Dr. James Dobson’s attack on a two-year-old speech by Barack Obama seems to me to be a very good example of the way incivility in discourse can be self-defeating. Dobson took issue with an Obama speech on the role of faith in political life — certainly a topic well worth discussing, and one on which Obama and Dobson both have something to say. But Dobson’s tirade largely avoided the issues actually presented, and instead leveled charges that are difficult to reconcile either with each other or with what Obama actually said.
First, Dobson took issue with the portion of the speech in which Obama pointed out that even people of the same religion do not always agree on what their religion requires in matters of practical concern:
And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson’s, or Al Sharpton’s? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let’s read our bibles. Folks haven’t been reading their bibles.
Dobson’s objections to this passage were (a) that he is a child psychologist rather than a theologian, so he really shouldn’t be used as an example at all, and certainly not as the right wing’s answer to Al Sharpton; and (b) that as a matter of theology, Obama’s scriptural understanding is deeply flawed. I did not find Dr. Dobson’s exegesis of Leviticus or Deuteronomy terribly persuasive, nor was I moved by the suggestion that the Old Testament’s dietary laws had been superseded because that just begs the question, “superseded for whom?” What I did find striking was that Dobson apparently feels he is not a theologian when Obama treats him as one, but he is a theologian when he wants to give Obama a dressing-down.
The second-most remarkable part of Dobson’s broadcast was his grotesque distortion of Obama’s words on the place of religious rhetoric in political debate. Obama said,
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. And if you doubt that, let me give you an example.
We all know the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his only son, and without argument, he takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded.
Of course, in the end God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute, and Abraham passes God’s test of devotion.
But it’s fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason.
Dobson twisted this so as to make his disagreement with Obama as sharp as possible (and much sharper than any plausible interpretation of Obama’s speech would permit). According to Dobson, Obama was
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, or presumably by those of no faith. . . . What the senator is saying there, in essence, is that I can’t seek to pass legislation, for example, that bans partial birth abortion, because there are people in the culture who don’t see that as a moral issue. And if I can’t get everyone to agree with me, it is undemocratic to try to pass legislation that I find offensive to the Scripture. Now, that is a fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution. This is why we have elections, to support what we believe to be wise and moral. We don’t have to go to the lowest common denominator of morality, which is what he is suggesting.
The unspoken implication here is that if you take scripture away from Dobson, he’s got nothing left in the tank — no arguments against partial birth abortion that could be based, for example, on the fact that the partially born baby has a beating heart, can live outside the womb, and is without question a human life. The further implication is that if you are not Christian, Dr. James Dobson knows of no particular reason why you should favor a ban on partial birth abortion. Those are pretty remarkable propositions for a man like Dobson to launch into political discourse.
But even putting those implications to one side, Dobson completely ignores the distinction between the substance of the legislation and the reasons and rhetoric offered in order to build a consensus for it. And even to accuse Obama of trying to banish religious rhetoric, Dobson had to ignore other passages like this one:
More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem here is rhetorical – if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.
Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address without reference to “the judgments of the Lord.” Or King’s I Have a Dream speech without references to “all of God’s children.” Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible, and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.
Our failure as progressives to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical, though. Our fear of getting “preachy” may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems.
After all, the problems of poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed, are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten point plan. They are rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness – in the imperfections of man.
Solving these problems will require changes in government policy, but it will also require changes in hearts and a change in minds. I believe in keeping guns out of our inner cities, and that our leaders must say so in the face of the gun manufacturers’ lobby – but I also believe that when a gang-banger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody disrespected him, we’ve got a moral problem. There’s a hole in that young man’s heart – a hole that the government alone cannot fix.
At least one evangelical pastor quickly registered a domain name, jamesdobsondoesntspeakforme.com, where you can view a nice preamble and some revealing side-by-side excerpts.
The blogosphere is giving Dr. Dobson a thrashing, and I don’t intend to pile on. What I find interesting, though, is the question why Dobson’s remarks backfired so badly on him. I am inclined to think it is because he showed such an obvious lack of charity in the way he contrued Obama’s words. He was so careless, and so evidently uninterested in finding common ground, that I doubt he achieved his goals for the broadcast, even with his own regular listeners.
What were those goals, anyway? That’s the shame of it, from Dobson’s point of view. Some commentators give the incident a purely political spin, suggesting Dobson was trying to stem the tide of evangelical “defections” to Obama. But we’re not required to take such a cynical view, and Dobson’s remarks about the late Tim Russert earlier in the broadcast tend to suggest otherwise:
When Shirley and I were with him there in the NBC Studio, there were just three of us together in the green room, and we asked him if he was pro-life, I think Shirley asked him if he was pro-life, because we’d never heard him speak about it. And uh, Tim didn’t really feel comfortable with the question. And he smiled, and he paused, and then he said, “I’m a Catholic.” And I said, “I know, Tim, I know — but are you pro-life?” And he said again, “I’m a Catholic.” Now I interpreted that, and I don’t know whether I did it accurately or not, but I interpreted that to mean that he leaned in the direction of the anti-abortion position of the Catholic Church, but as a newsman he wasn’t willing to come right out and say it, or to speak for the sanctity of human life. He had a lot of rather liberal views, and I don’t think he would have been comfortable expressing that pro-life point of view.
In fact, as we approach the national election, and especially the presidential election, we are going to be in need of some mainstream journalists who will ask those tough questions of both candidates for President.
I’m not sure Dobson was correctly interpreting Russert’s answer; Russert might have been politely indicating that Dobson was essentially asking Russert whether he was in a state of grace within his own church, which would be none of Dr. Dobson’s business. But however that may be, Dr. Dobson surely does want Christians to continue to feel comfortable expressing themselves in public in explicitly religious terms, so I think we can assume that he honestly wanted to disagree strongly with the substance of Obama’s remarks, purely on the merits and for no other reason. If he had tried first to find the common ground he shared with Obama, his criticisms might have been both less wild and more successful. As it is, he just showed us all why it’s a bad idea to frame political arguments in exclusively religious terms: It just isn’t very effective.