Distributed Mind

Dobson on Obama

I remember Barack Obama's speech at Call to Renewal 2006 (Call to Renewal is connected with Sojourners). I didn't hear it, but I was familiar with it. And I've read the transcript recently. So I know the speech fairly well. James Dobson on the other hand, has only heard of it recently, but having heard about it, he felt the need to address some deficiencies in it, which he did on his radio show today.

Now, I don't think Obama's speech was perfect. It wasn't even brilliant. But it was a good speech that made some good points. Especially notable were Obama's emphasis on his own identity (and thus responsibility) as a Christian, his defense for religion's participation in the public realm, and his reminder that separation of church and state began as a way to protect religion not government. I personally found it to be a little theologically liberal for my taste, to be sure, and I don't like Obama's defense of his views on abortion in it (though he does make a point to at least grant an acknowledgement of good faith on the part of his opponents on the issue). But on the whole I thought it was a good speech.

James Dobson and Tom Minnery (apparently Focus on the Family's Vice President of Public Policy), unsurprisingly, don't think it was a good speech. Quite the contrary, in fact. Of course, it probably doesn't help that Dobson was mentioned in the speech in direct contrast with Al Sharpton. (Dobson also blatantly misinterprets part of the speech and claims that Obama thinks he wants to kick all non-Christians out of the country, which is clearly not what Obama meant, and in fact that part in context didn't even have anything to do with Dobson directly.) That's not his primary complaint, though.

First, they criticize the speech for not raising the "Judeo-Christian heritage" of the United States and for putting too much emphasis on other religions. Specifically, Obama said, "Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers." Pointing out that 78% of Americans identify as Christian, they find this to be problematic.

They also take Obama to task for bringing up interpretive difficulties with the Bible - interpreting this as "disparaging serious understanding of the Bible." What Obama said was,

Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our bibles. Folks haven't been reading their bibles.

Dobson and Minnery criticize Obama for suggesting that political moral arguments need to be universalizable to those of other religions (or of no religion) to be politically acceptable. Dobson quotes George Washington in supporting the idea that religion is the basis of morality (a view I'm not ashamed to admit I do not at all agree with - in part because I read Romans 2 to be saying the exact opposite) to criticize this argument.

Dobson also badly misinterprets Obama's call for universalizable arguments as a claim that in order to make a moral argument, the majority of people must agree with the argument in advance or else the argument is undemocratic. Which would not make any sense and be completely insupportable - if anything like it had actually appeared in the speech. But it didn't.

That last part really shows the underlying problem with this commentary: it is ignorant. Dobson and Minnery don't appear to have spent any time thinking about this speech, or even reading it accurately. Some of their complaints may be valid, though those are subject to interpretation at a very broad level, but others are, to be generous, ridiculous. Which is unfortunate on several levels, not least of which because substantial discussion of Obama's views on religion in the public sphere could be very interesting and productive.

Now, as I said, I don't want you to think I subscribe to everything in this speech. But I really do think it deserves better than Dobson gave it. But both the speech and the radio program are available and I invite everyone to examine both.

posted at 00:53:45 on 06/25/08 by ben - Category: Politics

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