BLOGGERJacques Berlinerblau is an Associate Professor and Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at the School of Foreign Service. Berlinerblau has published on a wide variety of issues ranging...
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FAQs About Obama's Faith-Based Foray
July 7, 2008
This past Saturday Senator Barack Obama was at it again. During an address at African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Louis he reiterated his commitment to expanding President Bush’s faith-based initiatives. Such a program, he assured his listeners, would be “the moral center of my administration.”
Thus, the conversation that Obama sparked last Tuesday looks like it’s just revving up. In the hopes of pushing the discussion further along, permit me to provide some responses to frequently asked questions:
Can Obama’s move be described as rank flipfloppery?: Nope. Unlike his about-faces on Iraq, FISA, campaign financing, gun control and so much more, none of his views on “establishing a partnership between the White House and faith-based groups” dramatically contradict any of his previous positions. In his Audacity of Hope, for example, he expressed a desire to help the Democratic Party re-think its views on religion and government. “Secularists are wrong,” he claimed, “when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before they enter the public square.” Factor in his relentless Christ-y-ness on the campaign trail and it becomes clear that his suggestion was no flipflop. But if that’s the case then . . .
Why were so many on both the Left and the Right surprised? Because in the recent history of that acting troupe known as The Democratic Party Players there have been few speaking roles for a character named “Really Religious Guy With Really Liberal Politics.” Even though this identity is not uncommon in the population at large, one would have to go as far back as the Carter administration to find a nationally recognizable Democrat who was as liberal and as religious as the Senator from Illinois.
Did he overplay his hand?: Tussling with Church/State separatists is rarely a good idea. The last time a Democrat mixed it up with them in a general election was when Joseph Lieberman aggressively scriptured-up for Al Gore. This certainly pushed more than a few liberals into Ralph Nader’s open arms, though whether their defection influenced the outcome of the election is debatable.
Then again, Obama picked an excellent year to stick it in Secularism’s craw. It is in a state of political disarray (see below and nearly everything I have written for the last five years) and if there was ever a constituency he could stomp on while moving to The Center, this may be the one.
You mean this policy could actually help get him elected? It actually could. His faith-based stuff will continue to entice “Obama-Curious” Evangelicals and Catholics. More importantly, it might drain interest away from McCain by getting religious conservatives to shift from a “no way” to a “whatever” response, when thinking about Obama’s candidacy.
And if he were elected president, he wouldn’t actually go through with this, would he?: With Iraq, Iran, gas prices, and the plummeting economy on his agenda, I sure as hell hope he wouldn’t spend his first 100 days in office huddled with advisers reviewing the judicial history of the Establishment Clause. But I repeat: Obama has been consistent on this issue for a good long time. His proposals might not be mere empty promises or a "faith-based feint" as Tony Perkins uncharitably described it.
Does this represent the collapse of the secular political project that you, Berlinblauer, have been droning on about for, like, 12 months now? Good question. But it’s Berlinerblau. Obama is clearly not worried about a secular backlash. Like most in the Democratic Party he did the math around 2005 and figured out that the vaunted “secular base” was underperforming. He probably understood that American Secularism’s two parts--the small non-believing wing and the large chunk composed of believers who venerate The Wall of Separation-- were both organizationally impotent and incapable of forging a meaningful political alliance.
Is there any hope? For the post-2008 future? Sure. Consider Obama’s words: “What I'm saying is that we all have to work together - Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim; believer and non-believer alike - to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”
His aside leaves open the possibility that nonbelievers could participate in--commandeer?, overrun?--his federal program. Imagine Brights receiving federal dollars to operate a string of homeless shelters in California. Or worshippers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster training qualified science teachers to work in financially strapped public school districts. If you can’t beat them, join them. (So that later on you can beat them).