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Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Speech

As my last post indicated, I've been in transit this week, first to Boston and now for a family visit in Maine.  So it was only yesterday that I had a chance to read the transcript of Obama's speech on race.  My co-bloggers and some very interesting commenters (along with some decidedly less interesting commenters) have already weighed in with general remarks.  Let me focus for a second on just the question of the relationship between religion and politics. 

As I've detailed elsewhere, I don't think religion is or should be a forbidden subject in American politics.  Not to say that it is always wisely dealt with, that it must be the primary subject or a subject at all, or anything of the sort; but it is not forbidden ground.  Voters and candidates may bring their own religious views to the table in urging particular public policy and favoring or disfavoring particular candidates, and they can consider candidates' faiths in doing so if they wish to, although they are hardly obliged to.  I hope that they will be nuanced, careful, cautious, and humble in doing so; I hope they will consider the complicated role faith plays in their own lives, and the complicated role it may play in the candidates' lives, and the very complicated ways in which faith commitments translate into public policy views in any particular political and constitutional context; I hope they will remember that we all see through a glass darkly.  The same kinds of cautions apply equally well to what we might call "public reasons"; most of us hardly discern all the truth simply because those "truths" are based on what we would label as accessible or non-religious arguments, and we ought to bring some humility to our judgments in that arena too.  I treat religion no differently; it ought to be considered with great care, but it is too fundamental a commitment to exclude altogether.   

With that in mind, I hope a voter who thinks about Obama, Rev. Wright, the speech, and the "controversy," if controversy it is, would keep a number of thoughts in mind.  I hope she would consider that people can have complicated relationships with their pastors.  They may love them in some ways and not in others; agree with them on some things and not on others; take some lessons from them and not others.  They may find that the very thing that draws them to that pastor -- the pastor's passion, or energy, or outspokenness -- is the same thing that at other times disturbs or wounds them.  We (this is a big "we" here and I don't mean to be presumptuous) expect our priests and pastors to lead us, and it is reasonable to expect sound leadership, but it is unreasonable to expect that these "men of God" are not also emphatically men, too, and that they may falter and be mistaken.  These issues are still more complicated and charged when we bring the factor of race into things, and Rev. Wright's own generational experience with race, as Obama suggested.

This is why I am not entirely comfortable with William Galston's review of Obama's speech, in which he points out that when the rabbi at his own shul says something controversial, "the entire congregation quickly learns about it. Members who are offended do not remain silent. They often reprove him. Some threaten to leave unless he apologizes and changes course. A few have left to join other congregations." All this is true to my own experience.  But not everyone expects to agree with their rabbi.  I dare say I am like a number of religious observants in actually taking a perverse pleasure in disagreeing with my religious leader.  Like many Jews, I am only a High Holy Day attendant, and I rather like knowing that I can sit there and fulminate my way through the sermon thinking about what a pompous, self-regarding, politically mistaken ass the rabbi is, rather than sleep my way through it.  I don't mean to be sacrilegious; indeed, I doubt this is a particularly sacrilegious sentiment for many Jews; we are a stiff-necked people, and stubbornly disagreeing with the rabbi can be half the fun of attending.  Galston raises some perfectly fair points, and they may coincide better with many other people's experiences.  I don't, at all, expect people to share my own perspective, although surely some do.  I do mean to suggest that how we relate to our religious leaders can be a complicated thing.

The second thing I hope a voter who is interested in these issues would consider is that people do not join religious communities, or remain in them, for the pastor alone.  Take Galston's co-congregants for an example.  They might indeed reprove the rabbi, and some might move.  But others wouldn't.  And why not?  Because they do not come to the shul for the rabbi alone; they come, too, for the particular community they have joined, the people they know and have come to know, the fellow members of the flock who have supported them in times of crisis and to whom they have offered support in return; for the myriad activities that have taken place within the religious community and which the religious community has offered to others in need; and, certainly, many stay because they particular services provided by a particular congregation, especially educational facilities.  We have heard a lot about the relationship between Obama and Wright, but very little about the relationship between Obama and the rest of the church community.  That relationship too can be sustaining and of central importance, and may well convince one to stay even if the pastor makes remarks that one disagrees with vehemently.  Of course people can exit shuls, and parish churches, and so on; but that "exit" option is not always as easy or automatic as one might assume, and certainly doesn't have to do only with the pastor.

Having said all that, let me say a couple more things.  First, to say that people should have a full and nuanced appreciation of these issues is not to foreordain the conclusion people should draw.  They might consider all of the above and still decide that Obama can fairly be judged, and judged disapprovingly, for having remained in the flock of a pastor who preached what they consider to be racially hateful words, even if those words hardly describe his whole message or his whole character.   I enjoy disagreeing with my rabbi, but I dare say there are some statements he might make for which I simply would have to leave (say, Holocaust revisionism), and if I did not I could understand it if others -- including voters -- judged me harshly for staying.   Second, none of this applies only to religious matters, and so it again seems foolish to me that we should simply rule all these questions out of bounds somehow.  One could ask the very same questions about one's association with a variety of people making a variety of statements in a variety of non-religious contexts too: the leader of a social or political group, a club, and so on.  That this particular episode involves the rich and complex life of a church surely should lead people to examine the issue thoughtfully, carefully, and with a full appreciation of the nuances of lived religious belief, including the multiple reasons why we remain in particular churches.  But we could certainly ask similar questions in a non-religious questions, and would be entitled to ask questions and draw conclusions in either context.  Finally, and by the same token, neither is anyone obliged to consider these issues.  Although I don't believe any philosophy of politics or public reason demands it, voters are perfectly entitled to decide that they will not consider these religious issues, and that they will take their cues about Obama primarily through his public "political" behavior rather than any questions about his religion.  The choice, as always, is ours, and while we may exercise it more or less wisely, it is still our decision to make.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on March 20, 2008 at 09:55 AM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Great post, Paul. I've been (for what it's worth) a bit troubled by the suggestion, which I've heard in some (mainly conservative) circles, that it is deeply offensive that a minister would warn Americans that the same God we hope will bless our community could also, justifiably, "damn" it. I don't share (at all) Rev. Wright's assessment of America (to say this is not to be blind to our failings), but I'm enough of a Hauerwas fan to accept the fact that a Christian in America (or anyplace else) cannot be *too* comfortable; we're "resident aliens" anywhere, etc. One can cherish one's country while still harboring grave worries about God's judgment of that country.

That said, the freedom -- which Sen. Obama exercised -- to be involved closely in a counter-cultural, prophetic community does not come with an immunity from paying a political price for exercising that freedom. If one chooses to align with a counter-cultural community, expect the culture to push back.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Mar 21, 2008 2:04:36 PM

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