This past week, Dr. James Dobson, Founder of Focus on the Family, used his organization’s radio broadcast to criticize a speech on religion and politics given by presidential candidate Barack Obama two years ago. Before commenting on Dobson’s remarks about Obama’s speech, I must admit that I stopped paying attention to Dobson a long time ago. While I had been introduced to him when I grew up in a fundamentalist church, a church that took every word he said as “gospel truth”, I came to find his rhetoric often divisive, unreasonable and unhelpful for making real contributions to the common good.
Yet this past week, when I learned of his criticism of Obama’s speech, I took a few minutes to listen to Dobson’s program and to re-read Obama’s speech. On the broadcast, Dobson and Tom Minnery, Focus on the Family’s Vice President of Public Policy, played snippets of Obama’s speech on religion and offered their observations. What is interesting is that Obama made this speech in June of 2006 and Dobson is just now publicly commenting on the address. What drew Dobson to make his remarks, however, is even more interesting.
Obama referenced Dobson’s name in his speech along with making mention of Rev. Al Sharpton in the same context. Obama referred to the two religious leaders as a way of demonstrating the diversity within the Christian faith in America. Dobson and Minnery, however, accused Obama of attacking Dobson, even suggesting that Obama equated Dobson with racial bigotry. Yet, no common sense person who reads or hears the speech would understand Obama’s mention of Dobson as disparaging of him. Obama does not come close to attacking Dobson.
This deliberate misrepresentation of Obama’s mention of Dobson’s name, however, serves as the Focus on the Family leader’s entree into misleading his audience about Obama’s views on religion. Both Dobson and Minnery accuse Obama of diminishing religion and people of religious faith, particularly Christians. They also charge Obama with not acknowledging the strong Judeo-Christian tradition of this country. Yet, Obama says nothing close to this. In fact, he is clear to argue that religion has played and continues to play a significant role in this country and in the moral choices of people of faith. Far from neglecting the religious tradition embedded in America’s history, Obama affirmed that “the majority of great reformers in American history” were “motivated by faith.”
Mr. Obama also states, “Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square.” He goes on to clarify, “So, to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into the public policy debates is a practical absurdity.” These statements, and others like them, demonstrate not only Obama’s strong support of people of faith and his encouragement of religious ideas in the public arena; they also shine a bright light on the darkness of Dobson’s misrepresentation of Obama’s speech.
But Dobson continued to ridicule Obama’s speech by suggesting that Obama has a lack of respect for the Bible itself. Dobson comments, “he's (Obama) deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology.” Yet, what Obama does in the part of the speech where he talks about the Bible is to ask the honest question concerning the use of the Bible as a basis for our moral debates. Obama is not against using the Bible in this way. In fact, he calls for all of us to read our Bibles.
But he is saying that we would find it difficult, even if the entire American population only professed the Christian faith, to agree on what biblical passages, from the numerous and diverse moral statements in scripture, speak with greater authority on moral issues. Obama is far from disparaging of the Bible, as Dobson accused him. In fact, his view expresses the very nature and struggle of biblical interpretation to find an honest way to reconcile the ancient biblical witness with the moral questions of a modern pluralistic democracy.
What Obama suggested in his speech is not that religion be banned from the public moral debates. Indeed, a reading of the entire speech clearly shows that he strongly supports religion and people of religious faith. However, he rightly argued that while a person’s morality might be based on religious faith, in order for that person to win support for a moral viewpoint in the public debate, one must express a moral argument based on reason and not solely on religious rhetoric. In a democracy founded on the clear separation of church and state, where people from all faiths or no faith have rights, making moral arguments based solely on religious beliefs will not go far. This, however, is not at all disparaging of Christians or people of other faiths.
Dr. Dobson has taken Obama’s statements out of context and has misrepresented them. Well-meaning and thoughtful Christians should put no stock in what Dobson says about Barack Obama and his views on religion and the Bible. Dobson has acted in an unchristian manner, for he has not spoken the truth in love. Rather, he has spoken a lie that misrepresents and mischaracterizes the views of a fellow Christian. Well-informed Christians would do better by reading Obama’s speech for themselves. Obama’s view calls for a more reasonable, respectful, and civil conversation about the role of religion in public policy making than Dobson is willing to have.