This Week in God: Pew, Obama, and Dobson

I’m not really sure what the much-publicized Pew “Religious Landscape Survey” really shows—quite possibly that surveys don’t capture religious views all that well, religion being the sort of thing that doesn’t really lend itself to multiple-choice questions (or is that just my religion?). But it’s fun to try to take it at face value, and note that, for example, 15% of self-described atheists are at least “fairly certain” that there is a “God or Universal Spirit”—what must Richard Dawkins make of that? Possibly more relevant, and certainly more ballyhooed, is that 57% of Evangelical Christians say that “many religions can lead to eternal life.” This is considerably more tolerant than most observers seem to expect. I like to think that it’s confirmation of what I’ve thought for a long time—that the most prominent and noisy evangelical leaders (all we godless northerners, including much of the pundit class, usually see) are lousy representatives of their respective faiths. In my experience most evangelical Christians are altogether more tolerant, sensible, thoughtful, and just plain better than the ones that get all the press.

As if on cue to make my point, James Dobson chose this same week to dig up and hurl invective at a two-year-old speech of Barack Obama’s. It’s hardly surprising for the Dobsons of the world to spit venom at the Obamas, so there’s little point in saying to much about the kerfuffle itself—although someone really ought to point out that Dobson’s whine

What the senator is saying there, in essence, is that I can’t seek to pass legislation, for example, that bans partial-birth abortion, because there are people in the culture who don’t see that as a moral issue…And if I can’t get everyone to agree with me, than it is undemocratic to try to pass legislation that I find offensive to the Scripture. Now, that is a fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution.

completely misses the entire point of Obama’s speech. Obama indeed says almost the exact opposite, that people should be guided by their faith. What annoys Dobson is that Obama doesn’t think he shouldn’t expect to get his way without making a better argument than “because I said so”:

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.

This little tempest in a teapot is, I think, bound to help Obama—no one who would take Dobson seriously is likely to vote for a Democrat anyway (and Dobson doesn’t like McCain either). Meanwhile, behold the backlash.

I wonder if Dobson’s real motivation here is that he’s afraid—not of fire and brimstone or the Rapture or the triumph of Satan, but simply of losing his own power. A liberal who is embraces his religion, and who doesn’t looks ridiculous doing it, threatens to destroy the tissue of lies by which Dobson and his ilk keep their positions. Quoting an article in the current New Yorker (only the abstract is available online, apparently):

…the cultural attitudes descended from the fundamentalist resistance to modernist thought, such as a distrust of science, a rejection of institutional solutions to poverty, and the notion that evangelicals are the saving remnant of Christianity and the American tradition. Religious-right leaders have perpetuated these attitudes and done their best to see that evangelicals continue to regard themselves as an embattled subculture.

The last thing the leaders of the religious right want is for their followers to realize just how religious America is.

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