Lost in Translation

Barack Obama using Christian and Jewish scriptures as mendaciously as Bill Clinton once did, when the former president took to choreographing his church visits so that photographers could see the huge gold cross on the cover of the bible that he invariably clutched face up?

Dr. James Dobson of “Focus on the Family” thinks Bill’s huggy-bear visual has been displaced by Barack’s thuggy-bear soundbite. Dobson grabbed recent headlines by blasting a speech that Obama made two years ago. Although the evangelical leader was late with a critique, he came prepared. This was not an instance of stumbling upon a transcript of the senator’s remarks while strolling with a shotgun over one shoulder like Elmer Fudd in wabbit season; this was personal. Dobson was in the speech. Obama had identified him with one kind of Christianity and the Rev. Al Sharpton with another, while mocking the futility of teaching either kind of Christianity in a pluralist society, even one that had hypothetically expelled non-Christians.

Mesmerized by his own wit, Obama apparently forgot that neither Dobson nor Sharpton pastor a congregation, and neither leads a school of theological thought. The analogy yoking the two men together in a parody of yin and yang was based solely on name recognition. Consequently, it proved as durable as a Shoji screen at a professional rodeo. Worse, Obama welded the facile comparison to a “spiritual but not religious” thesis bedeviled by what Dobson calls a “fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution.” Dobson described the result as an appeal to “lowest common denominator” morality foreign to any people the Founders thought they were building a new country for.

Mr. Senior Lecturer in Constitutional Law tried to blunt that critique by saying that Dobson had been “making stuff up,” which is not a smart way to take issue with a man whose web site links to a transcript of the speech you are talking about. Apart from the argument over whether Obama was really just saying that “people of faith” need to speak in a “universal language” that promotes “open and vigorous debate,” the speech and its aftermath are also notable for other reasons. As George Neumayr pointedly observed, Obama mistakenly assumes that secularism is synonymous with reason, while religion is what happens when “mere opinion” ponders Big Questions like “is that all there is?” Both propositions are ahistorical, and both have been refuted many times over.

Perhaps Obama heard that it is impossible to reason your way to faith, and bounced from that truism to the conclusion that faith must therefore be unreasonable. He would not have been the first to make that mistake. Had he wrestled more thoughtfully with the original premise, he might have come to realize that true belief is both a decision and a gift: “Accept the gift and you will make the decision,” as Fr. Benedict Groeschel has been reminding other Christians for years.

Obama did scold those liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as “inherently irrational or intolerant.” Faith can be rational, he conceded, presumably because the burden of proof there is a little lower than it is for “reasonable.” He also said that democracy demands that religious concerns be translated into vocabulary less likely to annoy atheists or people of rival faiths. James Dobson took umbrage at that assertion, as we’ve seen, but Dobson did not reply as he could have: that democracy demands no such thing. If it did, states like Pennsylvania and Maryland would be reckoned un-American for having been chartered as havens for pious colonists.

How Obama could praise the biblical cadences of speeches by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. while simultaneously holding Christians hostage to a peculiarly cranky notion of what pluralism requires is one of the wonders of this campaign season. An appeal to the natural law might have been enough to keep Dr. Dobson from fulminating against lowest common denominator morality, but we’ll never know, because Obama made no such appeal: he was too busy fishing for applause with a line about how the Sermon on the Mount is “a passage so radical that it’s doubtful our own Defense Department would survive its application.”

Shall we raise the bet made in that quip for the sake of proving a point? Obama cloaked false modesty in wry humor. Is he really “doubtful,” and does he mean that we should be, too? Not on your life. For one thing, he’s all about hope (he even hopes that Republicans won’t try to caricature him as a scary black man with a funny name, but you never know, because he’s been told that Republicans are into despair). For another thing, the senator is certain that the Sermon on the Mount would obliterate the Defense Department if more of us started living up to it. When the meek inherit the Earth, it will not be because they blackmailed the boisterous or built enough missiles to advance a threat of Mutually Assured Destruction.

Among the many things that have not occurred to Barack Obama, we may suppose that he’s forgotten that virtue is more often ascribed to individuals than to institutions. It’s also safe to say that he doesn’t think of the Defense Department as even occasionally performing the kind of rear-guard action necessary in a fallen world, so that the rest of us can go on about the business of giving peace a chance. Say it with me, brothers and sisters: Those who live by the sword also die by the sword. But somebody ought to tell Obama that when Jesus praised the faith of a Roman centurion, there is no record of our Savior having added, “and find a new career, bub.” Moreover, “prooftexting” of the kind Obama flirts with amounts to Exegesis for Dummies, not least because the devil quotes scriptures better than we can.

Perhaps the biggest irony in what Obama said is how quickly the appearance of evenhandedness wilts when you follow the senator’s own advice. On the one hand, Obama admits, “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.” For that reason, “secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.” But on the other hand, the man who has repeatedly said that “words matter” wants religious believers to abandon religious language in public discourse. Obama’s advice to secularist Democrats is to take believers seriously, but not on their own terms.

We can’t base policy on religion, he says, because religion ultimately rejects the kind of compromise that politics depends on. Why Obama felt the need to impart advice like that to his fellow Americans is anyone’s guess: Washington, D.C. will not soon be confused with Geneva as it was under John Calvin. But Obama was talking primarily to other progressive activists. Near the end of his speech, he asked whether somebody would please call Child Protective Services about what Abraham almost did to Isaac. The subterranean current of fear under his advice suggests that we all know you can’t be too careful with potentially unreasonable or zealous believers, so it may perhaps be best to neuter religious speech up front, strictly in the interest of promoting social cohesion. To put the matter differently: it’s a jungle out there, so we’d better make sure the lion sleeps tonight.

Fortunately, none of us need settle for the porridge that Obama was offering two years ago. We got better advice just two months ago, from a German with deep-set eyes and red shoes. When he visited America, Asia Times columnist Spengler summarized the impact of his religious faith as “I have a mustard seed and I’m not afraid to use it.”

Pope Benedict articulated what Barack Obama could not: “Perhaps America’s brand of secularism poses a particular problem: it allows for professing belief in God, and respects the public role of religion and the Churches, but at the same time it can subtly reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator. Faith becomes a passive acceptance that certain things ‘out there’ are true, but without practical relevance for everyday life. The result is a growing separation of faith from life: living ‘as if God did not exist’. This is aggravated by an individualistic and eclectic approach to faith and religion: far from a Catholic approach to ‘thinking with the Church’, each person believes he or she has a right to pick and choose, maintaining external social bonds but without an integral, interior conversion to the law of Christ. Consequently, rather than being transformed and renewed in mind, Christians are easily tempted to conform themselves to the spirit of this age (cf. Rom 12:3).”

Let’s not give into temptation, especially when it arrives as a “fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution” hermetically sealed in a tin of progressivism with a label that fakes an inclusiveness it never had and can only tolerate on its own terms.

With apologies to Charlton Heston and a tip of the hat to the SCOTUS majority in District of Columbia v. Heller, Barack Obama and his ilk can have my religious vocabulary when they pry it from my cold dead hands.

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  • dennisofraleigh

    Hannigan makes some excellent points. But America doesn’t read Hannigan, and a lot of them have long ago dismissed James Dobson as just another disgruntled religious extremist fundamentalist.

    They *are* reading and listening to a guy named Jim Wallis. Apparently Jim Wallis is now considered the “darling” of the evangelical crowd and he is now being quoted and cited all over the place. But he’s no Dobson/Kennedy/Falwell evangelical. Not by a long shot.
    He tries to present himself as a “moderate” (in Catholic terms he would characterize himself as one of these “seamless garment” types). His book “God’s Politics” is basically one long screed against Bush administration policies (with a little tsk-tsk-ing over the “tragedy” of abortion-on-demand, just to show he—in principle anyway—disapproves of abortion).

    This same Jim Wallis (not surprisingly) has taken Obama’s side in this controversy.
    Check out his thrashing of Dobson and fawning over Obama.:

    http://blog.beliefnet.com/godspolitics/2008/06/dobson-and-obama-who-is-delibe.html

  • nativity

    DECREE ON ECUMENISM
    UNITATIS REDINTEGRATIO

    INTRODUCTION

    1. The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council. Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communions present themselves to men as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ Himself were divided.(1) Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.

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