Bock

Teaching in California and Watching a Debate on Religion from Afar 06.25.08

Well, I am back from Israel and what do I run into as I do my annual two weeks at Talbot Theological Seminary? It is a debate between Barak Obama and James Dobson about faith, the Bible, and the political environment.

This one is about an Obama speech given two years ago to a group sponsored by Sojourners. Now when politicians get into religious discussion my ears perk up.

Well, I am back from Israel and what do I run into as I do my annual two weeks at Talbot Theological Seminary? It is a debate between Barak Obama and James Dobson about faith, the Bible, and the political environment.

This one is about an Obama speech given two years ago to a group sponsored by Sojourners. Now when politicians get into religious discussion my ears perk up.

This speech seems to have been a strange combination of reading the Bible in a very flat manner, in which the food laws tied to Judaism are discussed along side Christian views without any seeming awareness of how Jesus discussed the issue of Jewish practices and how the church came to handle such questions.

On the other hand, the key question Obama raised about which American citizens’ Christianity should be followed (those like Al Sharpton or that of James Dobson) seems to have been the kind of contrast and theoretical question Dobson missed the point of (Dobson was upset to be placed next to Sharpton).

Advocacy was a point in this speech. Obama’s question was whose advocacy should count and how should such advocacy work in a society where a mixture of religions and wordlviews are at play in the citizenry. It is like asking who would get to pray if prayer was allowed back in schools.

The question is actually a very relevant one. In a country that involves a kind of social contract with people of varying backgrounds, how does one make the case for the values one holds dear? In advocacy, yes. Seeking and arguing for a common good, absolutely. Making the case from a moral base that might well appeal to an array of sources, including the Bible, yes. It also needs to be done in a way that engages neighbors of differing background in a manner that attempts to have them appreciate an array of reasons for pursuing ends for society’s benefit, not just arguments that appeal to religious reasoning or grounding. In the end, religious faith believes God asks of people what is good for them as human beings, things that make for human and societal health. Penetrating to those kinds of arguments might actually help public discourse and cause all of us to reflect more on whay we do and seek to live as we do. So as I watch this discussion from afar, I ask myself if the attention this topic has received might actually move away from the personalities that cause it to gain public attention to a real discussion about how a pluralistic culture engages on questions of the day without always turning into a food fight.

11 Comments

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    ccate

    concrete examples of “those kinds of arguments”
    Besides appeals to our sacred texts, how would one make a case against homosexualtiy and/or pornography? Who is publishing data that supports the idea that these behaviors are bad for human and societal health? How should Christians promote discussions about this data if it exists?

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      bock

      Concrete examples dlb

      Those who work in areas related to social practice have access to this kind of data. One need only ask counselors how damaging certain practices are to marriage for pornography or see data on the number of relationships most homosexuals have to see how it can be destructive (the effect is not unlike unfaithfulness in marriage).

       

      dlb

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    Michael

    Pluralist culture equals Lowest Common Denominator
    Dr. Bock,

    You stated that “… religious faith believes God asks of people what is good for them as human beings, things that make for human and societal health.” How would you go about a discussion in a pluralistic society when as an evangelical Christian it is the gospel which is the primary solution for the human and societal good? It seems what is really desired is the lowest common denominator in each situation. For example, here in Annapolis at the US Naval Academy, they have prayer before meals. However 2 or 3 cadets said this is a forcing of religion upon them. The ACLU has stepped in but the USNA has refused to back down. Here the lowest common denominator (these 2 or 3 cadets) would be the elimination of any religious practice. The seeking of the lowest common denominator will always be complete secularization. Logically that is the answer to the way a pluralist culture must engage. However, Christ’s command and the gospel do not fit that template. I know of no other way than to be respectful and kind, but to stand firm upon the gospel for that is what truly brings good for human and society! I completely understand we live in a diverse society with many religions. That’s what freedom of religion is all about. Thus, it is my contention that rather than as a society making the lowest common denominator the ONLY acceptable position, let each religion and group clearly articulate their positions and advance it in the public square and “let the chips fall where they may.”

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      bock

      Lowest Common Denominator dlb

      No one says that Christians should not stop sharing the Gospel (that can be done outside the work that government does) . Nor is your example a point about the lowest common denominator. We are not saying go out and only do what is pleasing to a small minority. Rather we are contending that our case needs to be in thehope that a case is made for how people benefit from going with values that Godsupports. In making our argument for values and morals, arguments be included besides arguments made from the Bible. The point here is that the social contract that is a part of being in a republic requires we who are religious bring the full array of arguments we can muster and then (as you say) let the chips fall where they may.

      dlb

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        Michael

        Dr. Bock,
        I agree with what

        Dr. Bock,

        I agree with what you said and your approach. I’m all for continuing in it, but I am very pessimistic in its actual effectiveness. It just seems that when we are talking about areas which involve human behavior, we could find all the additional resources supportive of our position, but it is ultimately a matter of the heart change (regeneration) which is needed. Consider teenage sex: It is a moral issue, and as Evangelicals we promote waiting till marriage for sex. I can think of 3 major reasons why waiting is good: Moral/Spiritual, Social, and Physical. I believe this can be documented to be right! From a moral/spiritual standpoint, God speaks much on this subject. From the social issue, even nonbelievers recognize the destruction of a loose lifestyle and the grip of pornography which many times feeds the fire of this behavior. From the physical aspect, keeping one healthy from diseases. Yet, our government refuses to teach abstinence in our schools. Abstinence is the only method proven to work 100% of the time! How much more research is then needed? Yet the schools (I am an educator) dismiss this 100% effective approach and opt for “safe sex” which only addresses the last issue, the physical (LCD argument again). All the studies, speakers, and arguments for abstinence would not change their minds because it is tied to a behavior. I use this as one example, but many, many more follow: homosexuality, gay marriage, abortion, drunk driving, violence, etc. Yet bringing in the spiritual / moral (gospel) aspect is what changes these because it is what changes behavior. Our fight needs to be in having the government support religion rather than suppress it (through political correctness and LCD). President Bush’s radio address today did just that!

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    Terry Laudett

    Debate on Religion
    I heard Dr. Dobson’s program a couple of days ago. I was a little surprised to be agreeing with Senator Obama on one of his points. I do not see the United States as an exclusively Christian nation, either. Whether we read surveys from the Pew Foundation or from Barna, we can see that only a small minority of Americans embrace a substantially Christian worldview. Therefore, we need to make broader appeals to natural law and reasoning in order to protect our rights and the rights of others (especially the pre-born). Certainly we should use biblical arguments, too, because they are true. However, we need to realize that Christians are not a majority within our nation. We should be included, but we must recognize that we will not dominate the political discourse. We are in a humble position, but sometimes we do not recognize it.

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      Dan Witte

      Christians not a majority?
      Terry writes that Christians are not a majority in our country.
      Only our Lord can read hearts; the Lord knows those who are his, so in the most important sense, we can’t verify that assertion.
      As far as the way people self-report, this survey puts Christians at about 75% of our country’s population.
      http://religions.pewforum.org/affiliations
      My thanks also to Dr. Bock for his thoughtful, peaceable tone in commenting on such matters. I enjoy reading your blog.

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    Mark

    Reading Obama’s Speech
    It seems to me that Minnery and Dobson came off as poor exegetes of the Obama speech, especially if one reads the full speech. Obama cites some statistics designed to make the point that Americans are deeply religious, and Minnery accuses him of diminishing religion and somehow concludes that Obama is saying Christians have nothing to say in the public sphere. Obama mentions Dr. Dobson and Al Sharpton in the context of making the point that there are competing versions of Christianity and Minnery/Dobson take that to mean Obama is has equated Dobson with racism. Obama refers to several scriptural passages to make the point that biblical texts say many things so that even if we agree that we should base public policy on the scriptures we will still have challenges in public discourse to overcome. It seems to me that he was trying to illustrate a problem, not take a position on these passages. Obama calls on religious people to ‘translate’ their concerns into universal language rather than sectarian language. He doesn’t mention the Constitution but is appealing to what one might call the logic of pluralistic democracy. Dobson accuses him of having a ‘fruitcake’ interpretation of the Constitution and of saying that this means religious people can’t fight for what they believe in. There is an important discussion to be had on the degree to which we can successfully translate scripturally rooted views for those who don’t share our presuppositions. One might look at it as a kind of ‘Mars Hill’ approach to public discourse. It seems to me that Obama’s speech called us to engage in that task and I thank Dr. Bock for taking up that point.

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    Juan

    Translating Our Christian Views
    How does one translate Christian principles into something pluraly accepted? Doesn’t a translation refer to a change in the essence of the message at a certain point? Can you truly convey support for suppressing homosexuality or abortion without the meaning of accepting Christ into your heart as your personal savior? What I mean is, what are we loosing if we take Obama’s advice and to think this way? Christianity is a force unmovable and no matter what our government does it is us as individuals who’ll be held accountable in the end. How are we to hope to change laws without the push of Jesus Christ as savior behind our motivation and absent from the content. This pushes TRUE Christianity out of the picture and simply leaves “changing a law,” for that sake and that sake alone. We are fighting a spiritual warfare but what good is our weapon without the salvation message. Don’t fall for this trick, think.

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    bock

    Translating dlb

    Juan:

    I agree with you that certain actions do no good without spiritual change. However, some values are good for people and should be pursued in a cuturally healthy manner. So we have incest laws. These are healthy for society (and prevent damage in families or at least sanction destructive behavior). Other moral areas can be treated similarly, but only if people appreciate the rationale for the law. Other religions accept the values of life or justice, not just Christians, and so may support the idea that some legislation in certain contexts might be good for society. Everyone has the right to make such a case in our society.

     

    dlb