Christianity,  Politics

Obama and Religion

In today’s Wall Street Journal, William McGurn praises Senator Barack Obama for a speech that he delivered two years ago on religion and public life. In the speech, Obama rebuked liberals for pushing religious opinions out of the public square. Obama’s take on religion sounds pretty positive, and McGurn’s take on the speech is therefore pretty upbeat as well. You can read Obama’s speech here: “One Nation . . . Under God?

I remember when Obama delivered that speech, and I remember that despite its rhetoric it actually suggests a way of engaging in the public discourse that would silence religious opinions in the public square. Here’s the relevant passage from Obama’s speech:

“Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”

In other words, Obama supports the right of religious people to have religious opinions. But when religious people bring their opinions into the public square, they must argue from the premises of secularism. Obama privileges secularism by laying groundrules that exclude religious arguments at the outset.

I think this is a mistake and would recommend instead the prescription that Dr. Albert Mohler gives in his new book Culture Shift: Engaging Current Issues with Timeless Truth. In chapter 4, Mohler sets forth “Five Theses” concerning Christian morality and public law (pp. 23-27). His theses are decidedly non-Rawlsian, and they are right on the money. Here they are:

1. A liberal democracy must allow all participants in the debate to speak and argue from whatever worldviews or convictions they possess.

2. Citizens participating in public debate over law and public policy should declare the convictional for their arguments.

3. A liberal democracy must accept limits on secular discourse even as it recognizes limits on religious discourse.

4. A liberal democracy must acknowledge the commingling of religious and secular arguments, religious and secular motivations, and religious and secular outcomes.

5. A liberal democracy must acknowledge and respect the rights of all citizens, including its self-consciously religious citizens.

Dr. Mohler wrote about Obama’s speech two years ago, and you can read his remarks here. Senator Obama’s speech is available at the Sojourners website.


  • scott

    the quote you included from Obama seems very reasonable and practical. i am surprised you find issue with it. Obama is not suggesting that we not use religious reasons in public, just that we shouldn’t rely on them alone for our whole argument. we must also create an argument that is accessible to those who don’t share our religious convictions. i don’t see any inconsistency between Obama’s statement and Mohler’s.

  • Andrew

    I don’t know if this helps or hurts his cause, but Obama went on in his 2006 ‘Call to Renewal’ keynote address to actually disagree with his former position that you have referenced above. The link with the speech is below. The relevant quote is in the first 1/3 of the speech. Look around where he states, “Unwilling to go there, I answered with the typically liberal response in some debates – namely, that we live in a pluralistic society, that I can’t impose my religious views on another, that I was running to be the U.S. senator of Illinois and not the Minister of Illinois.

    But Mr. Keyes implicit accusation that I was not a true Christian nagged at me, and I was also aware that my answer didn’t adequately address the role my faith has in guiding my own values and beliefs.”


  • Lucas Knisely

    This sentence is the problem with Obama’s quote:

    I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.</i

    Obama is a tricky fellow. He is trying to make the religious folks happy but not forgetting to stroke the egos of the anti-religious bigots who attempt to force religion out of every corner they can.

    A principle that is accessible to people of all faiths and even those with no faith at all. Read that and really think about what it says. A Christian has to somehow become a magician to transform the principle that we are all created in God’s image into a universal principle that even a staunch atheist would accept. This is, in effect, removing religion from the public square and having neutered conversations/debates about what should be il/legal.

    I’m continually convinced that Obama is a deceiver through charged rhetoric. He confuses the listener with double talk and in the above example he hopes that both an atheist and a Christian would hear that speech and feel satisfied in some way.

  • Quixote

    Uh, can Obama point to something non-religious that shows that murder is wrong? Can Obama point to something that shows child-abuse is wrong, without using his Bible or religious beliefs? Puhlease!

    This AGAIN shows that these people do NOT believe that abortion is MURDER. If it be murder, then there need not be any Bible to prove it illegal and wrong. Our current laws would do. (BUT, Senator Obama, it might do you good to realize that our current laws are fundamentally based on the 10 Commandments…which you and your ilk are trying to remove from courthouses nationwide.) Ick.

  • Tim Nussbaumer

    I could be reading it wrong but it looks like he is simply talking about persuasion. What he says would be true of anyone who is trying to persuade others of their position. If we have a Biblical conviction, it would make sense that we wouldn’t quote the Bible to back up our point in trying to convince the atheist. Having said that, I do take issue with his “Democracy demands” statement. The very premise of democracy says that it doesn’t demand a particular framework of argument. In this regard, I think Mohler is much more clear and compelling.

  • Alando Franklin

    Absolutely Amazing!!

    Denny, I thought you were going to be fair, but I should have known better until I had read your full post.

    Sometimes commenters of this site remind me of a staunch Republican @ the office who can see no good in those of the opposite party. If a Democrat saved a man from drowning, he would still point out how the Democrat tore the mans shirt while pulling him out of the water.

    BTW, I’ve supported the Bush administration his entire tenure, primarily because I am commanded to in Scripture(Rom. 13), not that I consider him to be the most credible or reliable person at this point.

  • Adam Omelianchuk

    A lot of commentators, even religiously motivated ones, argue in such a fashion that their beliefs will hold up under secular guidelines. See especially _Embryo_ by Robert P. George and that other guy. You can hold your views based on the Bible, but why should you expect your views to be accepted by a society that has rejected it? Obama shouldn’t make the mistake that we ought to all develop a wall of separation between church in state in our minds, but we shouldn’t believe that we will be taken seriously if we hold views based on this that are rejected a priori.

  • Yvette


    Is the Beckwith book “Defending Life”? Sorry for quotation marks. I’m not blog savvy enough to know how to do italics.

  • MatthewS

    italics are easy to do

    Remember to start AND STOP them, though.

    The above sentence looks like this (except in this example I have put spaces in between the angle braces and the characters inside the braces):
    italics are easy to do

    (Further information: These are called “HTML Tags.” HTML tags are angle braces that have a letter or a word inside them that tells the browser, such as Internet Explorer, something about the text. Tags usually start with braces that include the command, and end with braces that include forward slash and then the command repeated.)

  • Matthew

    Obama’s speech reeks of the secular worldview that religion is okay as long as you keep it at home, like a hobby.

  • MatthewS

    I find point #1 thought-provoking.

    However, it seems there ought to be a way for an entire religion or tradition to be tried and found repugnant – Sharia law, for example. But then again, if this is allowed, what stops that very mechanism from condemning Evangelical Christianity? But if it is not allowed, on what basis does a community condemn honor killings or stonings or other such practices arising from Sharia-like traditions?

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