The Audacity of Hope

March 10, 2013

in Extracts, Featured Articles

I was very struck, when I read Barack Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope by the total inaccuracy at criticisms levelled by the American and global left that he has been a disappointment as a President because he sold out on his ideals. Actually, if you read his pre-Presidency book, he outlined all of the positions he has taken in office for our viewing pleasure. In the extract below, he has a lot to say about the separation of Church and State and why respecting that doesn’t mean one must keep religion out of politics.

“Jefferson and Leland’s formula for religious freedom worked. Not only has America avoid the sorts of religious strife that continue to plague the globe, but religious institutions have continued to thrive – a phenomenon that some observers attribute directly to the absence of a state-sponsored church, and hence a prmium on religious experimentation and volunteerism. Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America’s population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation; we are a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of unbelievers.

But let’s even assume that we only had Christians within our borders. Whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? James Dobson’s or Al Sharpton’s? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests that slavery is all right and eating shellfish is an abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggest stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage so radical it’s unlikely our Defense Department would survive its application?

This brings us to a different point – the manner in which religious views should inform public debate and guide elected officials. Surely, secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square; Frederick Douglac, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Marthin Luther King Jr. 0 indeed, the majority of greater reformers in American history – not only were motivated by faith but repeatedly used religious language to argue their causes. To say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy is a practical absurdity; our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian fashion.

What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason. If I am opposd to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God’s will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

For those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do, such rules of engagement may seem just one more example of the tyranny of the secular and materials worlds over the sacred and eternal. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Almost by definition, faith and reason operate in different domains and involve different paths to discerning truth. Reason – and science – involves the accumulation of knowledge based on realities we can all comprehend. Religion, by contrast, is based on truths that are not provable through ordinary human understanding – the “belief in things not seen”. When science teachers insist on keeping creationism or intelligent design out of their classrooms, they are not asserting that scientific knowledge is superior to religious insight. They are simply insisting that each path to knowledge involves different rules and those rules are not interchangeable.

Politics is hardly a science, and it too infrequently depends on reason. But in a pluralistic democracy, the same distinctions apply. Politics, like science, depends on our ability to persuade each other of commion aims based on a common reality. Moreover, politics (unlike science) involves compromise, the art of the possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It insists on 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; to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.

The story of Abraham and Isaac offers a simple but powerful example. According to the Bible, Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his “only son, Issac, whom you love” as a burnt offering. Without argument, Abraham takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God commanded.

Of course, we all know the happy ending – God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute. Abraham has passed God’s test of devotion. He becomes a model of fidelity of God, and his great faith is rewarded through future generations. And yet it is fair to say if any of us saw a twentieth-first-century Abraham raising a knife on the roof of his apartment building, we would call the police; we would wrestle him down; even if we saw him lower his knife at the last minute, we would expect the Department of Children and Family to take Isaac away and charge Abraham with child abuse. We would do so because God doesn’t reveal Himself of His angels to all of us in a single moment. We do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordinance with those thinsg that are possible for all of us to know, understanding that a part of us of what we know to be true – as individuals or communities of faith – will be true for us alone.”

Check out The Audacity of Hope here.

 

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