obama: the role of faith in political conversation

obama: the role of faith in political conversation

Tolerance and passionate faith are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I believe the opposite is true. Passionate believers, genuine believers, are more tolerant people, because they understand how tolerant God has been with them!

It is refreshing to hear Sen. Barack Obama, a Christian and a member of the United Church of Christ, speak about his faith and its role in framing his political agenda … and his response to folks who may not share his political agenda. He is not apologetic about his faith. Neither is he dismissive of other people’s faith.

He is right. We need a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this nation, about the role of faith in shaping our values … not slogans and sound bites and accusations, but a conversation, a conversation that includes both honest sharing and respectful listening.

Read this excerpt from his keynote address at Pentecost 2006, sponsored by Call to Renewal, a movement affiliated with the Sojourners Community in Washington D.C. Or read the entire address: Keynote Address: Sen. Barack Obama.

A few days after I won the Democratic nomination in my U.S. Senate race, I received an email from a doctor at the University of Chicago Medical School that said the following:

“Congratulations on your overwhelming and inspiring primary win. I was happy to vote for you, and I will tell you that I am seriously considering voting for you in the general election. I write to express my concerns that may, in the end, prevent me from supporting you.”

The doctor described himself as a Christian who understood his commitments to be “totalizing.” His faith led him to a strong opposition to abortion and gay marriage, although he said that his faith also led him to question the idolatry of the free market and quick resort to militarism that seemed to characterize much of President Bush’s foreign policy.

But the reason the doctor was considering not voting for me was not simply my position on abortion. Rather, he had read an entry that my campaign had posted on my Web site, which suggested that I would fight “right wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.” He went on to write:

“I sense that you have a strong sense of justice … and I also sense that you are a fair-minded person with a high regard for reason … Whatever your convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering on women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded. … You know that we enter times that are fraught with possibilities for good and for harm, times when we are struggling to make sense of a common polity in the context of plurality, when we are unsure of what grounds we have for making any claims that involve others … I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.”

I checked my Web site and found the offending words. My staff had written them to summarize my pro-choice position during the Democratic primary, at a time when some of my opponents were questioning my commitment to protect Roe v. Wade.

Re-reading the doctor’s letter, though, I felt a pang of shame. It is people like him who are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country. They may not change their positions, but they are willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in reasonable terms – those who know of the central and awesome place that God holds in the lives of so many, and who refuse to treat faith as simply another political issue with which to score points.

I wrote back to the doctor and thanked him for his advice. The next day, I circulated the email to my staff and changed the language on my website to state in clear but simple terms my pro-choice position. And that night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own – a prayer that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me.

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