If “Gimme That Old Time Religion” isn’t Barack Obama’s campaign song yet, it should be. After starting July by endorsing an Obamized version of George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative, St. Barack then appeared praying atop Newsweek in a cover story entitled “What He Believes” and announced a pending joint appearance with John McCain at the megachurch of Purpose Driven Life-author Rick Warren.
Who could have guessed that once a black man secured the nomination of a major party, religion rather than race would dominate the national conversation?
Is Obama a closet Muslim or an apostle of Reverend Wrong, Jeremiah Wright? For James Dobson, Obama’s a nothingarian; for the Huffington Post, he’s a panderer to born-again Christians “blurring…the line between Church and State.” Even theologically speaking, Obama’s the Rorschach-test candidate. Newsweek, a booster paper for the candidate, portrayed him as “a seeker” on a “spiritual quest.” “He sometimes reads the Bible in the evenings,” the weekly’s readers learn, and his family says grace at the dinner table. Rather than “What He Believes,” the inane piece emphasizes only that he has faith—in something. Obama’s posture as a believer is part effective damage control of the crude Internet rumor claiming Obama’s allegiance to Islam, and part shrewd campaign tactic of making a play for once stalwart-Republican evangelicals. Obama walks a religious balancing act of identifying with the electorate’s vast majority of believers without alienating them by stating what it is that he believes. Like Micky Dolenz, Barack’s a believer.
So what, precisely, are Senator Barack Obama’s religious beliefs? Like most people, he is not exactly sure. Deciphering the maze of at times vague, at times contradictory, professions to discover what Barack Obama believes is as difficult a task as interpreting his opponent’s relative silence on religious questions. The faith that ultimately emerges is as much a political as a religious creed: adherence to a social gospel that focuses upon man and not God, a flirtation with the millenialist delusion that the earth can be made a heaven through human agency, and a devotion to state intrusion into the operation of successful religiously-based social services.
Senator Obama is not your father’s liberal. He is your great-grandfather’s liberal. In fact, rather than Bible-Belt pandering, Obama’s endorsement of national funding for local faith-based initiatives, for instance, meshes well with his past campaign-trail pronouncements. He has separated himself from the Left’s recent hostility to religion and connected himself to a deeper, though more distant, tradition on the Left that tethered politics to religion. Obama’s rhetoric suggests a familiarity with that tradition.
“[S]ecularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square,” Obama boldly announced in a soaring and conciliatory 2006 address. “Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King—indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history—were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
The remark astounds not only in its departure from liberal orthodoxy, but in its use of boilerplate—conservative boilerplate—in making the case that our laws stem from our ethics and morality, which often stem from the great religions of Western Civilization. It’s not just that Obama blazes a trail distinct from the current Left’s; it’s that he returns to the long-established path of the American Left—from Bible Communists to social gospel preachers to civil rights activists—that holds the Bible as an aid and not an obstacle to liberal progress.
This mixture of religion with politics is no feigned election year conversion. “We’re going to keep on praising together,” Barack Obama told a megachurch congregation in Greenville, South Carolina last fall. “I am confident that we can create a Kingdom right here on earth.”
During the primary fight with Hillary Clinton, the Illinois senator extended religious voters an open hand rather than a clenched fist. “My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want,” the candidate was block-quoted in campaign literature targeting Kentucky primary voters. “But I won’t be fulfilling God’s will unless I go out and do the Lord’s work.” Atop the brochure, “Faith” prefixes the more familiar campaign catchwords of “Hope” and “Change.” The flier pronounces Obama a “Committed Christian.”
But Obama’s landmark July 1 speech in Zanesville, Ohio, endorsing church-state partnerships may signal to Frankenstein that his monster has begun to turn on him. “I believe that change comes not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques,” Obama held in announcing support for an expansion of President Bush’s multibillion dollar Faith-Based and Community Initiative. “That’s why Washington needs to draw on them. The fact is, the challenges we face today—from saving our planet to ending poverty—are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck.”
“Abandon ship!,” principled evangelicals must be thinking. The religious restoration Obama speaks of does nothing to curb abortion, protect traditional marriage, or allow religious expression in public places. Instead, it seeks to integrate religious voters into traditional Democratic Party interest-group politics. This would reduce evangelical Christians to the level of the party’s ethnic- and gender-based factions that seek their pound of the taxpayer’s flesh and are temporarily satiated with token appointments for their members. What does it profit a man to retaineth his principles but loseth a federal grant?
Though the presumptive Democratic nominee complains that the Bush administration politicized its Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Obama’s Zanesville, Ohio speech—peppered with references to such hard-Left ideological groups as Children’s Defense Fund and Let Justice Roll—reveals this accusation against Bush to be a projection of his own plans.
Indeed, the Illinois senator knows of what he speaks. Obama cut his teeth in politics by steering government funds to “community organizers”—a euphemism for professional leftists—who use that money to badger the government for more funds. After graduating from Columbia, where he spent three months working for the Naderite NYPIRG that specializes in siphoning money from college student fees, Obama journeyed to Chicago, where, in the tradition of Jane Addams, Saul Alinsky, and Jesse Jackson, he excelled at shaking down the government for the benefit of charities whose main donor was the Illinois taxpayer. Indeed, in the Southside of Chicago Obama led the Calumet Community Religious Conference, a taxpayer shakedown organization affiliated with local Catholic churches, precisely the kind of outfit likely to see a windfall from Obama’s new-and-allegedly-improved faith-based initiative—creating one, two, many Obamas.
When America’s leading liberal remonstrates his flock “to understand that Americans are a religious people,” religious people naturally find the words refreshing. But religious conservatives should be careful of what they wish for. A “religious Left,” as the Reverend Jeremiah Wright has demonstrated, can be as problematic for conservatives as a “religious Right” has been for liberals.
Dangers involve falling for what Eric Voeglin called “immanentizing the eschaton,” but the anti-sesquipedalian understands as the delusion that man can make it “on earth as it is in heaven.” From Robert Owen prophesying a “New Jerusalem,” a “millennium state of existence,” and “the second creation of humanity” at the New Harmony commune, to John Reed seeing in Soviet Russia “a kingdom more bright than any heaven had to offer,” to Jim Jones ominously preaching to the people of the People’s Temple, “There’s no heaven up there! We’ll have to have heaven down here!,” attempts at ushering in heaven on earth have generally ended with earth resembling a more fiery afterlife destination. Ends so glorious can’t help but rationalize means so horrific.
Of course, Obama’s pulpit gaffe hoping to “create a Kingdom here on earth” does not mean we are headed for a fate similar to that of the underlings of the aforementioned secular millennialists. It is just that leftists present who haven’t learned from the worst mistakes of leftists past call their own judgment into question. In an environment less frenzied than the South Carolina Sunday service where he uttered his unfortunate words regarding building an earthly “Kingdom,” Obama relayed to Newsweek, “I don’t believe that the Kingdom of God is attainable on earth without God’s intervention, and without God’s return through Jesus Christ, but I do believe in improvement.” That’s certainly an improvement on his earlier thoughts.
As Obama’s stump speeches and community activism demonstrate, the presumptive Democrat nominee is a latter-day adherent of the social gospel, that turn-of-the-last-century phenomenon that attempted to save people through do-gooder projects but neglected to save souls through ministration. Any variant of the social gospel inevitably results in more social, less gospel. Though it’s easy for a person to call for external reform through, say, an equitable redivision of wealth, it’s more difficult for a person to spiritually reform himself. A religious movement fixated on the temporal and what others should do quickly loses sight of the spiritual and the heavy lifting one must do oneself. This is how religion becomes ideology. It secularizes Christianity as it retains the fanaticism, self-righteousness, and dogmatism of the true believer. Who then, but the same modern-day heathens who doubt global warming or stand athwart gay marriage, could oppose federal funding of charitable good deeds in the form of Obama’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships? An obsession with the material necessarily neglects the spiritual. As the Apostles defensively put it in Acts, “It is not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.”
The violation of the principle of church-state separation generally advocated by religious liberals such as Illinois’s junior senator involves not the church intruding into the government’s sphere, but the government intruding into the church’s sphere. Purse-strings make independent institutions dependent. By rewarding the success of private endeavors with public money, Obama, like the man he wishes to replace, displays his ignorance of what made such groups successful in the first place. The statist’s impulse to socialize whatever works is a way for the state to kill the competition. Indeed, the success of private entities, such as church schools, hospitals, and charities, is a threat to the state. As religiously-oriented charities work worse and worse under government control, the rationalization for greater government control intensifies. Anyone paying attention can certainly envision the slightest of federal funds rationalizing court orders for abortion from religiously-affiliated hospitals, the ordination of women within orthodox sects, and gay marriages in churches that frown upon homosexual acts. Leave to Caesar what it is Caesar’s.
In the wake of Madalyn Murray O’Hare, Michael Newdow, and Michael Moore, it would be understandable for observers to confuse atheism for a component of modern liberalism. But from free love to communes to pacific resistance to the civil rights movement, the Bible has inspired a multitude of ventures in the history of the American Left. A Left with God on its side is no less a Left than the Left with Michael Moore, Madeline Murray O’Hare, and Michael Newdow on its side.
Barack Obama boasts that he will “transform” America through his presidency. Rather than win America over to the radicalism he imbibed from working for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), hanging out with former Weathermen, or listening to eighteen years of Reverend Wright’s sermons, Obama is far more likely to return segments of the Left to its religious roots, or at least make it more tolerable for a Christian Left to operate within the Left.
Perhaps in doing so he will transform the Right as well. That would be a welcome development given what has transpired over the last eight years. A Christian Right that applauds the federal government for providing marriage training, urges Washington to fund local abstinence-education programs, scrambles for faith-based initiative manna, and embraces identity politics (think Harriet Miers) hurts Christianity and conservatism. When it is a liberal Democrat doling out the welfare funds to selected churches and playing identity politics with evangelicals, the harm will be much easier to see. Perhaps Obama will help the Right to get religion, too.
Daniel J. Flynn is the author of A Conservative History of the American Left and blogs at www.flynnfiles.com.
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