The President made a connection between his personal beliefs as a Christian and his executive decisions last week at the National Prayer Breakfast. That part of his speech has enraged some conservative Christian voters, who have made some pretty vitriolic statements in response. The offensive piece of prose:
And when I talk about shared responsibility, it’s because I genuinely believe that in a time when many folks are struggling, at a time when we have enormous deficits, it’s hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income, or young people with student loans, or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone. And I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed, and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually think that’s going to make economic sense.
But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that “for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.” It mirrors the Islamic belief that those who’ve been blessed have an obligation to use those blessings to help others, or the Jewish doctrine of moderation and consideration for others.
Given the context, it is a little bit surprising that some Christians were so upset with the President expressing his spiritual inspiration. When you look at the core values that are challenged, the reasons behind the outrage are more understandable and predictable.
After reviewing some of the rhetoric against the president on Red State, several examples in this article from Huffingtonpost, and at Christianity Today, it is apparent that some Christians took offense to not just the Presidents mention of the word “tax” and the quotation from the Bible, but to the mere fact that he claimed to be a Christian. They thought that he was faking his spiritual belief system, that he was lying.
There are about 38,000 different denominations of Christianity the last time anyone tried to count. As big as that number is, it could not possibly cover all of the splits of congregations, differences of personalities, flavors of denominations, and nuances of belief systems that happen beyond the formal denominational organizations. New Christian churches are formed all the time. Some Christian churches offer “salvation”, some do no such thing. Some believe the Bible is a literal directive from God, others do not believe it should be taken literally; a broad spectrum of biblical interpretations exist under the “Christian” umbrella. Conservatives do not have a monopoly on Christianity, but some are either unaware or ignoring the fact that there are millions of progressive Christians; the spectrum of political ideology for Christians is as varied as the population. Millions of Christians applaud Obama’s statement about being inspired by Jesus’ comments about the poor; the meaning and context ring true.
A very vocal minority of Christians do not accept this fact of diversity within their own religion. They believe that most people who call themselves Christian are not actually Christian. They have established their own requirements for being a Christian, then feel free to become judge and jury of someone else’s ability to uphold those requirements. Their view is one of religious intolerance. There is no problem with this viewpoint, they are allowed to think to themselves about the salvation of anyone they please, but once they enter the public political arena, their argument for intolerance is simply not in line with our country’s reputation for religious freedom. The vitriol over this mention of Jesus and taxes by Obama demonstrates why we cannot nationally favor any one style of religion. For those that can’t grasp this, they have not learned their American history or they are not interested in the principles of the foundation of this country.
These religious absolutists behave this way because they are operating under a moral authority bestowed to them – they believe – by God. This is consistent with the top conservative value of authority. When a person can claim that God is on their side, all logic and reason falls by the way side; it’s like holding the ace of the trump suit. No matter what anyone else argues, the answer can boil down to “God told me so”. Two sides that only have that simplistic argument going for them, are in for a battle – there’s no room for anything else. This also helps explain why conservatives have a reputation for citing God’s favor in an “embattled” situation whether you are talking about actual war or a football game. When you decide to literally or figuratively go to battle, lots and lots of the normal rules of religion no longer apply for some people, you are excused from killing, lying, cheating, stealing – all is fair, right? This is hard to religiously justify this suspension of Christian (or any other) principles, unless of course you can claim an exemption that comes from the deity itself.
The rule in this country is that we get to choose what we believe as well as getting to label ourselves however we like. You can’ targue against someone’s personal belief systems or their values – they are the one and only expert in that field, it’s their beliefs. If you want to debate personal religious beliefs, you can do it in religious forums, spiritual gatherings, all kinds of places, that is what religious freedom means, but it is not anywhere close to objective news.
The fact that someone who is used as a contributor for CNN, Erick Erickson of RedState.com, tries to argue theology against the President’s own personal belief statements, is a statement in itself on how vocal this minority manages to be in a new source that wants to be seen as objective. (Click here and start watching at 3:39 to hear some pretty harsh quotes from Mr. Erickson.) It does not reflect well on CNN, nor the state of our news media today. To suggest that such a narrow view of Christianity should be imposed on a figurehead of this country is to admit that one does not align with the intentions of the founders of this nation. Part of political framing is having the ability to call someone out when their lines of reasoning are inconsistent. The ultimate question is, by what authority do we govern this country? We have enough interpretations of the Constitution to deal with, do we really, as a country, also want to figure in the plethora of biblical interpretations as well? We established this country on the Constitution and the idea of religious freedom, do we really want to move in the direction of specifying religious correctness?
This sort of authoritarian militant behavior is difficult if not impossible to deal with from the point of view of having a political conversation. The best solution is to support a more democratic media to discover lots of varying voices, but if you find yourself engaging with someone you find entrenched in their position it’s best to head straight for core values. Someone as upset as this guy– seething with anger – his political take will be evident (chances are that he is a conservative – see yesterday’s post). I would ask him what exactly makes him so upset – chances are he would spit out a barrage of offenses and accusations. You can try to slow someone down to answer each accusation, but the more effective message is, “and you have a right to your religious opinion just like the rest of us.” Hearing this often enough sometimes helps them realize that the issue (frame) is not other people’s salvation, the frame is about the freedom to believe what you want. If that doesn’t “take”, harkening to each other’s values sometimes connects. You could say, “I know that feeling of being the ultimate authority is really important to you, I simply don’t put the same high value of authority on your interpretation.”, if you want to relate as a fellow Christian – or even a secular fellow human – you could even say, “I connect more with Jesus’ message of compassion and love”. If you get that far with someone who is that upset about religion, congratulations! It is an accomplishment to keep your cool and have civil talk in this instance.
Zooming out, the other big question is, why do we have a national prayer breakfast? Why do we have public prayer in government? Why do we allow “God” to be part of our governing rhetoric? In my view it is inconsistent with the separation of church and state. It is impossible to please all of the religious people all of the time, and even if you could, you would be excluding the non-religious people. These are obviously big questions with explosive implications. We have gone down the path of “kinda” incorporating religion into our governing, as can be seen in the latest hubub around birth control; even when religion is not favored, it is seen as a religious statement. Our government entanglement with religion is part of our history, it is simply a fact. When talking about it, remember that we all need our beliefs to be respected – no matter how far out there they may seem – insults only build the case for the “other side”. Often staying calm and respectful is enough of a demonstration of spiritual health, that the tone will shift and before you know it, you may be able to have a civilized conversation.
The full transcript and video of speech is here from The Washington Post.