Does Dobson Know Any Better?


James Dobson.jpgIn his radio broadcast today, James Dobson will unload on Barack Obama’s views on religion in the public square, according to a report by AP’s Eric Gorski, who has got hold of a copy. While we await the full text, here’s the most interesting of the reported portions:

Dobson reserved some of his harshest criticism for Obama’s argument that the religiously motivated must frame debates over issues like abortion not just in their own religion’s terms but in arguments accessible to all people.He said Obama, who supports abortion rights, is trying to govern by the “lowest common denominator of morality,” labeling it “a fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution.”

Dobson’s criticism is directed primarily at Obama’s speech at the United Church of Christ convention a year ago, and for the record, here’s the paragraph he’s referring to:

So let’s rededicate ourselves to a new kind of politics – a politics of conscience. Let’s come together – Protestant and Catholic, Muslim and Hindu and Jew, believer and non-believer alike. We’re not going to agree on everything, but we can disagree without being disagreeable. We can affirm our faith without endangering the separation of church and state, as long as we understand that when we’re in the public square, we have to speak in universal terms that everyone can understand. And if we can do that – if we can embrace a common destiny – then I believe we’ll not just help bring about a more hopeful day in America, we’ll not just be caring for our own souls, we’ll be doing God’s work here on Earth.

Of course Obama isn’t saying that the Constitution forbids Americans from publicly advocating a policy on sectarian ground, or “because the Bible says so.” He’s suggesting, hortatorily, that this is the right approach for religious people to take. The contrast between the right and the wrong approaches is laid out earlier in the speech:

So doing the Lord’s work is a thread that’s run through our politics since the very beginning. And it puts the lie to the notion that the separation of church and state in America means faith should have no role in public life. Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural without its reference to “the judgments of the Lord.” Or King’s “I Have a Dream” speech without its reference to “all of God’s children.” Or President Kennedy’s Inaugural without the words, “here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” At each of these junctures, by summoning a higher truth and embracing a universal faith, our leaders inspired ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things.
But somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and started being used to drive us apart. It got hijacked. Part of it’s because of the so-called leaders of the Christian Right, who’ve been all too eager to exploit what divides us. At every opportunity, they’ve told evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design. There was even a time when the Christian Coalition determined that its number one legislative priority was tax cuts for the rich. I don’t know what Bible they’re reading, but it doesn’t jibe with my version.

It’s easy to see why the speech got under Dobson’s skin. But the more intelligent response would have been to say: “Of course we believe that a religiously diverse American people must be appealed to on greater than sectarian grounds. But when Martin Luther King, Jr. was using religion to advance the cause of civil rights, there were a lot of folks on the other side who were also faithful churchgoers. And King was telling them that they weren’t being true to their professed faith–which indeed they weren’t. The point is, that’s what we’re saying about the profoundly important issues of abortion and traditional marriage. And I resent Obama’s suggestion that he approves of prophetic voices raised only for the issues of which he approves.”
I don’t think this is a winning argument. But it’s a lot better than “fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution.”