Prayer or politics?FATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA
It was an inauguration conspicuous in its religious dimension.
President Obama continued his effort to reclaim religion for progressive politics in general, and his Democratic Party in particular. In recent decades, the Republicans have become the religion party in the United States. While Obama did make gains among religious voters, religious practice is still one of the most powerful predictors of voting behaviour: The more often you attend religious services, the more likely you are to vote Republican.
It is not necessary that this should be the case, for there is a long history of religious movements on the left. The "social gospel" movement in both Canada and the United States has deep roots. The civil rights movement for racial equality was born in the black churches and was substantially a religious movement. Long before the rise of the secular, libertine left, there was an explicitly Christian progressive politics of racial equality, anti-war activism and social welfare. The inaugural benediction offered by the Reverend Joseph Lowery, one of the last lions of the civil rights movement, was an acknowledgement of that.
But how does President Obama intend to treat religion? Does he regard religion as a source of principles, values and virtues which are necessary for a free and just political order, but beyond the competence of politics to generate? Or does he view religion as another demographic characteristic, like race or class, to be accounted for in the assembling of winning electoral coalitions? The balance appears to be more toward the latter than the former.
The inaugural address itself had several references to freedom, equality and community as rooted in a biblical vision. That is the proudest legacy of the civil rights movement, in which Martin Luther King made anew the ancient Christian argument that an unjust law is no law at all.
Yet there was also the line about America's multicultural reality: "For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth."
This is religion as another diversity category, not unlike how Canadian politicians canvass ethnic community halls. It turns religion from a shaper of civic life into another electoral demographic.
Much in President Obama's own history suggests that this is how he thinks. His membership in Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago was politically useful, establishing for himself a base amid Chicago's powerful black community leaders. When it came time to run for president, Obama first marginalized his longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and then repudiated him altogether when his black nationalist theology created problems for the candidate.
The inauguration appeared to continue this pattern. First, Obama invited Pastor Rick Warren, perhaps the most prominent evangelical pastor in America, to deliver the inaugural invocation. When gay activists cried foul because Pastor Warren opposes gay marriage, Obama looked for balance by inviting Bishop Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, to offer the prayer at Sunday night's concert.
Bishop Robinson is most famous for being the only openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion. In fact, that is the only thing for which Bishop Robinson is known, he being an otherwise unremarkable figure in one of America's smaller churches. There are only about 2.5 million Episcopalians in America, with membership on a steady decline.
Bishop Robinson is so marginal in his own church that he was not welcome at the decennial Lambeth Conference hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury last year. When a bishop is shunned by his fellow bishops, but welcome at political rallies, the soul has long been sold for a mess of pottage.
Bishop Robinson is a diversity man. His theology is so divergent from the apostolic faith -- Robinson holds that neither the Bible nor tradition should be normative for the Church's practice -- that it can only be called Christian in a vestigial sense. His selection by President Obama for apparent balance is not in Martin Luther King's tradition of the religious contribution to public life. Rather it betrays a functional approach to religion, reducing it to a mere instrument of politics. To adapt Reverend Lowery: Let the people not say amen.
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Prayer or politics?" National Post, (Canada) January 22, 2009.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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