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Over at the Revealer, Jeff Sharlet is puffing Adele Oltman’s Nation piece on Obama and the Martin Luther Kings, Sr. and Jr. Read it if you must, but I wouldn’t take seriously its claim that Barack Obama is more like Daddy than Dr. King. The suggestion that Obama is advocating some kind of throwback to the days when black churches dominated their communities is just silly, and the suggestion that he is some kind of crypto-theocrat is nonsense. No American politician running for national office has spoken more clearly about the the importance of maintaining the principle of church-state separation.
Ottman goes seriously astray in portraying Obama’s support for faith-based initiatives as contrary to the civil right’s leader’s view of things:

I’m not sure King would have been comfortable with Obama’s expanded view of faith-based initiatives, which allows for churches to design social programs and make decisions about who has access to them.

To the contrary, it was via Great Society programs initiated at the height of the civil rights movement that urban black churches began receiving public funds to undertake (via independent non-profits) a range of social services. Obama has hewed to the Democratic view that churches not be allowed to discriminate religiously in hiring for such programs, much less restricting access. Finally, Daddy King was a rather narrow-minded Protestant who was suspicious of Jack Kennedy because of his Catholicism. Obama’s spiritual vision is, as Steve Warner has pointed out, far more along the lines of the inclusive civil religious faith of MLK, Jr.
A better read is Ryan Lizza’s article on the shifting politics of the West in the current New Yorker. Lizza’s focus is on Colorado and its rumpled Democratic governor, Bill Ritter, Jr. Lizza points out that Ritter’s a pro-life Catholic–which fits into the pro-life sub-theme of Democratic Party coverage these days, e.g. here . Ritter lays out his portrait of his state’s electorate. These include the two die-hard GOP groupings: “Fox News conservatives” (16 percent) and “moral conservatives (13 percent). On the other end of the spectrum are the 20 percent who are “very liberal.” And, according to Ritter, the way Democrats can win the West is by picking up the plurality group, “government pragmatists” (37 percent) and picking up some of the “moral pragmatists” (14 percent). The latter are the ones susceptible to the Democratic Party’s campaign to assure voters that it feels their faith.
The counterpoise to Ritter in the article is Gary Hart, who urges a strategy more attuned to the Western libertarian tradition.

Hart’s approach for deëmphasizing the culture wars is different from Ritter’s. Whereas Ritter appealed to the religious convictions of voters, Hart suggests a more laissez-faire approach. “Westerners are individualists who do not like the beliefs of others imposed on us,” he wrote. “We are people who believe in principles: integrity, honor, courage, accountability. The religious right preaches values. Democrats, regionally and nationally, should espouse principles, for ourselves and for our country.” He argues that while “values” have religious connotations, “principles” are secular.

While there are different ways to skin this cat, it’s important to recognize that the religiously unaffiliated–i.e. the secular–constitute a significantly larger portion of the population of the West (outside of Utah) than in the rest of the country. Fifty-five percent of Coloradans are religiously unaffiliated (or uncounted), for example, as compared to 40 percent of Americans generally. The point is that, in the West, Democrats have a bigger secularist base to build on that elsewhere in the country.

  • Cindy

    Obama is the *epitome* of mixing religion and politics–politics veiled in the new religion of Wallis, McLaren, Campolo, Warren, Emergent Church, New Baptist Covenant, Interfaith Movement–let’s just say social gospel universalism. He basically embodies the ideas of Jim Wallis’ recent book “Great Awakening:Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America,” uses the exact same language–reading Wallis is like reading Obama. “Renewal,” “common ground,” “faith in action,” and on and on…McLaren and Mt 25 network, Warren’s 3-legged stool…all of them heavily involved in politics, global politics, too. They all push the myth that getting “peace and justice” in Jerusalem (read: divide/share/internationalize) is the key to world peace. Bible says the exact opposite.
    But not just emergent type evangelicals, but also atheists, will be attracted to this new religion, since it’s basically secular humanism, just w/selective out-of-context Biblical texts as cover. As some say, it’s a way to be spiritual without believing in much less submitting to a deity (other than one’s, ahem, divine self–go Oprah!).

  • Adele Oltman

    Silk writes that Obama “has hewed to the Democratic view that churches not be allowed to discriminate religiously” when they hire staff or dispense social services through the Faith Based and Community Initiatives program. Presumably, Obama has also said that churches would not be allowed to proselytize when they deliver social services. Religious discrimination and using government money to promote religion is against the law. Although consideration of constitutional law is not what President Bush will be remembered for, he made the same claim back in 2001 when he introduced the Initiative as a major accomplishment of his vision for “compassionate conservatism.” I wonder how many supporters of Obama and his promise to expand Bush’s Initiative recall that the Initiative’s first director, John Dilulio, resigned after only six months on the job calling White House policy-makers “Mayberry Machiavellis,” who saw to it that politics trumped policy. Like old-time politicians who slipped preachers a few bucks to deliver their flocks to the election booth, Bush used the Initiative to shore up political support for the Republican Party, especially in swing states. Maybe an Obama White House would be above that.
    But to think that an Obama White House would manage to force churches to adhere to the Constitution is Pollyannaish, at best. One wonders how large a bureaucratic apparatus it would take to make sure every church and religious community organization that received federal funding put civil law before faith and God.
    Silk writes that Daddy King was a “narrow-minded” Christian. That may be true from our vantage-point more than a half century later and from a northern liberal Christian perspective, but he was so much more than that. He was part of a network of black Protestant ministers across the South who formed a bridge between the sacred and secular worlds to provide services, and morally elevate black communities from the spiritual degradations that accompanied financial hardship and poverty. One could imagine Daddy King making the same speech to a black congregation about fatherhood and responsibility that Obama made this past Father’s Day at Chicago’s Apostolic Church of God.
    One could also imagine Daddy King saying some of the same things to his congregation that Obama said in Denver, the night he accepted his Party’s nomination for president: that “individual responsibility and mutual responsibility,” including doing things like “turning off the television so that the kids can do their homework” and fathers sticking around to raise their children is the “essence of America’s promise,” or that “people’s financial hardship is not only the government’s fault.” In the era before the civil rights movement Daddy King would have emphasized Booker T. Washington’s “bootstrap ideology” and “uplift,” but the message would have been the same: to solve our problems we must look inward to our own resources, spiritual and material, and lift ourselves up from our own sins.
    When King Jr assumed the mantle of leadership of the burgeoning movement in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, he focused not on individual responsibility but government responsibility. King defined the essence of the promise of America as equality before the law for every citizen. King was killed after he expanded the civil rights movement to fight against government policies that deepened poverty for so many black and white people and after he spoke out unequivocally against the Vietnam War; while at the same time continuing to demand that the government step up and end social segregation in schools, jobs and housing.
    Much has changed since 1964 when democratically elected black Mississippians could not even be seated at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. Last week the Convention nominated a black man as its candidate. I was moved when I watched Nancy Pelosi nominate Barack Obama “by acclamation,” and also humbled as I thought of the generations of black freedom fighters, many of whom had given their lives, to make this happen. We should recognize the significance of this victory; but at the same time we ought not get carried away. There is truly something more pre-civil rights era about Barack Obama than the Rev. Dr. King who really did challenge the status quo.