Religion in the Public Square

RELIGION IN THE PUBLIC SQUARE….The reaction among liberals to Barack Obama’s recent speech about religion in public life (text here) has largely been a complaint that he’s attacking a straw man. Actual Democratic politicians ? governors, senators, members of congress ? never disparage religion, after all. In fact, they’re never anything but respectful toward it. So what is Obama complaining about?

I was curious about this, so I read his remarks. And it turns out that in a speech of 4,600 words ? mainly about his own religious journey, the liberal message inherent in the Bible, and the importance of the separation of church and state ? he really only discussed liberal attitudes toward religion in four places. Here they are:

At best, we [Democrats] may try to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that ? regardless of our personal beliefs ? constitutional principles tie our hands. At worst, there are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word “Christian” describes one’s political opponents, not people of faith.

….More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms.

….But what I am suggesting is this ? secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.

….A sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation ? context matters.

Obama talks about “some liberals” who caricature religious Americans and “some progressives” who are unhappy with any hint of religion in the public square, and then suggests that not every mention of religion by public officials is worth fighting.

It’s obviously possible to disagree with Obama. Frankly, I’d have to discuss a few specific examples with him to see if I think he’s on the right page. But the plain fact is that he was careful in his speech and also plainly correct: “some” liberals are uncomfortable with any mention of religion in the public square, and he thinks this is too bad. He also recognizes that just saying so isn’t enough:

So the question is, how do we build on these still-tentative partnerships between religious and secular people of good will? It’s going to take more work, a lot more work than we’ve done so far. The tensions and the suspicions on each side of the religious divide will have to be squarely addressed. And each side will need to accept some ground rules for collaboration.

Yep. And it’s especially worth noting that this is an area where public opinion reigns even more supreme than usual. The ACLU is a free actor, after all, and so is Jerry Falwell. The actions of the former reflect on liberals even if not all liberals agree with every court case they bring, and the actions of the latter reflect on conservatives even if not all conservatives agree with him. Only persuasion has any chance of turning down the volume here, which means that for this conversation to have any hope of success, both liberals and conservatives need to feel free to criticize attitudes on their own side without being considered traitors to their own cause.

It’s a funny thing. When I post about religion, I usually get two kinds of comments. The first is people telling me that I’m falling into a conservative trap by even entertaining the idea that some liberals are contemptuous toward religion. The second is snarky liberal secularists telling everyone else to take their stupid myths and shove ’em where the sun don’t shine. Do you think both sides will show up in this thread as well?