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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The President and Religion

By Michael De Dora
President Barack Obama’s religious beliefs, like almost everything else about the man and his policies, are under scrutiny. A recent Pew poll found that roughly 20 percent of Americans believe Obama is not a Christian, but a Muslim, while a whopping 43 percent claim to not know Obama’s religion. Soon after this poll, Glenn Beck charged that Obama practices a form a religion that is neither Christian, nor Muslim. The social drama went far enough to prompt the White House to release a rather weird statement asserting that “President Obama is a committed Christian, and his faith is an important part of his daily life. He prays every day, he seeks a small circle of Christian pastors to give him spiritual advice and counseling, he even receives a daily devotional that he uses each morning.”
To be sure, the way in which the public is “discussing” or “critiquing” the president’s religion is not ideal. There is clearly no good evidence that he is a Muslim, and a whole lot of good evidence he is a Christian. His liberal brand of Christianity is surely more widely practiced than Beck’s Mormonism. And the public’s focus on religious affiliation seems shortsighted, as mere affiliation to any religion does not imply anything about the sincerity of one’s belief or the level of one’s religiosity. Consider that both Sarah Palin and Barack Obama are Christians. You get the point (or should).
Yet does this mean a conversation about the President – not just Obama, but any President – and religion is worthless? Some people have answered “yes.” Several writers at The Washington Post’s On Faith section argue that the presidency is a secular job, and therefore a president’s religion should not be a matter of discussion. Other commentators have noted that the nation currently faces an enormity of serious challenges that are way more important than Obama’s religion.
Many proponents of the first argument cite the well-known 1960 speech given by then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy on his Catholicism, and more generally, church and state separation. In that speech, Kennedy said that, “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.”
Yet Obama considered this line of thought in his book The Audacity of Hope, and rejected it. In that book, Obama recalled the 2004 race for United States Senator from Illinois, in which he ran against radical Christian rightist Alan Keyes. During his time on the campaign trail, Keyes continually slammed Obama for his liberal religious views, even suggesting that “Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama” because of his record on abortion rights and equality for gays. Obama, winning handily (70 to 27 percent), was advised to ignore Keyes’ remarks. But Obama could not do that. He answered with what he said has come to be “the typically liberal response in such debates – namely, I said that we live in a pluralistic society, that I can’t impose my own religious views on another, that I was running to be U.S. Senator of Illinois and not the minister of Illinois.”
Yet this reply didn’t completely please Obama. He knew the answer “did not adequately address the role my faith has in guiding my own values and my own beliefs.” Obama had religious beliefs, and they influenced the way he interacted with the world – how he created legislation, voted on bills, and treated others. He couldn’t discount this. Obama wasn’t running for a position as a minister, but his religious beliefs did influence how he governed.
With this in mind, I certainly don’t disagree that the Presidency is a secular governmental position – in theory. That is, our lawmakers, judges, and presidents are sworn to serve the secular Constitution and the people, not their own Gods or holy books. But secularists too often forget that things are somewhat different in practice. Secularists might desire religion to be a private matter, but it is currently very public. Religion should not matter, but it does matter, because most Americans are religious (at least the ones being elected), and because any religious belief a person holds will likely influence their actions. As such, it ought not be ignored, but fully discussed.
The second argument is that it is of questionable importance to have a conversation about Obama’s religion because the country faces a range of more serious issues. Some of these more important concerns include: Afghanistan, Iraq, the economy, Wall Street, taxation, immigration, poverty, and gay marriage. For example, as David Schultz wrote, “the official unemployment rate is almost 10%. The real rate is more like 17%. I don't care if the President worships a goat.” What Schultz cares about is the president solving more pressing issues.
Personally, I would care mightily if our President worshiped a goat, but that is not the argument I am trying to make. Instead, two points need be considered.
First, it is hard to separate religious belief and policy, for very often religious belief shapes one’s policy. As Nathan Diament writes at the Post, “A person's faith commitment is a key window into their system of values and beliefs.” That is, a President’s religious beliefs might suggest how he or she will perform, and how dedicated he or she will be to the Constitution. For example, recall former President George W. Bush, while in office, made clear that he was governing the country with divine guidance (or so he thought): “I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job.” I cannot see where the sentiment behind this statement would not impact his policy decisions. Indeed, it was reported that Bush said the following in August 2003, after the United States had invaded Afghanistan and before it invaded Iraq:
“I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did. And then God would tell me 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.’ And I did. And now, again, I feel God’s words coming to me, ‘Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East.’ And, by God, I'm gonna do it.”
Or remember the Republican presidential candidate debate in 2008. Asked to raise their hands if they did not accept the scientific fact of evolution, four nominees did so. One of the four, Ron Paul, would later state that the question was “inappropriate” because the presidential election should “not be decided on a scientific matter.” Yet it is quite easy to see how one’s rejection of the the fundamental theory of the life sciences, and more generally his related rightist religious beliefs, would impact his policy decisions. Where would he stand on religion in the science classroom? Stem cells? Gay marriage? Abortion? The list goes on. The point is that the problems we face might actually have been largely caused or influenced by religious beliefs. The solution, in part at least, is to have a robust and honest discussion about them, not to push aside their impact.
Many write off Bush as some weird twist of fate, never to be repeated. The same people might also dismiss Paul as having no chance at the presidency. But Bush and Paul are not the exceptions many think them to be. Very often politicians in high-ranking positions publicly declare their religious beliefs in the political realm, defending their politics based on religious beliefs. Even Obama does this, albeit less often than Bush.
Which brings me to the second, related, point. I agree with Schultz that the nation currently faces more important matters than Obama’s religious beliefs. But this is because Obama’s religious beliefs are benign compared to Bush’s. Yes, Obama’s religious beliefs do play a role in his policymaking – his position on gay marriage, for one – and they ought to be discussed. But Obama is not steeped in religiosity like Bush. He is a rather secular, liberal Christian President. I agree there are more important issues to worry about, yet keep in mind that this conversation would be completely different if someone like Bush – or Sarah Palin – were in office. The President’s religion matters insofar as how religious he or she is and the nature of their religiosity.


  1. Like many posts on this blog, this one seems to me to be rank anti-republicanism veiled as high-minded truth-seeking. (Not that I am any type of fan of the republican party.) While I was excited about the topic, the post itself is a long-winded apologia on behalf of Obama for being yet another politician who is either devoutly religious (bad) or pretending to be such for political gain (bad).

    I do understand and agree with your point that Obama is less likely to govern based on religious delusion. However, I'm confused as to why you chose the path of defending Obama after releasing a statement on religion that could have been penned by George Bush himself (if he could write, har har). No matter which way you dice it, the statement is indefensible, and evidences a man (and/or an administration) which should not be trusted to makes good decisions.

  2. There is an issue that puzzles me. I think it's well understood by most of us that in a religious country like ours, a presidential candidate openly stating that he's an atheist wouldn't really have a chance at winning an election. It's also quite clear that politicians lie. People lie in general, and politicians, I'm sure, lie more than non-politicians.

    Then why does everyone believe Obama when he says he's a Christian?

  3. Val Schuman said..."a presidential candidate openly stating that he's an atheist wouldn't really have a chance at winning an election."

    Nor would a candidate openly stating that he's a liar.

    A candidate may be a liar and/or atheist, and may be so openly or not in either case.

    Its a trade-off. Some people (like me) will deduct points for both magical thinking and lying.

    Everyone will add or deduct points for either according to their own biases.

    I think the majority of the electorate is biased towards explicit declarations of faith and tacit dishonesty.

    You might as well not run for office unless you can and will toe that line.

    Poor Richard

    Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

  4. The demand for politicians to keep religious beliefs out of their decisions can be seen as either (1) insane, or (2) perfectly reasonable, depending on how we're going to interpret "beliefs."

    If we're talking about *actual* beliefs (i.e., expectations of future experiences), then asking anyone to keep their beliefs out of their decisions is totally incoherent. If I believe Iran is building nukes, that should impact my decisions. If I believe nuclear war will trigger the end times, that should impact my decisions.

    If we're talking about *profession* of belief (aka community membership), then the call for keeping your religion out of your decisions makes perfect sense. Obama is a part of the special interest group "Christians," so we ask that he not show favouritism toward their cause in his capacity as President - that would be a conflict of interest. It's the same as demanding that he not give Chicago or Honolulu any special consideration over and above other American cities.

    The wars between religious liberals and religious conservatives have this belief/profession distinction as the elephant in the room.

    Liberal religion *tacitly* recognizes that 99% of religion is really profession & community membership, so it makes sense for liberals to call for the separation.

    Note how this also makes sense of other liberal memes about religion: "all faiths teach basically the same thing" (communities should reach out to each other), "my beliefs are just as good as yours" (I'm sure your community is also worthy of respect), "fundamentalists are too literal" (they actually believe).

    Meanwhile, conservative religion still emphasizes belief-as-anticipation. Asking conservative faithful to "separate" their religion from their politics is like asking them to separate their knowledge of geography from their politics. Patently insane.

  5. Glad to hear this said, since it is bound to be unpopular. Of course in America we cannot yet separate a person's religion or lack of it from that person's philosophy and weltenschauung, we cannot separate philosophy and understanding from decisions, and we cannot separate decisions from leadership. Clearly, it bothers the fundamentalist Christian to see a liberal Christian in the White House as much as it bothers the secular humanist to see a fundamentalist of any religion there. About the only option that wouldn't bother me would be to see an atheist there, but that won't happen for a century, if then.

    I think an answer might lie in the birth of new political parties, which may be where we are headed over the next quarter century. The Republican party seems likely to split and only prevents that separation by its fear of further loss of power. I'm not sure they will be able to rope all those goats for another eight years.

    The force of external pressures from global economics to climate change to resource issues will further the transition to a truly multi-party system. It is my hope that the tea party will declare itself and field its own presidential candidate--not for the obvious reason, which is that I hope it will weaken itself by doing so, but because I hope that opens the door to some reshuffling of party composition altogether. How gratifying if there were also some names adopted that better reflect the philosophies of the parties, but that--in the land of pro-choice v. pro-life--would be too much integrity to hope for.

  6. @Ian Pollock, thanks for the reply. I'd never before considered the *profession* of beliefs as you describe in this context.

  7. @Val, you wrote:

    "Then why does everyone believe Obama when he says he's a Christian?"

    Mainly because he's spoken about it so much than it's hard to doubt he's being real. He's done more than a cursory mention. He's a rather secular and liberal religionist, and the degree to which he is religious is important, but he is a religionist nonetheless.

  8. @Duke, you wrote:

    "... I'm confused as to why you chose the path of defending Obama after releasing a statement on religion that could have been penned by George Bush himself (if he could write, har har). No matter which way you dice it, the statement is indefensible, and evidences a man (and/or an administration) which should not be trusted to makes good decisions."

    Judging from all of the other things I've read and seen from Obama, I don't think it's fair to take one statement and suggest he's anywhere near as religious as Bush. I also wouldn't take one statement on a matter important to his public image as evidence he's not to be trusted to make good decisions.


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