Obama's faith comes to the public square
James A. Donahue
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Religion - and its role in public life - more often than not gets a bad rap. Those who see religion as divisive may be prone to speculate what may become of the religious right or the religious left in an Obama administration. They may be failing to see the forest for the trees.
Far from religious views that can be used to divide people, Barack Obama's faith may be a powerful offering and an invitation to people in America and around the world to work together on solutions to the dire economic, political and social problems confronting us. A careful reading of Obama's books and his speech on faith at Jim Wallis's 2006 Call to Renewal conference discloses that our president-elect sees his religious beliefs as informing and shaping his values. In turn, his values and ethical outlooks may shape our policies.
During the campaign, as Obama spoke often about his personal faith, his words suggested a commitment greater than a political ploy to woo faith voters. In a speech last summer to a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, he spoke not of what divides us, but of how our common values can lead to constructive policy: "The challenges we face today - war and poverty, joblessness and homelessness, violent streets and crumbling schools - are not simply technical problems in search of a 10-point plan. They are moral problems ... and so the values we believe in - empathy and justice and responsibility to ourselves and our neighbors - these cannot only be expressed in our churches and our synagogues but in our policies and in our laws."
Obama claims that the separation of church and state is important for democracy and for religious practices to thrive. His is a cosmopolitan identity forged from multiple identities, and the view that all of humanity belongs to a single moral community, and deserves justice and basic human rights.
He places a high premium on tolerance. And yet, as a deeply faithful man, he has a low tolerance for religious certainty. In a 2004 interview with Chicago Sun-Times columnist Cathleen Falsani, Obama said, "In my own public policy, I'm very suspicious of religious certainty expressing itself in politics. Now, that's different from a belief that values have to inform our public policy..."
So what might religion in the public square look like in the Obama administration? We get a glimpse of this in who Obama invited to give invocations at his inauguration. Rick Warren, pastor of the powerful Saddleback Church, will give the main invocation today. New Hampshire Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, a gay man at the center of the Anglican church's global battle over homosexuality, delivered a prayer for Obama at Sunday's event on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Rather than showing alliance, Obama is showcasing the value of inclusivity.
Religious values and ethical outlooks point to the worth of each person as an individual, and as part of the larger human family. They can offer unity if there is the willingness to engage in open and honest dialogue, especially with those who believe differently than we do. From that dialogue can emerge new priorities, policies to solve domestic problems and the framework for peacemaking among nations.
Religion gets its bad rap is because it is misused. But if we distinguish between religions as institutions, and the values and ethical outlooks underpinning the world's great faiths, we can see that religion has much to offer beyond being a source of personal solace. As the world waits with great hope for the new administration to begin work, we can be optimistic that our new leader will be led not by narrowly conceived "truths" derived from religious doctrine, and not by culture war issues that divide. He will be guided by "a belief that we're all connected." We should take him up on his invitation to rise above what divides us.
James A. Donahue is president and professor of ethics at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
This article appeared on page B - 7 of the San Francisco Chronicle