Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Domer on Obama and Religion

Former GW speech writer and WSJ editor Bill McGurn's latest piece in the Wall Street Journal:

Barack Obama is no John Kennedy. And that may turn out to be a good thing. At least with regard to reversing one of the unintended consequences of Camelot: the idea that religious voices have no place on the public square.

At first blush, Sen. Obama may appear to be an odd choice to lead such a reversal. Until very recently, he worshipped at a church whose preachers apparently regard America as something to be abhorred – and have a distressing penchant for being filmed while they do so. Earlier in the primaries, Mr. Obama took flak for his own comments describing small-town Pennsylvania as a place populated by those who "cling to" religion because they are "bitter." And Mr. Obama's positions on hot-button issues like abortion – as a member of the Illinois Senate, he voted against legislation protecting a child who was born alive despite an abortion – put him at odds with many of those thought to represent the religious vote.

Yet there is more to Mr. Obama and religion than the recent headlines might suggest. Nowhere is that more clear than in the thoughtful address he delivered two years ago to a Sojourners/Call to Renewal conference. In that speech, the senator made clear his distance from religious conservatives, and called for an end to faith "as a tool of attack." Yet the thrust of his remarks was directed squarely at liberal Democrats. Their discomfort with all things religious, he said, runs against American history, and robs progressives of the ability to speak to their fellow citizens in moral terms.

Here is how he put it: "Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, 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. 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."

How remarkable these words are – and how much they depart from the views of the man whose torch Mr. Obama is now said to carry. In his now-famous address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, John Kennedy called for "an America where the separation of church and state is absolute." He went on to state that a president's faith should be "his own private affair," by which he seemed to suggest that it ought to have no influence at all on any policy. As if to underscore the point, he added that he opposed government aid to parochial schools as well as the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

In fairness to Kennedy, the times were different and so were the questions he faced. At that time too, Rome had not embraced religious liberty for all, and remained ambivalent to democracy. For many Americans, the idea of a Catholic nation or a Catholic leader conjured up images of Francisco Franco's Spain. In this context, Kennedy's political need was to reassure voters that he assented fully to the American proposition – and that he would not be taking orders from the pope. All this he had to do, moreover, without alienating Catholics by seeming to repudiate the faith of his fathers.

He did so brilliantly, and his election less than two months later proved that a Catholic could be president.

The other legacy of that speech has been less positive. In time, the reassurances Kennedy gave about his Catholicism hardened into a new orthodoxy which denies those motivated by religious principles a place in public debate. Even one of the Catholic intellectuals who had been consulted on Kennedy's Houston remarks, the Jesuit priest John Courtney Murray, would later say that Kennedy took separationist principles further than he would have.

We now have a better idea why. In his just-released memoir "Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History," Ted Sorensen gives some background to the Houston speech. In a fascinating account, Mr. Sorensen notes that the Unitarian Church in which he was raised stood at the "opposite ends" of the Catholic Church on most understandings about faith, doctrine, church-state relations, etc. He goes on to say that "many of the speeches that I drafted reflect Unitarian principles." And he implies that this is precisely how JFK regarded these writings as well.

Whether or not Kennedy intended it, his remarks at Houston have fostered a view that has driven many Democrats out of their own party. And whether or not he intended it, Barack Obama has put the Concordat of 1960 up for a rethink.

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