Politics, Obama and Jesus

James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family and a major evangelical leader, has criticized Sen. Barack Obama of distorting the Bible and taking a “fruitcake interpretation” of the U.S. Constitution. Dobson made these comments on his radio show. He focused on a speech that Obama gave in June to a liberal Christian organization.

Obama said it would be impractical to govern based solely on the Bible. He suggested that many of the people who tout the Bible have not read it or only pick and choose certain parts that support their ideology. I agree with Obama that Biblical illiteracy is a problem in this country, including many evangelicals. I also believe that leaders use the Bible to push their own agendas. This includes McCain, Obama, both political parties, Christian leaders, atheists, gurus, parents, TV personalities, authors, civic leaders, pastors, stand-up comedians, etc. 

“Which passages of scripture should guide our public policy?” Obama asked in the speech. “Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK 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?”

Dobson criticized Obama for referencing antiquated dietary codes and passages from the Old Testament that are no longer relevant to the teachings of the New Testament. 

“I think he’s deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology,” Dobson said. While I do not personally agree with everything that Dobson says, he makes a good point about Obama taking things out of context. I believe that Obama in this speech does exactly what he accuses fundamentalists of doing. The Bible needs to be studied in context and totality. You have to understand that the Bible is the story of God and mankind as their relationship with each other is in flux. You have to ask what moment in redemptive history is being described in that passage in order to understand its present day implications.

Obama responded, “I do make the argument that it’s important for folks like myself, who think faith is important, that we try to translate some of our concerns into universal language so we can have open and vigorous debate rather than having religion divide us.”

I am all for universal language as long as the core truths are not lost in translation. Division seems to be something that has accompanied the true preaching of the Christian Gospel throughout time. Wherever the apostle Paul went, there was either a revolution or a riot. Jesus said that we should be willing to forsake all, including family for the Gospel. Jesus spoke about dividing families. He used harsh language and was more than willing to offend the religious leaders and politicians of the day. Avoiding divisive speech was not something that Jesus seemed too concerned with in His ministry. When it comes to division and culture, God was the one who confused the languages according to Genesis. He seems perfectly willing to let people become divided if pride leads them to elevate their will above His divine plan.

While I applaud Obama’s efforts to be a bridge builder, I don’t think you can effectively create a dialogue on religion and politics if you deny the importance of the Bible in shaping our culture, laws and history. Our laws and political system must have some basis. If the Bible is not a shaping force for those discussions, what should be the basis? Looking honestly at history, what were those shaping forces? Merely public opinion and consensus standards? Are there things that are universally wrong? Who defines those?

Many of the worst actions done by humans were somewhat popular at the time they occurred. At the very least, those atrocities were accepted by the masses to some degree. What does that say about merely basing laws on the reason of the age?

Laws change throughout time and are a mirror of societal values. Some of the greatest social changes came about because people took a stand based on their private faith. This includes Dr. Martin Luther King and William Wilberforce. 

In the United States, our laws are built on legal precedent as well as the pioneering effort by lawmakers and judges to advance necessary reforms. These changes adapt existing laws to an evolving political and social landscape. Would many of these changes have taken place if people refused to lead beyond the comfort levels of public opinion? Does the thought of God-given rights make necessary political change possible? These are important questions that need to be asked before we simply explain away the importance of the Bible with poor exegesis.   

Obama clarified to reporters, “I do suggest that the separation of church and state is important. But there’s no, no theological work being done in that speech in terms of the Bible.” You can’t pull out parts of Scripture to make your point and then claim you are not making a theological argument when someone calls you on its implications. I agree that a separation of church and state remains important to the preservation of each entity. At the same time, I think completely divorcing them goes too far and can easily become a serious suppression of religious freedom. 

Dobson criticized Obama for suggesting that religion in politics should be relegated to only things that can be embraced by the overwhelming majority of citizens. Obama’s view seems to elevate public opinion and reflect a belief in the overall decency of humanity. Scripture is quite clear that the human heart is wicked and capable of incredible evil. I think Obama’s argument puts too much faith in man and not enough in God. 

“Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal rather than religion-specific values,” Obama said. “It requires their proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason.”  Obama makes a good point here. Religious beliefs should be able to be defended by reason and logic. I am all for that process. We need to have more intellectual, thorough discussions and fewer sound bite reactions. I applaud Obama’s efforts to avoid rhetoric while I denounce his mischaracterization of fundamentalists at the same time. I believe he has effectively done both in his public comments.

Dobson said the suggestion is an attempt to lead by the “lowest common denominator of morality.” He asked, “Am I required in a democracy to conform my efforts in the political arena to his bloody notion of what is right with regard to the lives of tiny babies?”

When it comes to abortion, I believe it comes down to your view on the sanctity of life and the beginning of life. If you believe that abortion is murder, I don’t understand how you could ever condone it except for the cases where you are talking about exchanging a life for a life. This has nothing to do with public or private morality if you hold my view on the issue. Others may have a different view. But that doesn’t negate the value of what I have to say. 

Dobson summed up the implications of Obama’s position. He said, “What Obama is trying to say here is, unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe.”

While I have no doubt of Obama’s sincerity and his personal claims to be a Christian, I do have concerns that his statements reflect a worldview that would make it difficult for Christians to have a fair say in the legislative process. And I believe he would appoint judges that would further limit the influence of the Bible at a time when we could use a little more Sermon on the Mount thinking.

8 responses to “Politics, Obama and Jesus

  1. Pingback: test » Blog Archive » Politics, Obama and Jesus

  2. It’s fun how you accuse Obama of taking scripture out of context while you neglect to provide a link to the full context of his speech. Furthermore, from the lines you mentioned (as that is the only context I have), how is he taking scripture out of context? He is mentioning rules that are present in the Bible and then asks how we decide which to follow. There are things that Paul says that we find antiquated now and not relevant so this is not just an OT vs NT notion. I have friends of different types of Christian backgrounds that differ on which passages are “no longer relevant”. It’s a real problem. That’s why he is suggesting that we don’t make public policy off of scripture, because at the end of the day a lot of it is subjective.

  3. Some Guy,

    Here is a link to Obama’s entire speech.

    Lots of things in life are somewhat subjective. Does that mean we discount the importance of those things in public debate? Or does that mean we have to have a real discussion? I believe Obama is taking the easy way out by suggesting we should shelve the Bible when it comes to developing our laws and social fabric. As a Christian, I find that hard to swallow.

    I believe Obama’s argument does not recognize the importance of the totality of the Biblical narrative. He is taking Scripture out of context by refusing to look at it within context. Because this kind of dialogue is difficult, he simply suggests that we just ignore the Bible altogether.

    I believe we have to look at Scripture within the totality of the Biblical narrative. Obama seems willing to pull out obscure parts of either the OT/NT and suggest we should ignore it altogether since these teachings are difficult for us to understand in today’s culture.

    You said, “There are things that Paul says that we find antiquated now and not relevant so this is not just an OT vs NT notion.” I agree this is not just an OT/NT thing. But I don’t agree with Obama’s conclusion.

    Please keep in mind that I am not attacking Obama personally or his personal faith. All I am doing is questioning his statements on religion and their implications. Godspeed:)
    – Chaille Brindley

  4. I question anyone’s faith when they use it to get votes or public support, Republican or Democrat.

  5. Thanks for the link. You took out key contextual components of the part of the speech you took issue with. The examples he provided were meant to show that even in a purely Christian society there is room for interpretation differences. This is a supporting argument (to a Christian audience) on why it’s important to describe your beliefs and convictions in a more universal way instead of just hammering the Bible at unbelievers. You really should read the entire speech if you haven’t done so already.

  6. Some Guy,

    I have reviewed the entire speech. Obama’s words confuse me because he tends to say one thing in the middle about the importance of religious leaders in shaping our country. Then, he talks about the contemporary problems with fundamentalists. Then, he expands upon that to call for reason not religious beliefs to be the basis for our laws. It looks like one big flip flop to me.

    This is what I hear from his speech. Religion is important. Wait we can’t trust it because people misuse the Bible. We have to rely on reason and universal language.

    My big question is, “What about situations where there is no universal belief on a topic?” I don’t see where he is actually proposing any real solution because there will always be a giant divide on issues such as abortion, school curriculums, strategies to help the poor, etc.

    I do agree with Obama that we need to be careful vilifying the other side.

    When you get down to it, everything is somewhat relative, including our sense of morality in this country. That includes reason.

    One person reasons that abortion is murder. Another person reasons that abortion is necessary in many cases because the child is not wanted and will live a hard life. Those arguments don’t necessarily have to revolve around religion.

    I found that some of Obama’s examples were funny, such as the bit about Abraham. And I like how he ended the speech talking about removing the bit from his Web site. But that seems like a different tone than the first several paragraphs of his speech.

    I guess that I don’t understand what he really believes and is suggesting at the end. His focal points seems to be trusting something other than our faith as a basis for our morality and laws. As a Christian, I don’t know how I can ever do that given the fact that I believe anything good within humanity came from God in the first place.

    -Chaille M. Brindley

  7. Great post, you articulated my concerns with Obama as well. While I don’t necessarily agree with Dobson’s approach – calling it “fruitcake” isn’t really that helpful, I believe that his criticism of Obama overall was just.

  8. This is a great discussion. I think this is what plagues our government and our society. We see word artistry on an impressive level. Political leaders use words that we like in ways we like. We then see later that they used our words to relate to us, but they never really valued the same things.

    I think that they are very much a reflection of ourselves. I catch myself (all too often) using words that I know my audience uses in an effort to connect to them. This often places me in a light that is probably more favorable to them than I truly am (oh wretched man that I am).

    I think that being genuinely honest about who we are to other people is difficult. Couple that with a society that says you can have work values and private values that have nothing in common and it is no wonder mental disease is on the rise. It is also no wonder that our leaders are difficult to get a read on. If the truth be told, we are no different.

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