Obama’s Speech on Religion in American Public Life

For this 4th of July: Barak Obama’s speech on how and why liberals must engage religion has captured the attention of many in the left-liberal side of the blogosphere and pushed the discussion of the role of religion in public life. (Audio here.)

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.

Amy Sullivan on the speech in Slate.

Millions and millions of faithful, including many evangelicals, have this sort of complicated relationship with their God. One of the enduring mysteries of faith is that it’s not easy to determine divine will. Most of us who consider ourselves religious are engaged in a constant struggle to discern God’s will for us, and we’re always aware of just how far we fall short of meeting that standard. Obama received one of his loudest ovations when he admitted: “The questions I had didn’t magically disappear.”

This humbler version of faith has been in the shadows for the past few years, derided as moral relativism or even a lack of true belief. Obama stepped up not to defend this approach to religion, but to insist on the rightness of it. That should be comforting to anyone who has been deeply discomfited by Bush’s version of Christianity. A questioning faith is a much better fit for a society like ours than one that allows for no challenge or reflection. It also acts as a check against liberals who would appropriate God for their own purposes, declaring Jesus to be the original Democrat and trotting out New Testament verses to justify their own policy programs. Liberals don’t have the answer key to divining God’s will any more than conservatives do.