Friday, July 4, 2008

A Public Theology or a Theology of the Res Publica?

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.


  1. Well, I think Dobson was in part directly concerned with issues of "theology in public policy making". He worries that Obama is "trying to make the case that it is anti-democratic to believe or fight for moral principles in the Bible that are not supported by people of all faiths," and asks if he is required as a citizen to conform his advocacy to a "lowest common denominator of morality."

    Now, I didn't see all of Dobson's other comments, but on that point I think he's going a little too far with Obama. All policy making is compromise - its a little unfair to accuse "looking for common values in religion that everyone can have a consensus on" of being "the lowest common denominator". All he's saying is that when we can't have a consensus on these values, then they need to be personal or family or community values - they can't be legislated values. I see nothing wrong with that. By accepting a common set of values as the basis for the role of religion in the US you're not forcing people like Dobson to say "these are my values" - that would be wrong. He can keep other values, he just can't enforce them through public policy UNLESS he builds a consensus around it.

    I also found the reference to Abraham and Isaac being handled by Child Protective Services very clever on Obama's part. But then again, Dobson gets all bent out of shape on that and says that under that interpretation, "society cannot accommodate the burden of certain robust religious convictions" (actually - I don't know if these are Dobson's words or Elgendy's interpretation of Dobson's words). Either way, that's kind of a silly response. If a father went out and started preparing to burn his kid would Dobson really have no objections if the claim was he did it on religious grounds? What about these mormons in Texas having sex with those minors? Does Dobson find that honky-dory? I'm sure he doesn't! Once again - it is not the job of the public sphere to affirm "robust religious beliefs" in all situations! That doesn't mean Obama or anyone else is opposed to "robust religious beliefs" it just means that there are points when the public sphere will necessarily be in conflict with them because that's its job. And robust religious figures will soldier on because that's their job. If the religious figure is vindicated in the end, then great.

    I think we often make another leap on these occassions - we make the leap of assuming that Obama has a theological background (or even a philosophical background that qualifies him to talk about Rawls), and therefore we think we are justified to critique his theology of "religio et res publica". Likewise, we assume that Dobson knows a lot about the public policy world (perhaps a more reasonable assumption), and that we can critique him on his knowledge of how public policy operates. Often we can't, and these people yell at each other from completely different perspectives. But you really can't criticize Obama's theology because he's not a theologian!

  2. Some points:

    -On the necessity of compromise and consensus in policy making, I don't think it's this fact in itself that's problematic, but rather the way that this assertion is directed towards religious language rather than any other. In his Call to Renewal speech Obama mentions abortion as an example after discussing the use of universal rather than religious-specific language:

    "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. "

    ...that sounds fine after a quick read, but consider how easily religious voices can be marginalized in this way. Who argues against legal abortion based on "the teachings of my church" or "God's will"? Not even the most ardent pro-life activists argue from this; they speak about human life and dignity, about the act of killing life, and how such killing cannot be morally balanced with whatever benefits, medical, psychological, financial, etc. may come from an abortion. This is universally understandable language, no? The assertion of human dignity and sanctity can be understood, if not shared, by those of many religious faiths and those with humanist or secularist inclinations. But the pro-life argument is often sequestered to "religious" language in public understanding.

    And what of non-religious arguments? Shouldn't a burden be put upon them for compromise and consensus within a democracy? The assumption is rampant that neutrality lies in a non-religious discourse, as if when one abandons religious-specific reasoning nothing steps in to take its place. The point is, there is no neutral territory in public discourse, and assuming that there is only allows the obviously religious claims to feel the brunt of restriction, leaving a blindspot where "secular reasoning" occurs.

    -It's interesting that you bring up the Texas FLDS group, considering an appellate court and the Texas Supreme Court have ruled that the seizing of the children from the Yearning for Zion ranch should not have occurred. Dobson SHOULD speak out if he doesn't find the FLDS group "honky-dory", and he should be free to do so from his religious stance. But it's not at all apparent, from the court decisions, that the state should step in even in extreme cases like this. My point isn't that all religions should enjoy immunity from criticism or argument- quite the contrary! But this myth of a neutral secular public, of a baseline for discourse that is distinct from the plural market of religious discourse, should also be subject to the criticism and argument of religious or any other discourse. This is exactly what I see happening in Dobson's critique of Obama, and Obama's response. Which brings me to my last point...

    -Of course Obama does not have a theological background... as a professor of constitutional law I assume that he would have the philosophical background to engage with the sources of his own political philosophy. But whatever the case, I don't see why it's inappropriate to criticize him or Dobson on these counts. Most Americans are Jeffersonian on some level or other, and while they may not be able to submit a term paper on it they have tapped into this legacy, and it is legitimate to criticize their reasoning with reference to its pedigree. I don't quite see your point here. If Obama doesn't want someone to disagree with him on how he uses the Bible, he shouldn't use the Bible as a public figure. Same with Dobson on policy- if he doesn't want people arguing against his misunderstanding of US policy making, then he shouldn't insert himself into the conversation. And I think Obama and Dobson both understand this.

  3. 1. He was making a speech to what Elgendy describes as a group of
    "politically activist Christians", so of course "this assertion is directed at religious language rather than any other" in this case - but do you think he would argue this wouldn't apply to feminists, environmentalists, business leaders, and farmers making their case in Washington as well? I think the answer is obvious - of course it applies, but he just doesn't bring it up here. I think it often looks like these politicians are singling out religion as a "special case" - but that's only true if you read speeches specifically geared towards the role of religion in society! I think Obama would agree this general issue of engaging the public in consensus on universal values is the way that everyone has to proceed (pro-choicers included... ultimately, Singer didn't win the hearts and minds of America by appealing to their inner eugenicist).

    2. On the abortion example - I totally grant you that it was probably an awkward example to use, but I'd still disagree with your interpretation of this. First, many people do say that abortion is wrong because it is an "abomination to God" or something like that - not their only case, but the case is made in that way. And Catholic's DEFINITELY hold those positions because "my church says its wrong". No doubt about that after our marriage counseling retreat - it was very clear that the line between Catholics and the reformed tradition is still there - they didn't not reference the Bible or universal values in a lot of these "sexual ethics" discussions - they referenced two thing: "doctrine" as they called it, and "the Pope". But even aside from all those issues, I think you're on target - what drives the pro-life position is not these few who simply promote the latest encyclical on abortion - its people who talk about the sanctity and dignity of life. I don't think Obama is making the claim that 50% of America holds an illegitimate position on this - I think his WHOLE POINT is that that is the right way to argue it (the sanctity of life) and "the bible tells me so" probably isn't the best or most strategic way to argue it in a democracy... and its certainly not the last stage in a democracy - if you want to make the case that "the bible tells me so", you better build a strong consensus around it before you legislate it. I don't think he'd say this is the wrong way to approach it! I think he, and Dobson would both agree with you.

    This "dignity/sanctity of life" issue is also brilliant because it does show an embrace of truly universal values in the sense that even the pro-choice crowd doesn't disagree with the pro-life crowd on those values! How much more universal can you get than that! In the same way, the pro-life crowd is really in agreement with the pro-choice crowd on the idea that "a woman should be able to decide what to do with her body." Its when the rubber hits the road - and when we have to legislate on actual human behavior - that those shared universal values about the sanctity of life and the right to choose combine with the science of conception, as well as considerations of how each decision will effect both the baby and the mother's future, as well as the role of the state in making these decisions - its when the rubber hits the road and all that other stuff comes into the mix that people who otherwise share these universal values of the sanctity of life and the right to choose come to different positions.

    [An aside: I think the DC v. Heller decision is a fantastic template for the court to use to revise Roe... and if they do, and if they do it in an intelligent way, the Roberts court will definitely go down in history for both these rulings - there is an underlying right in the constitution to bear arms (have an abortion), but the regulation of that right is reasonably under the jurisdiction of states and localities - absolute bans are unconstitutional, but besides that regulations can be more or less strict. This would be a perfect precedent to set in a case on partial-birth abortion (which I think is the fetal equivalent of a sawed-off shotgun, which the court has agreed can be completely banned) and it can be billed as "clarifying" rather than "overturning" Roe. Its a great, simple way to understand rights and liberties, and I'd love to see them decide a case like this.]

    3. On the assumed neutrality of non-religious discourse. I think this case is overstated, insofar as I think Obama would argue that the rule of consensus building applies to non-religious and religious discourse alike (see point 1), but I would also make the point (and I cannot say whether Barak would join me on this or not) that religious discourse is unique insofar as it claims a singular, undisputed voice of authority in the person of God. That is one claim that is rarely made in non-religious discourse. Now I'm not saying that this is entirely inconsistent with democracy (in a sense, the presence of this singular authority makes the whole universe a constitutional monarchy in the eyes of the modern [ie - democratic] Christian), so it doesn't have to clash but it can. Ultimately you have to accept that a democratic government is a government of, by, and for the people. It is not a divine lapdog. And a democratic government may make the case that it is not within its rights and jurisdiction to outlaw abortion and that it is within its jurisdiction to execute traitors. That may be right or wrong, but its the case that is being made and it is a case that butts up against the idea of a singular authority (an almost uniquely religious idea) in a unique way. So to clarify - there is nothing inherently contradictory about religious discourse and non-religious discourse or the role of either of these discourses in a democracy. They all "play by the same rules" as it were. But religious discourse does often endorse this notion of a "singular authority", and the non-religious discourse rarely raises this issue - and that issue does change things. But it doesn't change things because the religious and the non-religious are held to different standards... it changes things because the religious and the non-religious discourses raise different problems.

    I'll end on your comment about "secular reasoning". The reason why "reason" or "rationality" doesn't make quite the splash that singular authority does is that nobody can really claim that "reason" or "rationality" provides one single answer to an issue. Those that do claim this have also wandered into the realm of inherent contradiction with democracy. Reason and rationality are tools of man that are used to produce answers - not masters of men that are used to provide answers. So you can't talk about "secular reasoning" as something that is monolithic and equivalent to God. That is both inaccurate insofar as reason is a tool that is used by many and used in different ways. It is also wrong to make that juxtaposition because its kind of insulting to God.

  4. And on the FLDS issue - the court did not rule that it was wrong for the state to act on the underlying sexual abuse - what it ruled was that there was not sufficient evidence (1.) to remove all 400 of the children, most of whom were not in immediate danger, and (2.) that the children who were actually sexually abused were not in immediate danger, and so should not have been removed. The court did not rule that a crime had not been committed.

    If Abraham was simply musing to a social worker that he thought about burning his kid - you're right - the kid may not have been removed right away if the evidence of the immediacy of this threat wasn't there... but you better believe Abraham would have received in-home services and follow up meetings with the social worker (as I'm confident these FLDS people are dealing with right now).

    This is another "rubber hits the road" issue, and I was wondering if you'd raise it.

    My point is simply that as far as the state is able to know, the FLDS has as much authority to do what it wants to do as Abraham had, so I think the state would act the same way in both cases. And if Dobson thinks they were justified, you're right - he should speak out. But he shouldn't also complain that this state response threatens what Dobson calls "robust religious convictions"! Part of the reason why these religious convictions are "robust" is that they run counter to the state and social norms! The whole POINT of what God wanted Abraham to do was that it went directly counter to the dictates of society. that was the whole idea! If the state suddenly acquiesces to these things they'd actually LOSE some of their robustness God would have to think up something else for them to do that challenges conventional wisdom to make his point! I just think part of what makes "robust religious conviction" robust is that it is so counter-cultural. You don't want the state to endorse that as a rule (because if you did, then you'd bring the state into the business of arbitrating what is "from God" and what isn't). If Dobson had a problem with social services being called for Abraham and Isaac because it "threatened robust religious conviction", I really wonder how HE would write the policy for dealing with that? how would he phrase it to direct their course of action?

    OK - I gotta get some work done... I feel like we agree on a lot that you don't realize we agree on on this - so chin up!

  5. That's a good point about a religious order being robust in its very disagreement with a political order. The trouble is always how to avoid an unwanted sectarianism by opposing church to state in some essential way, so that either is defined by its opposition to the other (not saying this is what you're doing, just thinking off of your comments). I think a lot of religious people these days are trying to figure out how to contribute to the structure of societal order, and it can easily go in any number of extreme directions. The trouble is how to balance the temporal and ultimate aspects of both orders, how to distinguish them but keep them in conversation with one another.

  6. hey - nice way to cool things down, jerk! what a non-commital response!

    no, just kidding.

    anyways - I can't make heads or tails of that guy's ecclesiology post. I was going to write something on it, but I have no idea. I mean, as you can guess I basically agree - no one institution is gonna nail it. I feel like I've missed an important point, though... oh well :)

  7. He didn't say too much constructive... I took it more as a musing about how to go about saying something constructive about the church. So you're not really missing anything, I don't think.