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You Talkin’ to ME?!


(Please welcome pastordan from Street Prophets for this guest post.  Thanks, Dan!  —  Pach) 

One of the most frustrating aspects of the conversation on religion and politics in today's climate is that the discussion often seems to be about "people of faith" rather than with them.

Barack Obama's candidacy puts this frustration in sharp relief, I think. All the plausible contenders for the Democratic nomination are practicing Christians, though they vary widely in how much emphasis they place on their faith. But Obama is the most open of them and as such, he poses a tremendous threat to the GOP "values" machine.

All of which is not hold him up as a model progressive candidate necessarily. He's just going to be a target because he challenges a key perceived strength for conservatives.

So they attack: first, they question the authenticity of his faith. Then they question its legitimacy by trying to portray it as out of the mainstream. (Obama, to his discredit, caved in a bit to this attack by trying to distance himself from Jeremiah Wright, his allegedly "radical" pastor.) Even the recent insinuations of sleaze used against Obama can feed into this attack. If he's "dirty," why then he's not so Christian after all, now is he?

The interesting thing about the two specifically faith-based charges is how little they actually had to do with, you know, faith. The madrassa hit-piece was just that: a nasty little lie that will live on in freeper compounds for years to come. The extremist-church theme was set out in interviews between Tucker Carlson and two political operatives, and Sean Hannity and an Alan Keyes-style blogger. The sum total of the qualifications for discussing the religious character of Trinity United Church of Christ (they couldn't even get the name right) was essentially "I've been to church" and in the case of Hannity's blogger, "I'm a black guy." Had anyone bothered to consult with someone who actually knew something about the religions in question, these stories would have quickly collapsed. As it was, Carlson and Hannity wound up looking like nitwits when the transparently false allegations were swatted down. In fact, Hannity made the mistake of actually talking to Jeremiah Wright, and promptly had his ass served to him.

It's disturbing that secular political hacks are allowed to define my religion (Obama and I are from the same denomination). Even more pernicious are the people like James Dobson or William Donohue who are given leeway to represent themselves as religious leaders when in fact they're nothing more than Republican party activists. This is a consistent pattern in the media: Dobson is not ordained, and to my knowledge, plays no greater role in the life of a congregation than simply showing up. Ditto Donohue. Many of the other "religious leaders" who get their mugs on television with alarming regularity are hardly any better. Pat Robertson gave up his ministerial credentials long ago to run for president. Jerry Falwell hasn't been a pastor in any meaningful sense in decades. Albert Mohler and Richard Land from the Southern Baptist Convention have a little more credibility – Mohler heads a Baptist seminary and Land works for the denomination. Even Jim Wallis, God bless him, has always been more of a writer and editor than a primary religious leader.

So we wind up talking about these mysterious "people of faith" rather than to them directly. Rev. Wright had a direct succinct answer to Sean Hannity: our congregation's values are directed at addressing the specific needs of our community, and if you don't understand that, you're an ignoramus. Had anyone spoken to the average person-in-the-pew, they might have talked about the ministry of Trinity, what it's done to transform its neighborhood. Or they might have spoken to someone from the Islamic schools Obama attended in Indonesia and found out they weren't so radical after all. Indeed that person probably wouldn't have much sympathy for Muslim extremists.

But of course such an interview wouldn't have scored the requisite political points.

The GOP depends on a simple narrative to keep its conservative Christian base in orbit: liberals hate faith, and they hate "people of faith." If it should come out that Democrats and Republicans actually look pretty similar in terms of religious representation, the narrative collapses. At that point, the vaunted "What's Wrong With Kansas?" hypothesis might kick in, and Republicans could lose "values voters" who begin to realize that their economic interests aren't being represented. It's quite a bit more complex than that, of course, but still. Losing control of the religion narrative could put a nasty little dent in the GOP machine.

You might expect, then, that I'd argue the "Dems should be friendlier to people of faith" line. But I actually disagree with that almost completely.

For one thing, it only reinforces a negative stereotype. Even if I believed that Democrats were hostile to people of faith, which I don't, I wouldn't talk about it in public. Why give a cheap shot free publicity?

Truth is, we have many wonderful religious people in the party. We should celebrate them and their presence with us. Though I make no endorsement of him, Obama is a good model. His faith is important to him, and so he talks about it. Jonathan Edwards' religion, by contrast, isn't front-and-center in the same way, and so he doesn't talk about it as much. That's great too. (Hillary, typically, is sincere and dedicated and absolutely hopeless at conveying that in anything resembling genuineness. That's bad.)

More important than the candidates, though, we need to push forward the experiences and beliefs of the average people. We need more pastors on television, fewer hacks with transparent agendas. (Not me. I'm ugly as a troll and twice as stupid.) Better yet, we need average, rank-and-file Democrats talking about their faith, their families, and their communities. A brief documentary interviewing delegates to Dem conventions around the country would do the trick marvelously. However we do it, we need to push our own very simple message: Democrats aren't so scary. They're people just like you.

For that reason, we need to push the flip side of the equation. Who else is not heard in the conversation on religion? Correct: atheists and secular folk.

Obama has done a great job of speaking as a person of faith from his tradition. He has done a much poorer job of representing Democrats who did not share his faith. He can come across as speaking to them, rather than with them. Many atheists I know think he was a scold in his speech at Wallis' Call to Renewal convention. Can't say that I blame them. The price of his failure to speak to atheists and secularists was an unnecessary and costly political battle. Nine months after the speech, Obama's only now making up ground with some folks, and others have written him off altogether.

In a sense, Democrats need to celebrate all people of faith – including those who have no faith.1 Speaking personally, though I may not agree with the assumptions of atheism – I really am a pastor – I can honor its passion, its thirst for justice and equity, and its ethical integrity. It's true that there are some really unpleasant atheists out there in the blogosphere. But you know what? There are some real a-hole Christians as well. "Everybody talking about heaven ain't going there," as the spiritual says.

I don't believe I'm the only person of faith with those opinions. Our society is becoming a more secular place, and despite the loudest voices heard in the media, most Christians are learning to live with it. It will be very difficult for atheists and secularists to raise their poll numbers above the levels typically seen by various forms of pond sludge, but it can be done. It's going to take some very brave people willing to go public about their beliefs – and many more to back them up whether or not they share those beliefs.

But when it really gets down to it, the great strength of the Democratic party is its diversity. We represent a much broader portion of society than the Republicans, on religious issues as on many others. That leads to many, many conversations pleasant enough to make you long for the days when drilling a hole in your own skull wasn't illegal. But it also leads to many conversations where ordinary people talk to one another across the highest of fences only to discover that they have far more in common than they ever imagined.

I don't know about you, but I've always thought that's what Democrats were all about. We are not a creedal organization, but one whose members are joined together by common cause. I hope and I pray then that we are able to sit down and talk with one another, for our own good, and the good of the nation.

1I realize that some people find calling atheism a "faith" insulting. I mean it only in the sense of a coherent worldview structuring moral beliefs, not in the sense that atheists hold a "positive belief" in the absence of God. I have a hard enough time defining my own faith, let alone somebody else's.

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Daniel Schultz is a pastor in the United Church of Christ and the co-founder of the weblog Street Prophets, where he still writes occasionally as "pastordan." He has contributed to many online sites and publications, most recently Religion Dispatches. Daniel is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He lives in rural Wisconsin with his wife and children.