Keeping Faith With Religious Freedom

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Saturday, June 25, 2005

There was no obvious political benefit in David Obey's decision to take on the defense of religious minorities at the Air Force Academy. Because he stood up for their rights on the floor of the House of Representatives, the Wisconsin Democrat found himself accused of "denigrating and demonizing Christians."

Obey is unbowed. "I think if you asked God, he'd say the Ten Commandments were a road map for living," Obey said in a recent interview. "Instead, you have these self-appointed pharisees who think the Ten Commandments can be turned into a stiletto to use against their political opponents."

It has not been easy for Obey in his own Roman Catholic Church, either. Because of his mixed voting record on abortion, Obey was denied Communion in 2003 by a hard-line bishop. The irony is that Obey's record is too pro-life for many pro-choicers -- he has cast more than 60 votes limiting abortion rights in various ways. But Obey had the misfortune of finding himself in the diocese of Bishop Raymond L. Burke, who later became the archbishop of St. Louis.

Burke demanded absolute purity. Obey said the bishop did not have the right to "dictate how I vote on any public matter." He has not sought Communion since Burke's ruling because he doesn't want to put a sympathetic priest who would administer it in an awkward position. Think of it as the act of an authentic Christian.

Perhaps it is because Obey is more sensitive than most to the importance of religious liberty that he jumped into the controversy surrounding the Air Force Academy.

Let's be clear: The academy's brass are not in trouble because they allowed evangelical Christian cadets to speak of their faith to other cadets. That is their right. The issue is whether officers higher in the chain of command used their positions of authority to promote their faith. That is coercion, and it is neither right nor just. It is also about whether evangelical Christian students were allowed to create an atmosphere in which students who did not share their faith were, to be charitable, marginalized. (One father of a cadet said his son was called "a filthy Jew.'') Since Jews, Hindus, Muslims and atheists -- not to mention Christians who are not evangelicals -- all proudly serve in the armed forces of the United States, there are few institutions in which the imperative for religious liberty is more important.

Thus did Obey offer an amendment to the military appropriations bill calling on the secretary of the Air Force to "develop a plan to ensure that the Air Force Academy maintains a climate free from coercive intimidation and inappropriate proselytizing."

Obey's all-American assertion of religious liberty was, for Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.), part of "the long war on Christianity in America [that] continues today on the floor of the House of Representatives. It continues unabated with aid and comfort to those who would eradicate any vestige of our Christian heritage being supplied by the usual suspects, the Democrats. . . . Like a moth to a flame, Democrats can't help themselves when it comes to denigrating and demonizing Christians."

Obey rose to his feet and demanded that Hostettler's last words be stricken from the record, which they eventually were. "If Jesus is watching what's happening on the floor of the House of Representatives, with people behaving in such a blasphemous fashion," Obey said this week, "well, I am reminded of that passage, 'Jesus wept.' " Obey said that when he first came to Congress, "there would have been universal condemnation of Hostettler by both parties." In this case, Obey said he was approached afterward by a single sympathetic Republican. Obey was comforted that Jewish House members "appreciated that a Christian would speak out."

Obey struggles to balance the demands of his faith with the obligations of pluralism -- and for this, he receives few rewards. Recently, he offered an amendment to increase funding for child care, job training and domestic abuse programs as a way of "taking some of the pressure off women to have abortions." The idea, Obey said, was to challenge those "whose concern for life ends at the checkbook's edge."

Obey says one of his staffers was berated by a family planning lobbyist who said: "How dare he imply that women would succumb to pressure?"

It's not easy being David Obey, but he doesn't seem to mind. "You can't win fights," he says, "unless you wage them." Maybe when he leaves Congress, no time soon, I hope, Obey can run seminars on courage -- and faithfulness.

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