Friday, July 25, 2008

Sublunary Politics: A Challenge Answered

An Israeli newspaper has published a prayer written by Barack Obama and submitted at the Western Wall during his recent trip to Israel. Obama's prayer:

Lord—Protect my family and me," reads the note published in the Maariv daily. "Forgive me my sins, and help me guard against pride and despair. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just. And make me an instrument of your will."
Norm Geras sees this prayer as a challenge to a certain line of liberal critique:
I'm waiting on all those secular liberals who have been longing for a Democrat to succeed Bush in the White House, and were in the habit of sneering at Tony Blair's acknowledgement of having a relationship with his Maker, to back off from their enthusiasm for the candidacy of the Senator for Illinois. I mean...'make me an instrument of your will'.
I fall within the this challenge because while I have not said much about Tony Blair (and never this particular criticism), I have certainly highlighted and savaged the Christianist leanings of the American right, including but not limited to the utterances and deeds of the Bush White House.

So how do I respond to the challenge?

To begin, I hereby sneer, fully and deeply, at Obama's stated desire to be "an instrument of god's will." I think Barack Obama and every other person alive today should put aside such fantasies and represent his own will. Period.

Next, political choices happen in a context. As an American voter, I have a choice of supporting Barack Obama, John McCain, or any of countless candidates who stand no realistic chance of winning the presidency, the support of whom amounts, pragmatically, to supporting no one. My choices are really three: Barack Obama, John McCain, or none of the above. The candidate who believes exactly as I do about god, providence, church-state separation, etc., is not among the available choices, and may not even exist.

I reject (and denounce) 'none of the above' because too much is at stake in a great many areas of public policy about which I care deeply.

Of the remaining two, I favor Barack Obama. I favor him because I agree with him on a wide swath of public policy questions, whereas I agree with John McCain on almost nothing of substance.

I favor Obama, moreover, on precisely the matter in question: that is, insofar as I can read the minds involved in the case, I find both men to be equally sincere Christians; I think both men are endowed with extremely healthy egos, and that these egos, combined with their religious attachments, give them a tendency to envision themselves as "an instrument of god's will" whether or not they openly proclaim this belief; and yet I see an important "tie-breaking" distinction in this public statement made by Obama in 2006 (which I have highlighted previously):
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. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.
I agree completely with that statement on the proper relationship between governmental and religious authority. Whereas we have this public statement from John McCain (which I have also highlighted previously):
I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation. But I say that in the broadest sense. The lady that holds her lamp beside the golden door doesn't say, “I only welcome Christians.” We welcome the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. But when they come here they know that they are in a nation founded on Christian principles.
While I do appreciate McCain's stammering gestures toward inclusiveness (which serve, at least, to demonstrate that he realizes there is an issue of inclusion and exclusion involved), I do not abide the "Christian nation" cant. It is false, and the prelude to all too familiar abuses of the Constitution.

I would prefer that candidates for high office keep their religious attachments private, and speak only to the relationship between church and state and how this relationship touches on public policy. But in the really-existing political climate of the USA, this is all but impossible, and candidates' religious beliefs have been repeatedly thrown into the public's line of sight during this presidential campaign.

I do not want to see any candidate presume to be god's proxy (cf. this and this) -- such talk is, by my lights, deluded and dangerous, and must be subject to sharp criticism in all cases. But here on earth, political engagement requires choices between concrete and imperfect alternatives.

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