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Dobson vs. Obama

By Peter Wehner
Saturday, June 28, 2008 12:00 AM

Earlier this week, Focus on the Family's James Dobson criticized Sen. Barack Obama, accusing him of "deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit ... his own confused theology," of having a "fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution" and of appealing to the "lowest common denominator of morality."

Dobson's judgment was based on Obama's keynote address at a "Call to Renewal" conference on June 28, 2006. In fact, this speech was impressive in many respects. As an evangelical and conservative who has deep concerns about Obama's policies and political philosophy, I nonetheless welcome such a statement by a leading Democrat.

For one thing, Obama took on liberals "who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant" and "caricature religious Americans ... as fanatical." He went on to say: "Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.... 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 our morality, much of which is grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition."

So Obama was doing what people like Dobson have long urged: making the public square more hospitable for people of faith and calling for a halt to their demonization. Obama made his case in ways I found to be respectful and authentic.

Dobson took particular umbrage, for at least one obvious reason, with this passage from Obama's speech: "And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is okay and that eating shellfish is an abomination? Or we could go with Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount -- a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our Bibles now. Folks haven't been reading their Bibles."

Dobson was critical of Obama's biblical references here and suggested that he had set up a series of straw men to support his "confused theology." But as I understand him, Obama was pointing out why the words of Scripture do not provide a ready policy blueprint for modern American society. Indeed, many of us have grappled with how to arrive at a theologically informed and fair-minded reading of the Bible that takes its moral principles seriously without simplistically applying to our time the cultural norms of previous eras. The chief defect of Obama's speech was that he didn't provide more insight into how to navigate these theological waters.

The passage of the speech that prompted Dobson's "fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution" and "lowest common denominator of morality" comments was this: "Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. What do I mean by this? It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, to take one example, 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."

Dobson paraphrased this as "unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe in." But that's not what Obama was saying at all. Rather, he was arguing that in a pluralistic nation like ours, politics depends on people of faith being able to persuade others based on common and accessible ground and appeals to reason -- which sounds entirely reasonable. Christians who oppose abortion can make an effective case by talking about sonograms, fetal development and the moral imperative to protect the most vulnerable. That doesn't mean one's faith shouldn't inform the question of abortion -- or, for that matter, war, poverty and other issues. After all, President Lincoln's argument against slavery was partly grounded in faith. But appeals to the Bible or church teaching aren't sufficient in a pluralistic nation. That's why Lincoln talked primarily about the Declaration of Independence.

There are certainly reasons for evangelicals to have concerns about Obama -- based on his extreme views on abortion, judicial nominees, Iraq (his plans for a precipitous withdrawal would probably trigger mass death and perhaps even genocide) and other issues. But critics of Obama have an obligation to provide a fair and honest critique, and the attacks leveled by Dobson fall terribly short of that standard.

If Christian conservatives want to be taken seriously, they need to make serious arguments and speak with intellectual integrity. In this instance, Dobson didn't. He has set back his cause and made some of us who are evangelicals and conservatives wince.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a former deputy assistant to President Bush.

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