In the past, Barack Obama has shown a fairly sophisticated understanding of the role of faith and politics. In his June 26, 2006, Call to Renewal speech, for example, Obama argued that Democrats should both support separation of church and state and be more welcoming of the proper role of faith in the public square. Obama also referred to his opponent in his 2004 Senate race, Alan Keyes. Toward the end of that campaign, Keyes had declared that “Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama.” In his 2006 speech, Obama argued:
Now, I was urged by some of my liberal supporters not to take this statement seriously, to essentially ignore it . . . what they didn’t understand, however, was that I had to take Mr. Keyes seriously, for he claimed to speak for my religion, and my God. He claimed knowledge of certain truths. Mr. Obama says he’s a Christian, he was saying, and yet he supports a lifestyle that the Bible calls an abomination. Mr. Obama says he’s a Christian, but supports the destruction of innocent and sacred life. And so what would my supporters have me say? How should I respond? . . . I answered with what 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 the U.S. Senator of Illinois and not the Minister of Illinois. But Mr. Keyes’s implicit accusation that I was not a true Christian nagged at me.
Obama concluded his speech by telling of a thoughtful letter he had received from a pro-life doctor who objected to some incendiary language that was posted on Obama’s website, but which Obama, to his credit, had removed. Obama, saying he felt a “pang of shame,” concluded his speech by saying that that night, he said a prayer of his own—”a prayer that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me.”
I point out all this because of what Obama said in a call to religious leaders to generate support for ObamaCare. Obama accused his critics of “bearing false witness.” Obama went on to say: “These are all fabrications that have been put out there in order to discourage people from meeting what I consider to be a core ethical and moral obligation: that is that we look out for one another, that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper. In the wealthiest nation on earth right now, we are neglecting to live up to that call.”
In a different phone call, with 1,000 rabbis, Obama is quoted as saying, “I am going to need your help in accomplishing necessary reform. . . . We are God’s partners in matters of life and death.”
There are two issues to untangle in all this. The first is that, in accusing his critics of “bearing false witness,” Obama draws attention to his own hypocrisy. The president has repeatedly made false statements about his health-care plan—about what it would cost, what its consequences would be, the Medicare cuts it would entail, and the commitments and endorsements he has received. The president has every right to insist that his opponents are accurate when making criticisms of his plans, and some of them haven’t been. But Obama, who occupies the most powerful office in the world, has an obligation to tell the truth as well—and Obama’s record on this matter is disquieting and even alarming.
The second issue has to do with Obama’s attempt to use religious language to advance a political end—in this case, the nationalization of American health care. I welcome politicians making moral arguments informed by their religious faith, though these arguments should be based on reason, subject to scrutiny, and accessible to those who don’t share one’s faith. Lincoln on slavery is a model of this.
Where Obama is getting into dangerous territory is when he takes a biblical injunction—we have a moral obligation to care for one another—and strongly implies that his health-care plan has God’s imprimatur. It is one thing to think theologically about public matters; it is quite another to describe what the right “Christian position” is. The temptation for people of faith who are in politics is to enunciate a principle—justice, compassion, peace, the rights and dignity of the individual, stewardship of the earth—and simplistically connect the dots, as if the principle itself easily translates into an obvious policy. It rarely does. And those who play this game create all sorts of confusion.
The purpose of Obama’s call to religious leaders was to create an implicit syllogism: if you love God and your neighbor, you will support ObamaCare. If Obama does not believe this, he has a responsibility to say so. Because as it now stands, based on the context of his comments (which was to urge those leaders to work on behalf of his health-care plan), this is a reasonable inference.
Some of us have criticized the Religious Right for making precisely this error—for portraying complex policy questions as ones for which there is only one obvious and “godly” answer; for denying that people of goodwill can disagree on which policies advance the common good; and for portraying those who hold differing views as cartoon figures driven by questionable or corrupt motives. This mindset is what Senator Obama warned against—but something that President Obama seems eager to embrace.
Engaged in a fierce public debate, with support for his health-care plans plummeting, Obama is jettisoning the subtlety and careful parameters about which he once spoke. He denies to others the presumption of good faith he once sought. One can only hope he feels a pang of shame at what he is doing—and that he pulls back before he creates a divisive and ugly conflict among people of faith.