Friday, June 27, 2008

Dobson's Diatribe


I know a number of people have written at length on the Dr. James Dobson and Tom Minnery broadcast discussing Barack Obama's speech in 2006 on religion and politics (see Scot McKnight's blog on Jesus Creed). But for some reason I felt it necessary to put myself through listening to the majority of the broadcast to hear what had really been said. I was, unfortunately, not that surprised that the broadcast was one of the most pejorative, divisive, and absolutely insane things I've heard in quite some time. It was an exercise in distortion and misrepresentation. Ironically, that is exactly what the two commentators accused Senator Obama of doing. Regardless of whether Christians should or should not vote for Obama, this broadcast was embarrassing.

I won't go into too many specifics, but there were a few comments that struck a chord. In an effort to accuse Obama of something he did not do, that is equate the Levitical laws with the Sermon on the Mount, Tom Minnery said, "Laws that applied to them then, the Levitical code [...] no longer apply. Many of the principles of the OT apply, but not those laws." I'll refrain from commenting on the merit of the statement (although I think it incredibly problematic to write off certain portions of Scripture), but I would like to point out his claim that the principles of the OT apply. Whenever I hear the word "principle" used in this fashion I have to wonder if Reinhold Niebuhr does not stand behind it in some way. The reason I wonder this is because other positions I've head from these two commentators seem to be consonant in many ways with Niebuhr's "Christian realism." My concern is that this hermeneutic is not only one Mr. Minnery would use on the OT, but the NT as well, such that there are "principles" in the NT that can be abstracted from the Gospel story and then approximated as best we can to make America into a Christian nation. This abstraction often ends up being somewhat arbitrary and capricious. Senator Obama called the Sermon on the Mount, "a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application." I suspect Mr. Minnery has a "principle" from the Bible that reduces this radicality.

Since I said I would only comment briefly, I will comment on one more item. As best I can tell, from reading Obama's speech, he seems to have a Rawlsian view of the role of religion in public discourse. 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." This sounds to me like Obama has been shaped by Rawls, specifically his "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited." And I think this is embedded in political liberalism more intrinsically than other might want to concede. But to put it another way, Obama is merely giving voice to the political and philosophical commitments required for American democracy.

Now, I think Rawls is wrong, but not in the way Dobson does. Dobson said that what Obama means (he and Mr. Minnery seem to have some authoritative insight into what Obama "really means") is that unless everybody agrees we have no right to fight for what we believe...c'mon Dobson, I'm not sure even you really buy into that misinterpretation. If Dobson could mount a critique of Rawls then perhaps he would have something substantive to say, but it wouldn't look anything like what he actually did and does say. I know Dobson is attempting to be a Christian in American as best he knows how, but someone has to call him on crap like this. Perhaps if fewer churches were planning patriotic worship services for the weekend of the 4th people like Dobson could see in the witness of the church the inbreaking of God's kingdom.

No comments: