"Obama's Religious Challenge," a Commentary by Jerome Eric Copulsky

December 7, 2006

Author: Jerome Eric Copulsky

Source: The Martin Marty Center


Last Friday, Barack Obama, the charismatic junior senator from Illinois and possible Democratic presidential hopeful, made news by speaking at an AIDS conference at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, one of the flagships of contemporary evangelicalism. To an audience of more than 2,000 evangelical leaders, the senator spoke movingly of his experiences in Africa, and set forth his vision for AIDS prevention and care in terms shaped decidedly by his Christian faith. Although Obama received a standing ovation, his invitation to Saddleback was met with hostility by some conservative Christians, who rebuked Warren for sharing his pulpit with a supporter of abortion rights.

Senator Obama's appearance at one of the most "mega" of American megachurches and his emphasis on his own religious convictions is not surprising. Back in June, in a spirited address to "Call to Renewal," a progressive faith-based movement, Obama testified to his own conversion and faith. Complaining that for too long Democrats have been uncomfortable with the conversation about religion, "fearful of offending anyone" or "dismiss[ing] religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant," Obama called for progressives "to acknowledge the power of faith in people's lives," and to "join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy."

Some Democrats hailed Obama's eloquent display of his faith. Others sharply criticized the senator for giving credence to Republican allegations that the Democrats are allergic to religion, or condemned him for pandering to the prejudices of the religious right, or claimed he was undermining the Democrats' commitment to secular governance.

Such praise and condemnation do not get to the heart of the matter. The question is not whether religious motivations are considered licit in the public sphere. The question is: How does one use religious arguments in the to-and-fro of democratic deliberation and policy formation? And it is here that the senator powerfully illuminates the Democrats', and liberalism's, religion problem.

After recognizing the "crucial role" that the separation of church and state has played in defending American democracy and fostering the vitality of religious practice, Obama remarked, "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 .... Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality."