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Obama's Challenge: Navigating the Religious Rhetoric Minefield

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Barack Obama has accused Republicans of trying to hijack religion. It’s a clever move on his part, but he needs to carefully balance acknowledgement of the depth of faith for many, without stepping on the rights of others.

The incorporation of the Religious Right into the conservative base was no accident. Stephanie Miller, liberal radio talk show host, remembers a time when conservatives were people who wanted government out of people’s personal lives - she should know: her father was Goldwater’s running mate.

The melding of social conservatives with economic conservatives owes much of its success to three efforts. William F. Buckley, Jr. began incorporating social conservatives into mainstream conservatism, through his publication, the National Review.

Then, of course, Jerry Farwell began his Moral Majority, encouraging Christian conservatives to get more involved in politics.

The efforts of such activists as Phyllis Shlafly in the election of Ronald Reagan, consummated the marriage between social and economic conservatives. Now, conservatives would have to set aside their suspicion of government power, in the case of abortion, birth control, and homosexuality. Liberals have been trying to “take back God” ever since.

That task, however, has been fraught with risk. A good case in point, is the
tension between Jim Wallis - who’s calling for a return of the Religious Left - and Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church & State. Wallis harkens back to the early days of the Civil Rights movement, when clergy of all faith felt called to speak truth to power. Americans United, however, is very wary of any injection of religion into political debate. The fear, of course, is that politicians can easily step over the line, asking for religious doctrine to be written into policy, or leaving religious minorities and atheists to feel like second-class citizens. While Americans United argues from the Constitution, I would argue from social science.

The mistaken argument many on the Right make, is that any call to religion by a politician is good, since religion brings people together. But the work of sociologist Lewis Coser, shows the importance of boundaries in the development of cohesion. Thus, nothing enhances the sense of cohesion within a group, like a conflict with an outside entity. We’ve all seen how a common enemy brings a country together. Imagine a crowded religious service, where the clergy member is contrasting the believers in the congregation, with outsiders - those of other religions, or non-believers. This is the context in which religion - and religious language - brings people together. Take that same religious language to a mixed audience, and it will have the opposite effect, which brings us back to Obama’s attempt to take on this challenge. To be successful, Obama needs to balance an acknowledgement of the passion many feel about their faith, with respect for those whose morality comes from a different source.

Amy Sullivan, writing about this struggle by Democrats to “take back God,” referred to Obama’s speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention, when he said “We worship an awesome God in the blue states,” as throwing down the gauntlet. So far, Obama seems to be doing a good job of navigating the religious rhetoric minefield. If he wants to avoid turning off civil libertarians, he needs to remember the role of boundaries, in religion’s cohesive effect.



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Amy Fried, Ph.D. Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

Amy Fried applies her Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior to writing and activism on church-state separation, feminism, reproductive rights, corruption, media and veganism.

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