President Obama has rattled some liberal critics by affirming his version of a link between state and religion. He opens his public rallies with invocations that have been commissioned and vetted by his people, and set up an “Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships” as a 25-voice council. These words from one of his campaign speeches are quoted:
“I still believe it’s a good idea to have a partnership between the White House and grassroots groups, both faith-based and secular….”
He talked about his personal understanding of religion in a democracy in his 2006 “Call to Renewal” address:
"Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. Democracy requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. … 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."
This president is both too bright and too savvy to underestimate. Under Bush, the partnership was mostly with the lowest and most repressive levels of Christian evangelicalism. But Obama’s interest is in the kind of high ideals that can serve the best interests of our heterogeneous society, whether they come from secular or religious sources, from “faith-based” or “neighborhood partnerships.” He’s reclaiming our highest ideals from religion, not for it – and it’s high time.
Religions serve within the boundaries of their guiding theology, and expecting them to see beyond it is like asking drug companies to be the gatekeepers for holistic health care, or asking weapons manufacturers to supervise peace conferences. And theologies are by definition too small to serve an America where only about 17% attend any church regularly, and “nonbelievers” are the fastest-growing “faith” group. At about 15% of Americans, they’re the third largest, behind Catholics and Evangelicals.
It looks like we are watching the slow death of all Western religions. No religion in America has kept up with population growth for over a hundred years, and in the last few years church attendance has declined in all fifty states. Religions are failing in the marketplace because their values are too narrow to serve a world that has outgrown their vision by miles and miles.
Critics and modern-day prophets like the angry quintet of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher say that, since religions can’t see beyond the blinders of their little theologies, they can all go to hell. Apologists for those religions, often disciples of the goddess Pollyanna, think religions can be agents of heaven.
The wiser middle road is to say we can leave heaven and hell to those people who like to talk that way, but in the meantime we live on earth, where our governments have the responsibility for serving our complex societies more wisely and well than any religion can. The governments have to serve a calling bigger than theology. Why not tap all resources that can respond to these callings from our basic humanity, whether they come from inside or outside of the churches? That’s what I hope and believe President Obama is thinking.
I suspect Obama’s instincts or advisors are telling him that it is the government’s job to serve the most inclusive and humane ideals we can articulate, and everyone is to be invited into these efforts, though no religion may be allowed to set the agenda.
The quiet and overdue revolution here is the realization that in a pluralistic society, no religion may ever be allowed to speak either for God or for goodness. Religions are in a desperate condition, trying to stop the loss of members and defend their too-small worldviews long after it was possible to do so without becoming spiritually schizophrenic. This quiet revolution is simply acknowledging that in a complex society, religious beliefs are a matter of personal taste, much as musical or literary tastes are. Religions are free to compete within their marketplace for whatever people they can attract, or keep from leaving.
In the meantime, there’s a country to run, and no reason to exclude the limited but sometimes useful social services some churches will be willing to give to a cause transcending even their theology, even their limited notions of what a word like “God” would have to mean in today’s world. If I’m reading Obama’s intentions correctly, it’s smart politics and good government.
Davidson Loehr has been a liberal minister since 1986, a scholar, theologian, a Fellow in the Jesus Seminar and author of the book America, Fascism & God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher (Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 2005)