In religion, as in politics, he's trying to include a lot of people, and a lot of people will be upset," says Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University. "The movements for civil rights, for abolition and temperance, were movements that had religious people behind them, who were there for religious reasons. It makes sense, especially for someone like Obama for whom ideas matter so much. But there's a possibility that Democrats are going to end up being more religious than Republicans."

That prospect alarms activists who work to preserve separation of church and state.

"It remains to be seen what Barack Obama will do with the moral or ethical advice he is getting from religious leaders," says the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in Washington. "It would be odd if he were not meeting with people of faith, but he has to temper his religious views with the demands of the Constitution."

These days, at least in America, religious leaders are not the political leaders. But at the National Prayer Service here on Wednesday, Sharon Watkins, general minister and president, Disciples of Christ, noted scriptural advice to kings and leaders of yore:

"We need [the leaders of this nation] to be guided by the counsel that Isaiah gave so long ago: to work for the common good, the public happiness, the well-being of the nation and the world, knowing that our individual well-being depends on a world where liberty and justice prevailed. This is the biblical way. It is also the American way."


Erp said...

One comment though I know you didn't write the article.

For a tradition going back to George Washington it has some very long gaps. The first apparently being the one from George Washington's first inauguration until 1933. In 1933 there seems to have been a service the afternoon of the inauguration according to the cathedral website though the New York Times article at the time describes it as a memorial service for Woodrow Wilson; President Roosevelt did not attend. Then another gap until 1977 when Jimmy Carter had an interfaith prayer service at the Lincoln Memorial (which he did not attend) before the swearing in. In 1981 Reagan had a prayer service at National City Christian Church (according to the Cathedral web site, can't find it in the NYT) and in 1985 one at the National Cathedral. Bush senior had one in 1989. Another gap during the Clinton years and then Bush Junior restarted the tradition. Now I may be missing some information but I think the tradition really only goes back to 1985.

Personally I found President Obama's gesture towards non-believers reassuring. Though we are wary of state/church entanglement.

RonF said...

That prospect alarms activists who work to preserve separation of church and state.

"It remains to be seen what Barack Obama will do with the moral or ethical advice he is getting from religious leaders," says the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in Washington. "It would be odd if he were not meeting with people of faith, but he has to temper his religious views with the demands of the Constitution."

All the Constitution demands is that the Congress cannot pass a law making one particular religion a state-supported religion (like the C of E); it cannot pass any laws forbidding anyone from freely practicing their religion; and it cannot pass a law requiring a religious test of anyone elected or appointed to office (as opposed to the example of England at the time, wherein you couldn't be Catholic and be the Sovereign or an official). That shouldn't be too tough.

However, the Constitution does not require that, for example, legislators ignore or disregard their own religious convictions when determining what the best policies are for this country. It does not forbid the various branches of government from favoring the practice of religion in general (e.g., the property tax exemption extended to church-owned property, the special income tax status given clergy, etc.).

IT said...

We are approaching a de facto state religion; look at the hoopla over any Muslim political candidate. I would argue it's next to impossible to be elected as an atheist. My marriage is now imperilled because Catholics and Mormons seek to impose their religious unerstanding of marriage on the state definition thereof--and on non-Catholics and non-Mormons, simply because there are More of Them. What's next, banning Muslims from marrying? It's the same thing.

let's have a history lesson:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all......

I want a chief executive whose public acts are responsible to all groups and obligated to none; who can attend any ceremony, service or dinner his office may appropriately require of him; and whose fulfillment of his presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation.

....... I am wholly opposed to the state being used by any religious group, Catholic or Protestant, to compel, prohibit, or persecute the free exercise of any other religion. ......

I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.

Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.
But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.

---John F Kennedy