Religiously Motivated Must Translate Their Concerns into Universal Values

Sen. Barack Obama delivered what Andrew Sullivan called “the finest public speech on religion in public life in years”. Here’s the link. I agree it’s good. I’ve been thinking about this after reading Stephen Carter’s book God’s Name in Vain (which I don’t recommend). Obama hits the mark with these grafs:

Each day, it seems, thousands of Americans are going about their daily rounds – dropping off the kids at school, driving to the office, flying to a business meeting, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets – and they’re coming to the realization that something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough.

They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They’re looking to relieve a chronic loneliness, a feeling supported by a recent study that shows Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than ever before. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them – that they are not just destined to travel down that long highway towards nothingness….

In fact, because I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality, I would rather have someone who is grounded in morality and ethics, and who is also secular, affirm their morality and ethics and values without pretending that they’re something they’re not. They don’t need to do that. None of us need to do that.

But what I am suggesting is this – secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, 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….

This brings me to my second point. 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. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what’s possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It’s the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.

7 comments on “Religiously Motivated Must Translate Their Concerns into Universal Values
  • I don’t know why it should be difficult for evangelical Christians, or anyone who believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, to understand that to apply the wisdom of the Bible to practical matters, and for that wisdom to be transmitted to non-believers, that it must stand on more than “Because God says so.” That is good enough for me (usually), but to expect that it is good enough for someone who doesn’t hold my religious views, is ludicrous, bordering on the insane.

    I am constantly surprised by the techno-democrats assertions that the Christian right is as blindly fanatical as we hear the radical Muslims are. We believe that God has a purpose with this world, these people (All of them, starting with the Jews, and then with the gentiles), and this life. A personal God, who created each one of us on purpose, knows each of us completely, and loves each of us unconditionally. That is the God the Bible teaches.

    But an argument can only stand on the authority of scripture if both participants recognize that authority. Otherwise, the wisdom proclaimed may be just as correct, the authority of scripture just as true in reality, but if my fellow debator does not recognize, no argument based on a biblical foundation will stand in her eyes. And isn’t that the point?

    So, yes, I agree, the truths of religion must be translated to universal values if they are to be spread. And I believe the majority of them are. But the Bible is primarily concerned with the relationship between each individual and God, through Jesus Christ. And much of the background for this relationship is available only through scripture. And when the truth of scripture coincides with a person’s own life experience (I am not fulfilled by my work, my wife, my success, whatever) that person begins to ascribe more credence to the message of the bible. We call it salvation, and it is a universal need, as well as a universal gift from the Lord.

  • Do you mean “universal” values or “widely held” values? There are no universally held values. Anything anyone claims is a value, I am confident I can find someone who claims it is evil, and believes so as strongly as the former.

    And if you mean widely held – well, Christians have already won that, haven’t they?

    So what are you really saying? In whose terms do the religiously motivated need to justify their positions?

    I’d also claim that politics does not seem to be about rational persuasion. It’s about (a) raw exercise of power and (b) emotional persuasion. So, shouldn’t they justify their positions in terms of how people “feel” about things?

  • I think there are universal values. It doesn’t matter if someone thinks as strongly that it’s evil — we have to accept the fact that some values are better than others.

  • It’s tough to develop criteria we all can agree on but it’s possible. The UN has a “universal list of human rights” — Iran might not agree with it, but it doesn’t make the list any less valid, as most nations and people endorse it.

    It’s impossible to justify values as universal through any logical means, which makes the process as irrational as Christianity. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use our intuition to develop these values, and we should reject relativistic arguments such as “But it’s part of African culture to rip the clitoris out of young women” as plain stupid.

  • Ben, I don’t think it is fair to say that Christianity is irrational. Great Christian thinkers like Thomas Aquinas has used reason and logic on the foundation of Christian premises. You could say that the premises that Christians hold are untrue and when used with reason and logic lead to faulty conclusions but it’s not inheritably irrational. There are atheist who are totally rational and logical based on the premises that they hold, doesn’t make them right, but it doesn’t make them irrational ether.

    If it’s impossible to justify values then I would say that there is no such thing as a universal value. When you stated that we should use our intuition in relation to universal values I think you are onto something. As part of what it means to be human, we have written into us a basic foundation for what is right and wrong. This is to say we have natural law written into our hearts as humans. I suggest you read C.S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity which has a chapter on natural law. I think you will find it interesting. And at the very least you will come away with a better understanding of where Christians are coming from.

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