Sadly, Barack Obama seems to be aligning himself with the conservative Democrats, inching ever closer to Republican-lite politics. Hence this, from a speech given by Obama at a speaking engagement with Call to Renewal (via MyDD):
Sen. Barack Obama chastised fellow Democrats on Wednesday for failing to "acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people," and said the party must compete for the support of evangelicals and other churchgoing Americans.
"Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation. Context matters," the Illinois Democrat said in remarks prepared for delivery to a conference of Call to Renewal, a faith-based movement to overcome poverty...
At the same time, he said, "Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square."
As a result, "I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people and join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy."
I agree with Obama's sentiment that Democrats would be making a mistake if they discounted the power of faith in the lives of the American people. The catch is, though, that I don't see a shred of evidence that Democrats are doing this. In a country where 95% of the population identifies itself as religious (85% Christian) yet only half or less vote Republican, clearly the Democratic party is made up almost entirely of Christians just like the Republicans. Certainly, as a Freethinker, I could find no home with the militant religious folks of the Republican party. But this notion that the Democratic party is a bastion of godlessness is just silly, and rightwing spin to boot.
When Obama says that not every mention of God is a breach of the Establishment clause, my response is "well, duh!" Who's claiming that it is? Obama's building himself quite the Straw man Democrat when he speaks this way. This is the kind of rhetoric that the Dobson's and the Perkins' of our society use to divide people of faith politically and Obama is playing right into that same rightwing stereotype.
Further, exactly which secularists are asking folks to leave their religions out of the public square? Sam Harris, perhaps? Hardly a hand exercising a tight grip on the levers of power in Washington. Plus, if anti-religion secularists are doing this, which candidates are they getting into place? The widely known atheist Senator Not-Appearing-In-This-Government? Claiming to be anything other than a Christian or Jew is nearly a rock-solid guarantee of unelectability in this country, especially at the national level.
Obama is not arguing against any legitimate demographic in the Democratic party. He's arguing against an imaginary enemy that doesn't really exist, and by doing so reinforcing the stereotype of liberals as being anti-religious. Some are, certainly. But they're a small voice and, moreover, I don't see many, if any, of them calling for the expulsion of religion from the public square.
It's bad enough listening to the Republicans trot out such well-worn tropes as the "secular assault on people of faith" without having to experience a prominent "rising star" in the Democratic party like Barack Obama doing the same. As a liberal atheist, I don't want religion taken out of the public square. I fully embrace people of faith expressing that faith in public. It's a free country, after all. What I cannot abide, however, are those telling me that this is a Christian nation that ought to be living by Christian values; values which seem to change depending on the believer's political philosophy. I've read every Christian writing I could find with the word "Gospel" in the title and I can say definitively that if Jesus Christ were designing a nation, it would bear little resemblance to the United States.
In his defense of Obama, RMJ at Adventus concludes with the following:
There are many reasons to tolerate religion in the public squre; not least of which is, it is already there. As I mentioned before, it was religiously motivated people who started, and continued, the movement against slavery. Schools for freed slaves were started by religious people. The civil rights movement was primarily a movement of religious people. We ignore that history at our peril. And the more we decry religion in the public sphere, the more we cede that sphere to the intolerantly religious. And in doing that, we all lose our public space as a space for all persons.
I agree with Jeffers on his assessment of the progressive good done by religious folks. But, just as I don't believe Sam Harris' view that religion causes much of the evil in the world, I don't believe the opposite is true either. Those folks who risked their lives for the good of others practice their religion in such a way as to reflect that compassion for others. Being religious didn't cause them to help end slavery or further the civil rights movement. I'm not religious and I find common cause with the enemies of slavery and champions of civil rights. Religious beliefs reflect the believer not the other way around, in my opinion. Just as an atheist like myself gladly works for civil rights, a Christian wearing the hood of the KKK would likely have little problem with black slavery.
Again, too, Jeffers echoes Obama's claim that secularists are decrying religion in the public sphere, and I don't see that as the case. We're decrying the use of religion as a divisive tool of public policy, as a wedge dividing our nation into warring camps. That's what we'd like removed from the public sphere; this notion that true morality and social justice flows from religion and nowhere else. And, yes, this is what conservative Christians believe. Does a stance against religious indoctrination in government enable the intolerant mooks who make up the Religious Right to seize the public arena, or is it that seizure of public influence that causes secularists to be more suspicious of the motives of religious folks? A chicken and an egg, probably...
There is room in our public discourse for the religious and the non-religious. However, there is no room for the intolerant of either side. Religion is not going to disappear (at least, not anytime soon) and no amount of evangelizing is going to convince all atheists to embrace faith. We can all co-exist under the label of "secularists"; those who recognize the secular character of our laws and government. It's not the religious that secularists decry in the public sphere, or at least it shouldn't be. It should be the theocratic, which progressives of any faith or none at all, should oppose. Obama, by co-opting the language of the theocratic fundamentalists, stakes his claim in opposition to many who would join him in common cause.