Was Obama's 2006 Call to Renewal a collect call?

Let me start out by saying that I love smart candidates who can discuss issues in a complex way. Nuance is a tool that every competent politician ought to have in his or her toolbox. That said, being able to employ nuance as a thought process is a very different proposition than actually campaigning on nuance. We saw the results of that with Kerry, did we not? Speaking about complex issues with clarity definitely matters, especially in a media culture ruled by the soundbite.

Which is one of the reasons that Obama's layered comments about Reagan are so troubling. A complex mixture of tepid criticism mixed with muted praise, it comes across as either (a) pandering, (b) admiration on somewhat questionable grounds, or (c) speaking in code in an effort to have it both ways. None of those options are very reassuring. The Ghost of (Not Actually Dead) John Kerry stills haunts me every time Obama says something this heavily layered. One might wonder how much of Obama's Reagan remark is sucking up to conservatives, how much of it is vague reassurance toward his base, and how much is pure rhetorical polish? The one way in which Obama is quite accurate to draw parallels between himself and Reagan is the ability to inspire others, albeit by speaking primarily in vague, optimistic generalities.

Obama strikes me as a very likable candidate, and it pains me to worry about his sincerity in this way. I *want* to believe he'll be a good and reliable ally as standard-bearer, but some of the things he says make me wonder. And unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon. Obama has been saying stuff that sounds good but has troubling deeper implications since at least 2006. For those who missed it, or who might need a refresher, take a look at his 2006 Call to Renewal Keynote Speech.

(For an excellent response that first appeared shortly afterward, I recommend Frederick Clarkson's detailed analysis of what's problematic about this speech. Digby also has interesting things to say about some of Obama's other remarks on religion from later that year.)

To be fair, Obama discusses the issues surrounding religion and politics in a very thoughtful way, and there are some things he gets right. For example:

Democracy demands 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.
and:

Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality.

It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences.

To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.
and this:

In fact, because I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality, I would rather have someone who is grounded in morality and ethics, and who is also secular, affirm their morality and ethics and values without pretending that they're something they're not. They don't need to do that. None of us need to do that.
Unfortunately, he also says stuff like this:

But what I am suggesting is this - secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.
I don't think secularists expect anyone to *abandon* their belief systems, but I don't think it is unreasonable to expect public officials to compartmentalize such that any policy decisions are supported on grounds that can be agreed upon without resorting to the belief structure as the sole or primary justification.

So 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.
Again, I would draw a distinction between those whose personal religious sensibilities inform their public decision-making as one of several factors vs. those whose public decision-making seems entirely beholden to their religious identity. I think secularists are quite correct to distrust any politician that gives off that vibe. (Huckabee reeks of it, frankly, and most of the other GOP candidates have at least a whiff or two.)

However, here's the part that really bugs me:

Finally, any reconciliation between faith and democratic pluralism requires some sense of proportion.

This goes for both sides.
Mmm, false equivalence! Yummy! OK, to be fair, I must admit that he does *not* actually say that both sides are equally to blame, nor that they have equally far to go. He leaves that open to interpretation instead, which I suppose is a worthwhile rhetorical technique, since that way he doesn't have to single out one side as more right or more wrong than the other. Unfortunately, that particular flavor of even-handedness strikes me as reminiscent of the weary parent who with equal fervor tells one child to stop punching and biting the other, and in the same breath tells the other to stop sticking her tongue out at the one doing the punching. The nature and the degree of the offense given in each case is not remotely similar.

Here's the rub: as a Christian gay man who also happens to be a progressive secular humanist, it's very hard *not* to take this stuff personally. I really don't like being told that I have to be careful of the feelings of the poor persecuted Fundamentalists, when I'm not among those who started this fight to begin with. To suggest that I have to try to bridge the gap - in other words, that I have to do my part to be *more* tolerant of those who spew bigotry and hatred against me and others like me - is frankly an offensive suggestion. Even though Obama chides the secular left rather gently, I find it a slap in the face to be lectured on this *at all*.

Look, when it comes to hardcore conservative evangelicals and other social conservatives... I'd be pleased as can be to simply ignore each other as much as possible and adopt a 'live and let live' attitude... except that something that simple, that mutually respectful, almost never seems to be an option with them. They demand that their beliefs grant them special rights to enfranchise and disenfranchise whomever they please, to persecute and denigrate however they see fit, and to insulate themselves from criticism on the grounds that faith is personal and therefore unassailable. Meanwhile, they project their own sense of entitlement when they accuse their enemies of trying to obtain 'special rights'... when all that is really desired is to level the playing field, such that I and others like me gain rights equivalent to those already held by others, instead of being forever treated as a second-class citizens.

Somehow, it's perfectly OK for their belief system to oppress mine, yet any redress of this imbalance somehow infringes *their* freedom. It's such a blatant and hypocritical double-standard that it would make the head spin, if weren't all so damnably and lamentably familiar.

In summary, it's all well and good for Obama to play conciliator and try to heal the wounds of this nation; more power to him in that effort, regardless of how his presidential campaign turns out. But I'm not in any mood to be told that our deeply divided nation is partly my fault just for being myself, and I resent being scolded that I should be less hostile toward those who are hostile toward me. I suppose as a Christian, I really ought to be willing to turn the other cheek, but in politics that just seems to mean one gets smacked around. A lot. I want a candidate willing to stand up to the cultural right and defend our values for once. Obama talks the talk, heavily layered though it may be, but I'm not yet convinced he'll walk the walk. In fact, stuff like the Call to Renewal and the Reagan thing leave me less and less convinced all the time.


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