Obama on Church and State: Four Problems with the Religious Right
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
I CAME ACROSS the following quote from Barack Obama while surfing the internets:
...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. ...
My first reaction was probably the same as yours—gratitude that we have such a reasonable and courageous mind at the helm right now.
But I also had some thoughts about the specific issues these two paragraphs raise, so briefly, about the religious right:
- "We are no longer just a Christian Nation."
The ongoing conservative claim that the United States is a Christian nation is a prime example of pure political rhetoric: rhetoric used only with an eye to its effect, without any regard for the truth.
Remember back in high school English when the teacher explained the difference between "denotation" and "connotation"? Between what a word actually means, and the emotional impact of the word?
Call someone a fascist, and you get all the emotional associations of Hitler, and concentration camps, and Colonel Klink. But the actual meaning of the word has to do with a certain type of government structure.
Or, call someone an angel, and you get a completely different emotional reaction. But no one is likely to ask you whether you intend to imply that they could dance on the head of a pin, or whether their existence is purely intellectual.
This idea of a "Christian nation" is purely connotative, purely an emotional claim—aimed at rousing the base of the religious right.
It has no substance.
No one seriously believes that the United States was ever intended to be a theocracy.
It's quite clear that the founding fathers—many of whom were not Christians at all in the modern, fundamentalist, sense of the word—did not think that the nation should ever endorse any one religion over another.
And, as Obama points out, the truth (small-t) is that we are a much more complex people than that. Our nation includes Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Atheists, Mormons, Buddhists, several different varieties of Native American spirituality, and many, many, more. But it gets more interesting:
- "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?"
More on that next time...