Friday, June 30, 2006

Democrats and God

Which American politician recently said this?

But, you know, my Bible tells me that if we train a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not turn from it. So I think faith and guidance can help fortify a young woman's sense of self, a young man's sense of responsibility, and a sense of reverence that all young people should have for the act of sexual intimacy.

Heck, I'd be surprised if most of us cynical blog-reading types could even name the party.

It's Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. And it's quite a speech. In part it is a political appeal to his party to simply do the electoral math: "90 percent of us believe in God, 70 percent affiliate themselves with an organized religion, 38 percent call themselves committed Christians, and substantially more people in America believe in angels than they do in evolution."

The media notice of the speech, to the degree that there was any, seemed to focus on that angle. Perhaps it's the cynicism of the press, assuming every time a politician opens his mouth he has a partisan purpose. Perhaps it's a refusal to believe that a leading Democrat is actually taking seriously religion in American public society. He can't really be saying what we think he's saying, can he?

He can:

This religious tendency is not simply the result of successful marketing by skilled preachers or the draw of popular mega-churches. In fact, it speaks to a hunger that's deeper than that - a hunger that goes beyond any particular issue or cause.

Each day, it seems, thousands of Americans are going about their daily rounds - dropping off the kids at school, driving to the office, flying to a business meeting, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets - and they're coming to the realization that something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough.

They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They're looking to relieve a chronic loneliness, a feeling supported by a recent study that shows Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than ever before. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them - that they are not just destined to travel down that long highway towards nothingness.

And I speak with some experience on this matter. I was not raised in a particularly religious household, as undoubtedly many in the audience were. My father, who returned to Kenya when I was just two, was born Muslim but as an adult became an atheist. My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, was probably one of the most spiritual and kindest people I've ever known, but grew up with a healthy skepticism of organized religion herself. As a consequence, so did I.

It wasn't until after college, when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma.

Read it; it's difficult to excerpt from; the ideas build and flow. Which, more than anything, convinces me this is not a political ploy.

E.J. Dionne, one of the few liberal newspaper columnists not allergic to religious expression, says it "what may be the most important pronouncement by a Democrat on faith and politics since John F. Kennedy's Houston speech in 1960 ...."

I'm not one of those 38 percent, or the 70 percent or even the 90 percent. As a one-time editorial writer I've had titanic battles with the narrow-minded minority among the faithful. I'll take a back seat to no one as a strict separationist, within the framework of the Constitution. But I know and respect a lot of serious Christians and devout people of other faiths. Thinking about their political participation doesn't give me hives.

Maybe it's because I know that, historically, religion, and especially Christianity, have as often been invoked in liberal and progressive causes than in reactionary ones.

And it seems nonsensical to me to insist people should make political choices with no reference to their personal convictions, whether based in religion or not. Which seems to me to be what a lot of vocal liberal or Democratic people are saying.

Or, as Dionne puts it,

[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.

The only thing worse than "Keep your religion out of our politics" is "Keep your religion out of our politics, unless it inspires you to vote my way."