Politicians need not abandon religion
By Barack Obama for USA TODAY
My faith shapes my values, but applying those values to policymaking must be done with principles that are accessible to all people, religious or not. Even so, those who enter the public square are not required to leave their beliefs at the door.
For some time now, there has been talk among pundits and pollsters that the political divide in this country falls sharply along religious lines. Indeed, the single biggest gap in party affiliation among white Americans today is not between men and women, between red states and blue, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don't.
This gap has long been exploited by conservative leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who tell evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their church, while suggesting that religious Americans care only about issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
It's a gap that has also been kept open by some liberals, who might try to avoid the conversation about their religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that constitutional principles tie their hands. Some might even dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, thinking that the very word "Christian" describes one's political opponents, not people of faith.
And yet, despite all this division, we are united by the fact that Americans are a deeply religious people. Ninety percent of us believe in God, 70% affiliate ourselves with an organized religion, and 38% call ourselves committed Christians.
This is why, if political leaders truly hope to communicate our hopes and values to Americans in a way that's relevant to their own, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.
I've fallen into this trap myself. During my 2004 Senate race, my opponent said, "Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama." I answered with what has come to be the typically liberal response: that we live in a pluralistic society, and that I can't impose my religious views on another. I said I was running to be the U.S. senator of Illinois, and not the minister of Illinois.
But my opponent's accusations nagged at me, and I knew that my answer didn't address the role my faith has in guiding my values. I, like other progressives, should have realized that when we ignore what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew, when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, when we shy away from religious venues because we think we'll be unwelcome, others will fill the vacuum: those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.
Moreover, it's wrong to ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square. Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Martin Luther King Jr. - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, they also used religious language to argue for their cause. To say men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into policy debates is a practical absurdity; our law is by definition a codification of morality.
If progressives shed some of these biases, we might recognize the overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the direction of our country. We might recognize that the call to sacrifice, the need to think in terms of "thou" and not just "I," resonates with all Americans. And we might realize that we have the ability to reach out to the evangelical community and engage millions of religious Americans in the larger project of America's renewal.
But the conservative leaders of the religious right will need to acknowledge a few truths about religion as well.
For one, the separation of church and state in America has preserved not only our democracy but also the robustness of our religious practice. After all, during our founding, it was not the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of this separation; it was the persecuted religious minorities concerned that any state-sponsored religion might hinder their ability to practice their faith.
This separation is critical to our form of government because in the end, 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. If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons but seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.
This might be difficult for those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, but in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics involves compromise, the art of the possible. But religion does not allow for compromise. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime; to base our policymaking on them would be dangerous.
In the months and years to come, I am hopeful we can bridge these gaps and overcome the prejudices each of us brings to this debate. I believe that Americans want this. No matter how religious they may or may not be, people are tired of seeing faith used as a tool to attack and divide.
Americans are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country. They might not change their positions on certain issues, but they are willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in reasonable terms - those who know of the central and awesome place that God holds in the lives of so many, and who refuse to treat faith as simply another political issue with which to score points.