Rick Elgendy has a thought-provoking new column at Sightings, where he discusses the theological nature of public life as it has recently been reflected in James Dobson's critique of Obama's use of Scripture. I appreciate Elgendy's comments for a number of reasons. He is eminently fair to Dobson, and I always applaud the (sometimes rare) analysis that can look past the polarized culture-war distortions of voices from the left or the right for the sake decent dialogue. He also clearly lays out the theoretical underpinnings of Obama's views on religio et res publica. As much as I like Obama, his Rawlsian commitments have been clear for some time, at least since his 2006 Call to Renewal speech. Elgendy offers a way forward from this dead-end in Charles Matthewes' A Theology of Public Life and William Cavanaugh's Theopolitical Imagination, two of the best books in political theology to come out in the past few years.
Some of my quick thoughts on Elgendy's piece? Not that Elgendy said something contrary to this, but I would want to clarify that we need to be realistic about the nature of public discourse when considering something like the Dobson-Obama exchange. Dobson has accused Obama of misusing Scripture, even willfully, to suit his own commitments. Yet too often we make the leap from this exchange of public critique to a discussion of actual political sovereignty and religion's place with regard to it. Why do we turn to these questions of normative public policy after a critique like Dobson's? The man is making normative claims, to be sure, but he is doing so from one citizen to another (citizen because they are speaking within the realm of public discourse) about religious rather than political or public normative interpretations. So Obama's question from 2006, "whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's?" really has nothing to do with Dobson's current criticism of Obama... Dobson is not concerned here with public schools or any politically normative interpretation, but rather with Obama's (mis)interpretation as a Christian in public life. I think that we are prone to make a reactionary connection with the church-state relationship in cases like this precisely because a "theology of public life" has yet to be effectively articulated to the Church or the wider public, and so we rehash old dilemmas and worries about encoachment on spheres of sovereignty when in fact what's going on is simply the dynamic of public life and the critique that it brings.