Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Compassion Forum (2): Clinton and Obama on Religion in Public Life

During the course of their separate appearances at the Compassion Forum at Messiah College in Pennsylvania on Sunday evening, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were asked for their thoughts on the very propriety of the forum itself, devoted as it was to discussion of religion and public life. The contested place of the religious voice in the public square has been a subject of animated debate in both popular and academic circles over the past couple of decades. Many of the members of this Mirror of Justice blog have been leading figures in that important discussion, most prominently our own Michael Perry, whose several books on the subject are essential volumes in any library on religious expression in public life. (In one side-line of my academic writing, I have offered my own thoughts on this subject in the context of what I called the “quintessential religious witness in the public square” of Pope John Paul II (here).)

Was it appropriate to ask presidential candidates to share their views on religious faith and values in public life? While one would not expect politicians to offer reflections that rise to the quality of academic discourse, the responses of the Democratic presidential candidates may be revealing of how this public debate has moved over the years. Vigorously if imperfectly on the part of Senator Obama, and more haltingly on the part of Senator Clinton, their openness to religious participation suggests that we may be witnessing the beginning of a break from what then law professor and now federal judge Michael McConnell identified as a secularist “hold on mainstream thinking” about religion in the elite sectors of American society. The “Naked Public Square,” against which Richard John Neuhaus warned so eloquently many years ago, is becoming better clothed, even among the left-leaning political demographic that had seemed most insistent on denuding the public square of the religious witness.

In yesterday’s post offering my general observations about the candidates’ responses on questions about religious faith at the Compassion Forum, I shared my impression that Senator Clinton more readily and more comfortably connected with the spiritual dimension of faith as central to the lives and identity of so many Americans. Unfortunately, she faltered badly, in my view, on the central question of whether the subject was appropriately raised in the first place. When one of the moderators claimed that “there are a lot of Americans who are uncomfortable with the conversation that we’re having here tonight” and who “believe religion already has way too much influence in political life and public life,” Senator Clinton was immediately solicitous of those objections. She characterized this as “a fair question to ask” and said that she understood “why some people, even religious people, even people of faith might say, why are you having this forum? And why are you exploring these issues from two people who are vying to be president of the United States?” Still, she did conclude that “we want religion to be in the public square,” saying that “[i]f you are a person of faith, you have a right and even an obligation to speak from that well spring of your faith.” But, she insisted, people of faith must “do so in a respectful and inclusive way.”

By responding as she did, Senator Clinton gave considerable credence to the persisting anti-religious impulses of too many in her political party. By stating that it is fair for some to question whether it is proper even to host a forum that allows candidates for the nation’s highest office to share their views on faith and values, she suggested that the exclusionary secularist viewpoint is a legitimate one that deserves consideration, even if on balance but only after careful consideration she had decided to participate in the forum. Reflecting the antipathy to religion in liberal elite circles, Richard Rorty once argued that speaking of religion in the context of public policy should be sharply rebuked as displaying “bad taste” in polite company. While clearly struggling to find a way to do so Sunday evening, and succeeding in other ways, Clinton seemed unable to completely shake off a similar aesthetic discomfort with the topic.

In sum, in this passage from the forum, Senator Clinton offered a less than enthusiastic invitation to people of faith to participate in the public square and indeed set out terms by demanding that they do so in a “respectful and inclusive way.” While most of us desire to be as respectful and inclusive as possible in expressing our religious (and non-religious) views, short of compromising our principles, Clinton did not suggest a similar qualification on participatory rights for anyone else engaging in public discourse.

In contrast, Senator Obama began his response to the same question by rejecting those “elements, many of them in my own party, in the Democratic Party, that believe that any influence of religion whatsoever in the public debate somehow is problematic or violates church and state.” Instead, he explained, “[w]hat I believe is that all of us come to the public square with our own values and our ideals and our ethics, what we believe. And people of religious faith have the same right to come to that public square with values and ideals that are rooted in their faith.” Obama continued: “And they have the right to describe them in religious terms, which has been part of our history. As I said in some of my writings, imagine Dr. King, you know, going up before, in front of the Lincoln Memorial and having to scrub all his religious references, or Abraham Lincoln in the Second Inaugural not being able to refer to God.” Yes, it is unfortunate that Senator Obama felt obliged to toss out the canard that Republicans would abolish separation of church and state (in a passage not quoted above) and that he self-referentially cited his own writings about the essentiality of religious references to Dr. Martin Luther King's civil rights movement (in the passage quoted above), instead of giving credit to such scholars as Stephen Carter who brought that point front and center in our modern public debate about religion in public life. Nonetheless, and importantly, Senator Obama offered a ringing endorsement of religious participation in the public square and did not hesitate to separate himself from the secular exclusionists.

Unfortunately, after having done so, Obama too felt obliged to suggest special constraints on the religious voice, saying that, in the public square, we have to “translate our language into a universal language that can appeal to everyone.” As with Senator Clinton, Obama did not explain why people of faith are required to speak in a different voice, one that is “universal” and “appeals to everyone” before being heard. And having just defended the use of openly religious references, Obama’s insistence that religious language be translated into a universal style was somewhat contradictory. As Obama’s closing remarks in response to this question suggest, his concern apparently is to preclude “a certain self-righteousness,” as when a speaker implies he has “got a direct line to God,” a claim that Obama characterized as “incompatible with democracy.” But by thereby carving out forthright claims of religious truth from discourse that is appropriate for the public square, isn’t Obama’s invitation to people of faith significantly limited? Dr. King certainly claimed Biblical sanction for his views about the equality of all people. Nor, as Obama said should be expected of people of faith, did Dr. King "allow that we may be wrong" in thinking people of color were entitled to fundamental human rights.

While both Senators Obama and Clinton said that they welcomed the religious voice in the public square, and Obama did so in forceful terms, they also felt obliged to suggest that religious participation should be controlled and constrained, in a manner that we do not demand of others. Stephen Carter once wrote that a “cultural discomfort” emerges “when citizens who are moved by their religious understanding demand to be heard on issues of public moment and yet are not content either to remain silent about their religions or to limit themselves to acceptable platitudes.” By demanding “inclusive” or “universal” language or warding against claims of God-given truth as “incompatible with democracy,” is the Obama and Clinton invitation to people of faith effectively conditioned upon their willingness to utter “acceptable platitudes”? I don’t think either of them, and Obama in particular, mean to be so restrictive. But they appear conflicted in their instincts and have not yet thought through what it would mean to regard people of faith as first-class citizens in the public square. And neither Clinton nor Obama appears to be comfortable with what Stephen Carter referred to as the role of “prophetic religious activism,” observing as he did that “[t]he religious voice at its more pure is the voice of the witness.” But maybe that's to be expected. Clinton and Obama are politicians seeking power, and politicians seeking power are seldom comfortable with prophets.

In the next day or two, I’ll move from observations about the general subjects of religious faith in personal and public life as addressed at the Compassion Forum and offer my comments on how the candidates responded to questions about abortion and the sanctity of human life, which sadly if not unexpectedly was the nadir of the evening.

Greg Sisk


Sisk, Greg | Permalink

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