Years ago, when I was editor of Nuclear Times magazine, I knew Evangelical leader Jim Wallis, author of The Great Awakening and founder of Sojourners -- the largest network of progressive Christians in the United States -- a little, as we were on the same "antinuclear" team.
My own spiritual leader may be L.V. Beethoven, but I've followed Jim's growing influence since then and so I was not surprised this morning to see that he has just chastized James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, for distorting Barack Obama's statements on faith and politics.
He concludes: "Many evangelical votes are in play this election year, especially among a new generation, and are no longer captive to the Religious Right. Perhaps that is the real reason for James Dobson's attack today on Barack Obama."
The full text of his statement follows. I presume we can reprint here since it is a release for, among others, the media.
James Dobson, of Focus on the Family Action, and his senior vice president of government and public policy, Tom Minnery, used their "CitizenLink" radio show to criticize Barack Obama's understanding of Christian faith. In the show, they describe Obama as "deliberately distorting the Bible," "dragging biblical understanding through the gutter," "willfully trying to confuse people," and having a "fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution."
Now that James Dobson is insinuating himself into this presidential campaign, his attacks against his fellow Christian, Barack Obama, should be seriously scrutinized. And because his basis for the attack on Obama is the speech the Senator from Illinois gave at our Call to Renewal/Sojourners event in 2006 (for the record, we also had Democrat Hillary Clinton, and Republicans Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback speak that year), I have decided to respond to Dobson's attacks. In most every case they are themselves clear distortions of what Obama said in that speech. I was there for the speech, Dobson was not.
You can read Obama's now two-year old speech, which was widely publicized at the time and will see that Dobson either didn't understand it or is deliberately distorting it. There are two major problems with Dobson's attack today on Barack Obama.
First, Dobson and Minnery's language is simply inappropriate for religious leaders to use in an already divisive political environment. We can agree or disagree on both biblical and political viewpoints, but our language should be respectful and civil, not attacking motives and beliefs.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, is the role of religion in politics. Dobson alleges that Obama is saying:
"I [Dobson] 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. ... What he's trying to say here is unless everybody agrees; we have no right to fight for what we believe."
Contrary to Dobson's charge, Obama was very strong in defending the right and necessity of people of faith bringing their moral agenda to the public square, and was specifically critical of many on the left and in his own Democratic Party for being uncomfortable with religion in politics.
Obama said that religion is and has always been a fundamental and absolutely essential source of morality for the nation, but also said that "religion has no monopoly on morality," which is a point that I often make. The United States is not the Christian theocracy that people like James Dobson seem to think it should be. Political appeals, even if rooted in religious convictions, must be argued on moral grounds rather than as sectarian religious demands--so that the people (citizens), whether religious or not, may have the capacity to hear and respond.
Religious convictions must be translated into moral arguments, which must win the political debate if they are to be implemented. Religious people don't get to win just because they are religious. They, like any other citizens, have to convince their fellow citizens that what they propose is best for the common good-- for all of us and not just for the religious.
Instead of saying that Christians must accept the "the lowest common denominator of morality," as Dobson accused Obama of suggesting, or that people of faith shouldn't advocate for the things their convictions suggest, Obama was saying the exact opposite--that Christians should offer their best moral compass to the nation but then have to engage in the kind of democratic dialogue that religious pluralism demands. Martin Luther King Jr. perhaps did this best of all with his Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other.
In making abortion the single life issue in politics and elections, leaders from the Religious Right like Dobson have violated the "consistent ethic of life" that we find, for example, in Catholic social teaching. Dobson has also fought unsuccessfully to keep the issue of the environment and climate change, which many also now regard as a "life issue," off the evangelical agenda. Older Religious Right leaders are now being passed by a new generation of young evangelicals who believe that poverty, "creation care" of the environment, human trafficking, human rights, pandemic diseases like HIV/AIDS, and the fundamental issues of war and peace are also "religious" and "moral" issues and now a part of a much wider and deeper agenda.
That new evangelical agenda is a deep threat to James Dobson and the power wielded by the Religious Right for so long. Many evangelical votes are in play this election year, especially among a new generation, and are no longer captive to the Religious Right. Perhaps that is the real reason for James Dobson's attack today on Barack Obama.
Greg Mitchell's new book is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq. He is editor of Editor & Publisher.