Good morning. I appreciate
the opportunity to speak here at the Call to Renewal's Building
a Covenant for a New America conference. I've had the opportunity
to take a look at your Covenant for a New America. It is filled
with outstanding policies and prescriptions for much of what ails
this country. So I'd like to congratulate you all on the thoughtful
presentations you've given so far about poverty and justice in America,
and for putting fire under the feet of the political leadership
here in Washington.
But today I'd like to talk
about the connection between religion and politics and perhaps offer
some thoughts about how we can sort through some of the often bitter
arguments that we've been seeing over the last several years.
I do so because, as you
all know, we can affirm the importance of poverty in the Bible;
and we can raise up and pass out this Covenant for a New America.
We can talk to the press, and we can discuss the religious call
to address poverty and environmental stewardship all we want, but
it won't have an impact unless we tackle head-on the mutual suspicion
that sometimes exists between religious America and secular America.
I want to give you an example
that I think illustrates this fact. As some of you know, during
the 2004 U.S. Senate General Election I ran against a gentleman
named Alan Keyes. Mr. Keyes is well-versed in the Jerry Falwell-Pat
Robertson style of rhetoric that often labels progressives as both
immoral and godless.
Indeed, Mr. Keyes announced
towards the end of the campaign that, "Jesus Christ would not
vote for Barack Obama. Christ would not vote for Barack Obama because
Barack Obama has behaved in a way that it is inconceivable for Christ
to have behaved."
Jesus Christ would not
vote for Barack Obama.
Now, I was urged by some
of my liberal supporters not to take this statement seriously, to
essentially ignore it. To them, Mr. Keyes was an extremist, and
his arguments not worth entertaining. And since at the time, I was
up 40 points in the polls, it probably wasn't a bad piece of strategic
But what they didn't understand,
however, was that I had to take Mr. Keyes seriously, for he claimed
to speak for my religion, and my God. He claimed knowledge of certain
Mr. Obama says he's a Christian,
he was saying, and yet he supports a lifestyle that the Bible calls
Mr. Obama says he's a Christian,
but supports the destruction of innocent and sacred life.
And so what would my supporters
have me say? How should I respond? Should I say that a literalist
reading of the Bible was folly? Should I say that Mr. Keyes, who
is a Roman Catholic, should ignore the teachings of the Pope?
Unwilling to go there,
I answered with what has come to be the typically liberal response
in such debates - namely, I said that we live in a pluralistic society,
that I can't impose my own religious views on another, that I was
running to be the U.S. Senator of Illinois and not the Minister
But Mr. Keyes's implicit
accusation that I was not a true Christian nagged at me, and I was
also aware that my answer did not adequately address the role my
faith has in guiding my own values and my own beliefs.
Now, my dilemma was by
no means unique. In a way, it reflected the broader debate we've
been having in this country for the last thirty years over the role
of religion in politics.
For some time now, there
has been plenty of talk among pundits and pollsters that the political
divide in this country has fallen sharply along religious lines.
Indeed, the single biggest "gap" in party affiliation
among white Americans today is not between men and women, or those
who reside in so-called Red States and those who reside in Blue,
but between those who attend church regularly and those who don't.
Conservative leaders have
been all too happy to exploit this gap, consistently reminding evangelical
Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their
Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious
Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage;
school prayer and intelligent design.
Democrats, for the most
part, have taken the bait. At best, we may try to avoid the conversation
about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and
claiming that - regardless of our personal beliefs - constitutional
principles tie our hands. At worst, there are some liberals who
dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or
intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that
paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word "Christian"
describes one's political opponents, not people of faith.
Now, such strategies of
avoidance may work for progressives when our opponent is Alan Keyes.
But over the long haul, I think we make a mistake when we fail to
acknowledge the power of faith in people's lives -- in the lives
of the American people -- and I think it's time that we join a serious
debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic
And if we're going to do
that then we first need to understand that Americans are a religious
people. 90 percent of us believe in God, 70 percent affiliate themselves
with an organized religion, 38 percent call themselves committed
Christians, and substantially more people in America believe in
angels than they do in evolution.
This religious tendency
is not simply the result of successful marketing by skilled preachers
or the draw of popular mega-churches. In fact, it speaks to a hunger
that's deeper than that - 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 they're
coming to the realization that something is missing. They are deciding
that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer
busyness, is not enough.
They want a sense of purpose,
a narrative arc to their lives. They're looking to relieve a chronic
loneliness, a feeling supported by a recent study that shows Americans
have fewer close friends and confidants than ever before. And so
they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them,
is listening to them - that they are not just destined to travel
down that long highway towards nothingness.
And I speak with some experience
on this matter. I was not raised in a particularly religious household,
as undoubtedly many in the audience were. My father, who returned
to Kenya when I was just two, was born Muslim but as an adult became
an atheist. My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists
and Methodists, was probably one of the most spiritual and kindest
people I've ever known, but grew up with a healthy skepticism of
organized religion herself. As a consequence, so did I.
It wasn't until after college,
when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group
of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma.
I was working with churches,
and the Christians who I worked with recognized themselves in me.
They saw that I knew their Book and that I shared their values and
sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me that remained
removed, detached, that I was an observer in their midst.
And in time, I came to
realize that something was missing as well -- that without a vessel
for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of
faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.
And if it weren't for the
particular attributes of the historically black church, I may have
accepted this fate. But as the months passed in Chicago, I found
myself drawn - not just to work with the church, but to be in the
For one thing, I believed
and still believe in the power of the African-American religious
tradition to spur social change, a power made real by some of the
leaders here today. Because of its past, the black church understands
in an intimate way the Biblical call to feed the hungry and cloth
the naked and challenge powers and principalities. And in its historical
struggles for freedom and the rights of man, I was able to see faith
as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death,
but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source
And perhaps it was out
of this intimate knowledge of hardship -- the grounding of faith
in struggle -- that the church offered me a second insight, one
that I think is important to emphasize today.
Faith doesn't mean that
you don't have doubts.
You need to come to church
in the first place precisely because you are first of this world,
not apart from it. You need to embrace Christ precisely because
you have sins to wash away - because you are human and need an ally
in this difficult journey.
It was because of these
newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the
aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside
of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about
as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church. The
questions I had didn't magically disappear. But kneeling beneath
that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God's spirit beckoning
me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering
That's a path that has
been shared by millions upon millions of Americans - evangelicals,
Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims alike; some since birth,
others at certain turning points in their lives. It is not something
they set apart from the rest of their beliefs and values. In fact,
it is often what drives their beliefs and their values.
And that is why that, if
we truly hope to speak to people where they're at - to communicate
our hopes and values in a way that's relevant to their own - then
as progressives, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.
Because when we ignore
the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim
or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where
or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense
of what it tells us about our obligations towards one another; when
we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because
we assume that we will be unwelcome - others will fill the vacuum,
those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically
use religion to justify partisan ends.
In other words, if we don't
reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans
and tell them what we stand for, then the Jerry Falwells and Pat
Robertsons and Alan Keyeses will continue to hold sway.
More fundamentally, the
discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often
prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms.
Some of the problem here is rhetorical - if we scrub language of
all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through
which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality
and social justice.
Imagine Lincoln's Second
Inaugural Address without reference to "the judgments of the
Lord." Or King's I Have a Dream speech without references to
"all of God's children." Their summoning of a higher truth
helped inspire what had seemed impossible, and move the nation to
embrace a common destiny.
Our failure as progressives
to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical,
though. Our fear of getting "preachy" may also lead us
to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our
most urgent social problems.
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 rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness
- in the imperfections of man.
Solving these problems
will require changes in government policy, but it will also require
changes in hearts and a change in minds. I believe in keeping guns
out of our inner cities, and that our leaders must say so in the
face of the gun manufacturers' lobby - but I also believe that when
a gang-banger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels
somebody disrespected him, we've got a moral problem. There's a
hole in that young man's heart - a hole that the government alone
I believe in vigorous enforcement
of our non-discrimination laws. But I also believe that a transformation
of conscience and a genuine commitment to diversity on the part
of the nation's CEOs could bring about quicker results than a battalion
of lawyers. They have more lawyers than us anyway.
I think that we should
put more of our tax dollars into educating poor girls and boys.
I think that the work that Marian Wright Edelman has done all her
life is absolutely how we should prioritize our resources in the
wealthiest nation on earth. I also think that we should give them
the information about contraception that can prevent unwanted pregnancies,
lower abortion rates, and help assure that that every child is loved
But, you know, my Bible
tells me that if we train a child in the way he should go, when
he is old he will not turn from it. So I think faith and guidance
can help fortify a young woman's sense of self, a young man's sense
of responsibility, and a sense of reverence that all young people
should have for the act of sexual intimacy.
I am not suggesting that
every progressive suddenly latch on to religious terminology - that
can be dangerous. Nothing is more transparent than inauthentic expressions
of faith. As Jim has mentioned, some politicians come and clap --
off rhythm -- to the choir. We don't need that.
In fact, because I do not
believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality, I would
rather have someone who is grounded in morality and ethics, and
who is also secular, affirm their morality and ethics and values
without pretending that they're something they're not. They don't
need to do that. None of us need to do that.
But what I am suggesting
is this - secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave
their religion at the door before entering into the public square.
Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy
Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers
in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly
used religious language to argue for their cause. So 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 grounded in
the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Moreover, if we progressives
shed some of these biases, we might recognize some overlapping values
that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the
moral and material direction of our country. We might recognize
that the call to sacrifice on behalf of the next generation, the
need to think in terms of "thou" and not just "I,"
resonates in religious congregations all across the country. And
we might realize that we have the ability to reach out to the evangelical
community and engage millions of religious Americans in the larger
project of American renewal.
Some of this is already
beginning to happen. Pastors, friends of mine like Rick Warren and
T.D. Jakes are wielding their enormous influences to confront AIDS,
Third World debt relief, and the genocide in Darfur. Religious thinkers
and activists like our good friend Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo are
lifting up the Biblical injunction to help the poor as a means of
mobilizing Christians against budget cuts to social programs and
And by the way, we need
Christians on Capitol Hill, Jews on Capitol Hill and Muslims on
Capitol Hill talking about the estate tax. When you've got an estate
tax debate that proposes a trillion dollars being taken out of social
programs to go to a handful of folks who don't need and weren't
even asking for it, you know that we need an injection of morality
in our political debate.
Across the country, individual
churches like my own and your own are sponsoring day care programs,
building senior centers, helping ex-offenders reclaim their lives,
and rebuilding our gulf coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
So the question is, how
do we build on these still-tentative partnerships between religious
and secular people of good will? It's going to take more work, a
lot more work than we've done so far. The tensions and the suspicions
on each side of the religious divide will have to be squarely addressed.
And each side will need to accept some ground rules for collaboration.
While I've already laid
out some of the work that progressive leaders need to do, I want
to talk a little bit about what conservative leaders need to do
-- some truths they need to acknowledge.
For one, they need to understand
the critical role that the separation of church and state has played
in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our
religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding,
it wasn't the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most
effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted
minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn't want the
established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting
happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It
was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant
about not mingling government with religious, because they did not
want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice
their faith as they understood it.
Moreover, given the increasing
diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have
never been greater. 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.
And even if we did have
only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian
from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach
in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's?
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.
This brings me to my second
point. 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. And if you
doubt that, let me give you an example.
We all know the story of
Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his only
son, and without argument, he takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds
him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has
Of course, in the end God
sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute, and Abraham
passes God's test of devotion.
But it's fair to say that
if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building
raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police
and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take
Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what
Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences
may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things
that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic
Finally, any reconciliation
between faith and democratic pluralism requires some sense of proportion.
This goes for both sides.
Even those who claim the
Bible's inerrancy make distinctions between Scriptural edicts, sensing
that some passages - the Ten Commandments, say, or a belief in Christ's
divinity - are central to Christian faith, while others are more
culturally specific and may be modified to accommodate modern life.
The American people intuitively
understand this, which is why the majority of Catholics practice
birth control and some of those opposed to gay marriage nevertheless
are opposed to a Constitutional amendment to ban it. Religious leadership
need not accept such wisdom in counseling their flocks, but they
should recognize this wisdom in their politics.
But a sense of proportion
should also guide those who police the boundaries between church
and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the
wall of separation - context matters. It is doubtful that children
reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed
as a consequence of muttering the phrase "under God."
I didn't. Having voluntary student prayer groups use school property
to meet should not be a threat, any more than its use by the High
School Republicans should threaten Democrats. And one can envision
certain faith-based programs - targeting ex-offenders or substance
abusers - that offer a uniquely powerful way of solving problems.
So we all have some work
to do here. But I am hopeful that we can bridge the gaps that exist
and overcome the prejudices each of us bring to this debate. And
I have faith that millions of believing Americans want that to happen.
No matter how religious they may or may not be, people are tired
of seeing faith used as a tool of attack. They don't want faith
used to belittle or to divide. They're tired of hearing folks deliver
more screed than sermon. Because in the end, that's not how they
think about faith in their own lives.
So let me end with just
one other interaction I had during my campaign. A few days after
I won the Democratic nomination in my U.S. Senate race, I received
an email from a doctor at the University of Chicago Medical School
that said the following:
your overwhelming and inspiring primary win. I was happy to vote
for you, and I will tell you that I am seriously considering voting
for you in the general election. I write to express my concerns
that may, in the end, prevent me from supporting you."
The doctor described himself
as a Christian who understood his commitments to be "totalizing."
His faith led him to a strong opposition to abortion and gay marriage,
although he said that his faith also led him to question the idolatry
of the free market and quick resort to militarism that seemed to
characterize much of the Republican agenda.
But the reason the doctor
was considering not voting for me was not simply my position on
abortion. Rather, he had read an entry that my campaign had posted
on my website, which suggested that I would fight "right-wing
ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose."
The doctor went on to write:
"I sense that you
have a strong sense of justice...and I also sense that you are a
fair minded person with a high regard for reason...Whatever your
convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion
are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering
on women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded....You know
that we enter times that are fraught with possibilities for good
and for harm, times when we are struggling to make sense of a common
polity in the context of plurality, when we are unsure of what grounds
we have for making any claims that involve others...I do not ask
at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about
this issue in fair-minded words."
So I looked at my website
and found the offending words. In fairness to them, my staff had
written them using standard Democratic boilerplate language to summarize
my pro-choice position during the Democratic primary, at a time
when some of my opponents were questioning my commitment to protect
Roe v. Wade.
Re-reading the doctor's
letter, though, I felt a pang of shame. It is people like him who
are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in
this country. They may not change their positions, but they are
willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak
in fair-minded words. Those who know of the central and awesome
place that God holds in the lives of so many, and who refuse to
treat faith as simply another political issue with which to score
So I wrote back to the
doctor, and I thanked him for his advice. The next day, I circulated
the email to my staff and changed the language on my website to
state in clear but simple terms my pro-choice position. And that
night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own - a prayer
that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others
that the doctor had extended to me.
And that night, before
I went to bed I said a prayer of my own. It's a prayer I think I
share with a lot of Americans. A hope that we can live with one
another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good
of all. It's a prayer worth praying, and a conversation worth having
in this country in the months and years to come. Thank you.