Before anyone accuses me of being a pompous liar, let me explain what I mean by the title of this post.
I've been reading The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama. I've mentioned in previous posts that I like Obama. I've thoroughly enjoyed his book and look forward to reading Dreams From My Father when I get the chance. As I've read The Audacity of Hope, I've thought many times that if I had the knowledge, experience, and gift of words that Obama does, not to mention a real talent for writing and not just a hobby for blogging, if I were a political scientist instead of just a political spectator, then I could have written much of this book myself. There was one chapter in particular that "spoke" to me, as if I was recognizing my own words that I lack the ability to articulate and express; the thoughts and ideas that swirl through my head so quickly on a daily basis that they are often gone before I'm able to pick up a pen or turn on my laptop. And since much of this whirlwind of thought of mine usually has something to do with politics, religion, and how to reconcile the two, I guess it's no surprise that the chapter of this book that appealed to me most was the one titled Faith.
I'd like to share a few excerpts that really appealed to me, as a liberal-minded Mormon who often feels torn between the tenets of her faith and a desire to allow every human being the freedom to worship -- or not worship -- how they please. The parts that really rang true in my mind are highlighted in bold.
"Surely, secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square," he says. "Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. --indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history -- not only were motivated by faith but repeatedly used religious language to argue their causes. 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 is grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition. What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason. If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teaching of my church or invoke God's will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all."
Admittedly, the most troubling thing about Obama for me is his pro-choice stance. So although I'm perhaps not as liberal as he is, I see that his position has come after careful consideration and lacks the traditional "it's my body, my choice, stay out of my uterus" attitude. When confronted by a man that had come to protest against abortion at one of his rallies, he says, "I told him I understood his position but had to disagree with it. I explained my belief that few women made the decision to terminate a pregnancy casually, that any pregnant woman felt the full force of the moral issues involved and wrestled with her conscience when making that heart-wrenching decision; that I feared a ban an abortion would force women to seek unsafe abortions, as they had once done in this country and as they continued to do in countries that prosecute abortion doctors and the women who seek their services. I suggested that perhaps we could agree on ways to reduce the number of women who felt the need to have abortions in the first place."
Closely related to the problem of abortion is the problem of poverty. Of this, he says:
"After all, the problems of poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed, are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten-point plan. They are also rooted in societal indifference and individual callousness -- the desire among those at the top of the social ladder to maintain their wealth and status whatever the cost, as well as the despair and self-destructiveness among those at the bottom of the social ladder. Solving these problems will require changes in government policy; it will also require changes in hearts and minds. I believe in keeping guns out of our inner cities, and that our leaders must say so in the face of the gun manufacturer's lobby. But I also believe that when a gangbanger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody disrespected him, we have a problem of morality. Not only do we need to punish that man for his crime, but we need to acknowledge that there's a hole in his heart, one that government programs alone may not be able to repair... I think we should put more of our tax dollars into educating poor boys and girls, and give them the information about contraception that can prevent unwanted pregnancies, lower abortion rates, and help ensure that every child is loved and cherished. But I also think that faith can fortify a young woman's sense of self, a young man's sense of responsibility, and the sense of reverence all young people should have for the act of sexual intimacy."
Wow, did a LIBERAL DEMOCRAT write that last sentence???
In reference to the success of evangelical churches, he says:
"There are various explanations for this success, from the skill of evangelicals in marketing religion to the charisma of their leaders. But their success also points to a hunger for the product they are selling, 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 coming to the realization that something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness are not enough. They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives, something that will relieve a chronic loneliness or lift them above the exhausting, relentless toll of daily life. They need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them -- that they are not just destined to travel down a long highway toward nothingness. If I have any insight into this movement toward a deepening religious commitment, perhaps it's because it's a road I have traveled."
Obama then goes on to tell about the way he was raised, that it was not a religious household, and yet he was exposed to different religions through his mother, who "viewed religion through the eyes of the anthropologist she would become; it was a phenomenon to be treated with a suitable respect, but with a suitable detachment as well." He continues:
"And yet for all her professed secularism, my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person I've ever known. She had an unswerving instinct for kindness, charity, and love, and spent much of her life acting on that instinct, sometimes to her detriment. Without the help of religious texts or outside authorities, she worked mightily to instill in me the values that many Americans learn in Sunday school: honesty, empathy, discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work. She raged at poverty and injustice, and scorned those who were indifferent to both."
Obama learned through his conversion that, "You needed to come to church precisely because you were of this world, not apart from it; rich, poor, sinner, saved, you needed to embrace Christ precisely because you had sins to wash away -- because you were human and needed an ally in your difficult journey... It was because of these newfound understandings -- that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic and social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved -- that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth."
I felt a particular connection to Obama, when he told about his 2004 Senate race against Alan Keyes, a conservative Catholic Republican who was not afraid to bring religion into the picture in order to challenge Obama. "Christ would never vote for Barack Obama," Mr. Keyes proclaimed, "because Barack Obama has voted to behave in a way that is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved. Mr. Obama says he's a Christian, and yet he supports a lifestyle that the Bible calls an abomination. Mr. Obama says he's a Christian, but he supports the destruction of innocent and sacred life." Obama admits that he "was mindful of Mr. Keyes's implicit accusation -- that I remained steeped in doubt, that my faith was adulterated, that I was not a true Christian."
This was something that I experienced as recently as last night while I was discussing Prop 8 in an LDS online forum. I've said before that I still remain undecided on the issue, but the fact that I could even possibly question the Church's policy or involvement in politics is enough to call my testimony or reason for being a member into question. Of course, as a liberal Mormon, I know that I'm outnumbered. Sometimes I thrive in this position, but sometimes the burden feels very heavy and I have asked myself many times whether I really am a good Mormon, whether I really have a place in this church, and whether I'm really a disciple of Christ. As one blogger that I came across put it, "a vote for Barack Obama is a vote against Christ himself." Since I would vote for Obama if I were American, would I really be voting against Christ? I have my low times when I could be spiritually battered into believing that that is true.
Going on to tell about how he was able to shed some of his skepticism and embrace the Christian faith, he says:
"For one thing, I was drawn to the power of the African American religious tradition to spur social change. Out of necessity, the black church had to minister to the whole person. Out of necessity, the black church rarely had the luxury of separating individual salvation from collective salvation. It had to serve as the center of the community's political, economic, and social as well as spiritual life; it understood in an intimate way the biblical call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and challenge powers and principalities. In the history of these struggles, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death; rather, it was an active, palpable agent in the world. In the day-to-day work of the men and women I met in church each day, in their ability to "make a way out of no way" and maintain hope and dignity in the direst of circumstances, I could see the Word made manifest. And perhaps it was out of this intimate knowledge of hardship, the grounding of faith in struggle, that the historically black church offered me a second insight: that faith doesn't mean that you don't have doubts, or that you relinquish your hold on this world."
Prior to the Church's involvement in Prop 8, I was pretty satisfied with the Church's silence on political issues. To be honest, I think I looked down upon churches, such as Obama's, that got involved in political matters or used the pulpit to further a political agenda. But since morals and politics are so difficult to separate (even for our church, in the case of gay marriage), then I wonder if perhaps the Church has made the right decision in getting involved in this matter that it deems moral, even though it affects the political. The problem? By getting involved in this one moral issue, one that is proclaimed to have dire consequences for children and families if gay marriage is legalized, then I want to see the Church get involved in other moral matters in the world that have equally large consequences, if not even larger. The Church has been silent on matters such as the Iraq war, torture of prisoners of war, the AIDS epidemic in Africa, class inequality, sex slaves, etc. By staying silent as a Church, does that mean that it's understood that we're supposed to be fighting against such moral evils? If so, then it seems to me that many members aren't getting the implied message. Why do we need explicit instruction on gay marriage, but not on other moral issues? I'm starting to think that the black churches, megachurches, even conservative evangelical churches, are actually setting an example for our church when it comes to social justice, equality, and the welfare of every family -- not just in their sexual morality, but in their fight for their physical well-being as well. Our church has now opened the floodgates by getting involved in one matter that is deemed moral but crosses into the political. Now that it's gotten involved in one, I'd like to see it get involved in others -- particularly since the leaders of our Church later found themselves on the wrong side of history in another political matter that they deemed a moral one: the fight for black civil rights during the 1960's.
Regarding the difficult subject of gay marriage, which contrary to popular conservative belief, Obama personally opposes, he says:
"All too often I have sat in a church and heard a pastor use gay bashing as a cheap parlor trick -- "It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!" he will shout, usually when the sermon is not going so well. I believe that American society can choose to carve out a special place for the union of a man and a woman as the unit of child rearing most common to every culture. I am not willing to have the state deny Americans a civil union that confers equivalent rights on such basic matters as hospital visitation or health insurance coverage simply because the people they love are of the same sex -- nor am I willing to accept a reading of the Bible that considers an obscure line in Romans to be more defining of Christianity than the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps I am sensitive on this issue because I have seen the pain my own carelessness has caused. Before my election, in the middle of debates with Mr. Keyes, I received a phone message from one of my strongest supporters. She was a small-business owner, a mother, and a thoughtful, generous person. She was also a lesbian who had lived in a monogamous relationship with her partner for the last decade. She knew when she decided to support me that I was opposed to same-sex marriage, and she had heard me argue that, in the absence of any meaningful consensus, the heightened focus on marriage was a distraction from other, attainable measures to prevent discrimination against gays and lesbians. Her phone message in this instance had been prompted by a radio interview she had heard in which I had referenced my religious traditions in explaining my position on the issue. She told me that she had been hurt by my remarks; she felt that by bringing religion into the equation, I was suggesting that she, and others like her, were somehow bad people. I felt bad, and told her so in a return phone call. As I spoke to her I was reminded that no matter how much Christians who oppose homosexuality may claim that that they hate the sin but love the sinner, such a judgment inflicts pain on good people -- people who are made in the image of God, and who are often truer to Christ's message than those who condemn them. And I was reminded that it is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided, just as I cannot claim infallibility in my support of abortion rights. I must admit that I may have been infected with society's prejudices and predilections and attributed them to God; that Jesus' call to love one another might demand a different conclusion; and that in years hence I may be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of history. I don't believe such doubts make me a bad Christian. I believe they make me human, limited in my understanding of God's purpose and therefore prone to sin. When I read the Bible, I do so with the belief that it is not a static text but the Living Word and that I must be continually open to new revelations -- whether they come from a lesbian friend or a doctor opposed to abortion. That is not to say that I'm unanchored in my faith. There are some things that I'm absolutely sure about -- the Golden Rule, the need to battle cruelty in all its forms, the value of love and charity, humility and grace."
If Obama becomes president, he brings an insight and experience to the table that no other president before him has been able to do, simply because of race. He continues:
"Those beliefs were driven home two years ago when I flew down to Birmingham, Alabama, to deliver a speech at the city's Civil Rights Institute. The institute is right across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the site where, in 1963, four young children -- Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair -- lost their lives when a bomb planted by white supremacists exploded during Sunday school, and before my talk I took the opportunity to visit the church. The young pastor and several deacons greeted me at the door and showed me the still-visible scar along the wall where the bomb went off. I saw the clock at the back of the church, still frozen at 10:22 a.m. I studied the portraits of the four little girls. After the tour, the pastor, deacons, and I held hands and said a prayer in the sanctuary. Then they left me to sit in one of the pews and gather my thoughts. What it must have been like for those parents forty years ago, I wondered, knowing that their precious daughters had been snatched away by violence at once so casual and so vicious? How could they endure the anguish unless they were certain that some purpose lay behind their children's murders, that some meaning could be found in immeasurable loss?.... Friend and strangers alike would have assured them that their daughters had not died in vain -- that they had awakened the conscience of a nation and helped liberate a people; that the bomb had burst a dam to let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. And yet would even that knowledge be enough to keep you from madness and eternal rage -- unless you knew that your child had gone on to a better place?"
It's words like this from Obama that I find so appealing. His Christianity lacks the scary fanaticism that leaves a bad taste in your mouth for religion. His liberalism lacks the disdain for religion and spiritual that is typical of some Godless progressives. He gets both sides and he sees that not only can the two sides work together, they belong together.
It now looks pretty much like a done deal. Obama is most likely to become the next President of the United States. As with all presidents and politicians, he's going to disappoint us someday, somehow, one way or another. Nevertheless, if he at least tries to live up to the ideals that he has presented in his book (which is certainly possible, but will no doubt be extremely difficult to do under the pressure of reality), then I think the world has reason to be optimistic. In my last post, I discussed being unsure of whether politics and religion should ever mix. I questioned whether religion should have a place in the political sphere. I also mentioned how in Canadian and European politics (the only political regimes I have personally lived under), religion is less of an issue, a non-issue, or even an issue that should never even be brought into the picture. Seeing how things have been in America, particularly after the past few years, and the cultural and religious wars that seem to always accompany any US political election, not to mention the hate, ugliness, and distractions as a result of religious extremism -- particularly among many so-called Christian sects and the influence they try to wield on political parties -- I have to say that I was becoming more and more convinced that 100% secular politics was the way to go. However, Obama's bridge-building approach is not just one that is realistic and, in my opinion, acceptable to both believers and non-believers if they are willing to actually work together for the sake of their country. It's simply superior to any other alternative.
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