Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dobson v. Obama

Regular readers know that I have been unimpressed generally with James Dobson's forays into the political realm. His criticisms of Democrats and Republicans alike reflect a myopic worldview in which all things political are to be filtered through a rather narrow spiritual lens. He has consistently grafted the political mission of Focus on the Family upon the spiritual war we are fighting in America. In general, I just wish he would keep quiet.

That said, his criticisms of Barack Obama are spot on.

At a recent campaign rally put on by Sojourners, the nebulously religious left-wing advocacy group, Barack Obama asked "which passages of scripture should guide our public policy?"

This is a fascinating query, explored throughout the annals of Christian history by many of the great philosophers. Obama boils it down to a rhetorical question.

"Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK and that eating shellfish is an abomination? Or we could go with Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount?"

Um, how about none of the above?

I should stop to note that Obama has touched upon my only theological pet peeve, which I call the shellfish fallacy... The fallacy is as follows: Enforcing any biblical principle requires us to enforce ALL Biblical principles. We must therefore evaluate our own shellfish consumption (in accordance with Levitical law), which renders the whole enterprise of enforcing biblical principle as trifiling and absurd as storming the local brasserie demanding a repeal of escargot hors'd'ouevres.

This logic is so stupid, it practically drools. Anyone who is confounded by the dichotomy between Levitical law and the Sermon on the Mount either hasn't bothered to at all educate themselves or doesn't want to. But no matter... Obama has no horse in this particular theological race, aside perhaps from a passion for oysters rockefeller.

More likely, he got a talking points memo from Sojourners, and his communications people frankenspeeched it for him. And so various members of the organization paid good money to watch a presidential candidate tell them precisely what they wanted to hear. That sounds like politics, doesn't it? Brian McLaren probably got chills.

"Folks," said Obama to cheers, "haven't been reading their Bible". Clearly not, or perhaps they might consider that Leviticus also delineates the Jubilee Year, which Sojourners frequently cites as a scriptural call for economic redistribution at a policy level. But this is not time to think! BARACK OBAMAAAAAAA!

Of course, no responsible Christian would use a forum such as this to draw a distinction between the Levitical code and the Sermon on the Mount. This leads us to three possible conclusions.

1) Barack Obama is not a responsible Christian.

2) Barack Obama is asserting that which he does not believe.

3) Barack Obama is ignorant.

I would submit that all three are true. The first two points are nearly indisputable. It is clear to any reasonable observer that religion has been, to some degree, a political tool for Sen. Obama. As such, his religious views can be adapted to conform to the moment. Such is the priviledge of lacking conviction.

The latter point, I think, will get him in trouble. I doubt very much that Barack Obama is familiar with the ideological excesses of the Sojourners movement, but someone on his team might have considered the ramifications of stating that our Defense Department would not survive the application of the Sermon on the Mount. Condemning military men and women to hell vis a vis the book of Matthew is not a winning strategy.

Enter Dobson... In an increasingly infrequent moment of clarity, the FOTF President took the time to challenge Barack Obama's theological assertions, suggesting that Obama is espousing "fruitcake theology", and "dragging biblical understanding through the gutter." I couldn't have said it better myself, though I could have done without the confectionery pejorative.

Perhaps sensing an opportunity to make light of a relatively unpopular figure, Obama responded quickly, saying that Dobson was "making stuff up". Unwise words from an intelligent man.

In this case, Dobson was holding Barack Obama's statements to the light of what, in the view of millions upon millions of Americans, the Bible actually teaches. The average Christian has reconciled, through knowledge and wisdom, the teachings of Leviticus with the teachings of the New Testament. Without the Old Testament, the claims of the New Testament are meaningless. Barack Obama has inadvertently dismissed mainstream evangelicalism as a fairy tale.

Barack Obama has mistaken the left-wing Christian movement for an accurate cross-section of a faith community that is struggling to come to grips with a flawed presidency. In doing so, he may have planted the seeds that will ultimately alienate that community.

He also may have made James Dobson relevant yet again.

(editors note: Obama's comments were from a speech in 2006, and were only addressed over the weekend by both Dobson and Obama. Newspaper reports have been updated to clarify the issue).

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8 Comments:

Anonymous Thom said...

"I should stop to note that Obama has touched upon my only theological pet peeve, which I call the shellfish fallacy... The fallacy is as follows: Enforcing any biblical principle requires us to enforce ALL Biblical principles."

Well, it's pretty much just the "You can't pick and choose from the Bible what you want to believe" defense that many use to appeal to parts of theology that are less... "desirable". Which, I would agree is a logical fallacy.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Adam Omelianchuk said...

You know, to be honest with you I don't think Dobson did such a good job with this speech. Obama's point was that "religion" is sectarian and that the public square requires something accessible. Dobson chose rather to be offended that Obama doesn't recognize a uniformity that exists within Evangelical thought concerning the unity of the Bible.

I'm saying I agreed much with Obama's posture, but I think Dobson didn't get the point.

1:09 PM  
Blogger Adam Omelianchuk said...

Crap... should say "I'm NOT saying I agreed much with Obama's posture..."

1:10 PM  
Blogger Kevin Sawyer said...

If that was Obama's point, that is what he should have said.

I don't think Dobson parsed the speech particularly well, but I still think he is fundamentally correct.

Regarding abortion, it is important to note that, according to Obama, his religious views are pro-life, but that his political views are pro-choice.

He finds himself unable to advocate a basic right to life in non-religious terms. Dobson is right, then, to point out that Obama has constructed a political viewpoint appealing to the lowest common denominator.

2:39 PM  
Blogger Tracey said...

Knowing you as I don't, pseudo-friend Kevin, I feel like any criticisms of Obama would be welcomed by you.

That being said, there's no need to perpetuate the crazy that is James Dobson. Don't even get me started. Don't. Even.

12:26 AM  
Blogger Kevin Sawyer said...

If anything, I am damning Dobson with faint praise. As Adam notes, this was hardly a scholarly rebuke of Obama's theology.

There are plenty of criticisms of Obama that are invalid (the Muslim charge, for example). But Obama's treatment of Christ in this election has been beyond the pale, even for a left-wing politician.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Jerad said...

Your whole post hinges on this paragraph:

Of course, no responsible Christian would use a forum such as this to draw a distinction between the Levitical code and the Sermon on the Mount. This leads us to three possible conclusions.

Which is a false statement. You earlier describe the forum as a "campaign rally put on be Sojourners." Sojourners doesn't put on campaign rallies. The speech was given at "Pentecost 2006," a Christian conference dedicated to a faith-based policy framework for overcoming poverty at which Republican Senators Brownback and Santorum also spoke.

So the forum, a Christian conference about policy, likely was* an appropriate place to note the challenges of literal interpretation of Scripture, a challenge Obama illustrates in the quote you present.

On your political posts, I am repeatedly impressed with your rhetoric, but I wonder whether you are deliberately using rhetoric instead of research and logical argumentation, or mistaking the former for the latter.

And I wonder if being a follower of Jesus would compel one to take the latter approach over the former.

3:32 PM  
Blogger Kevin Sawyer said...

Sojourners can't legally put on campaign events, but if you saw the promotion for this event, the intent was unmistakable.

"but I wonder whether you are deliberately using rhetoric instead of research and logical argumentation,"

I can't tell if this is a sly reference to the previous post, or if you simply didn't read it. Obama's evocation of the Levitical code forbidding the consumption of shellfish either betrays ignorance or indifference.

It is a legitimate challenge to a literal interpretation of scripture in the same sense that the question of evil is a legitimate challenge to the notion of God's existence. Had Obama contended with the paradox in question, it would have been a different story. Instead, he pivoted into an untenable reading of the text that provided pseudo-spiritual ground for his political ethos, which again was Dobson's contention.

10:28 PM  

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