Just when it looked like the forced departures of the Reverends Jeremiah Wright and John Hagee from the political stage would usher in a modicum of sane religious discussions in the campaign, the Reverend James Dobson took to the airwaves yesterday to re-introduce an unhealthy dose of zealotry to the campaign. Dobson is the founder of Focus on the Family, a severely conservative evangelical group that has enjoyed close ties to the Republican party. He was evidently unnerved by remarks Sen. Barack Obama made in 2006, in which the senator urged religious voters to "translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values." One can argue with Obama’s construction. Certainly, there are religion-specific values that are also universal, so setting the two at odds is not always necessary. On the other hand, there are religious beliefs that have only relatively remote implications for the political world, or which require several intermediate steps of rational application. But, the point Obama was making is undoubtedly a valid one. In a pluralistic society, voters must remember that not everyone shares the same premises, and that crafting arguments to appeal to fellow citizens should acknowledge that fact. Dobson would have none of it. "Am I required in a democracy," the minister asked, "to conform my efforts in the political arena to his bloody notion of what is right with regard to the lives of tiny babies?" Who said anything about conforming anyone’s views? Obama’s point was that basing any political position, including opposition to abortion, upon divine revelation is not the same thing as a constitutional or empirical argument. And, the pro-life movement might have been more successful these many years if it focused on the constitutional and empirical arguments for its position. Diversity does not require that we all run to the lowest common denominator in our religious beliefs. It does require that we not demonize those who do not share our religious beliefs. In the interests of protecting the unborn, or the elderly, or the long suffering citizens of Iraq, it is fine to be motivated by religious conviction, but the political necessity of persuading one’s fellow citizens in a democracy requires that one go beyond that source of motivation and find common ground. Common ground need not be lower ground, though it often requires compromise. Abortion is an issue that does not admit much in the way of compromise. The issue is, at heart, a categorical one: if the unborn child is a person, that child has rights, including the right to life. Certainly, we Catholics believe that. But we have a moral obligation to be intelligent also, and simply shouting our belief in the dignity of the unborn has not done much to diminish the number of abortions in our society. It is time to tune out the zealots, roll up our sleeves, and find creative ways to persuade our fellow citizens that there are better ways to deal with crisis pregnancies. This is work Dobson does not want to do. He won’t admit it, but he is part of the problem and he is criticizing Obama for trying to be part of the solution. Michael Sean Winters

Comments

Anonymous | 6/25/2008 - 11:21am
This is one of the finest short pieces I've ever read on the relative roles of religion and politics, and the need for rational discussion as opposed to bellowed vituperation. I wish I could have said it half as well. Thank you!
Anonymous | 6/26/2008 - 11:42am
Winter’s rule would sideline from the political arena many who find religious justifications for human dignity satisfying precisely when secular justifications come up short. His precept would find favor with Obama, Rawls, Habermas and many of The New Republic writers. But it is needlessly restrictive for those who remain unconvinced that these distinguished thinkers have rendered religious grounds for political norms superfluous.
Anonymous | 6/25/2008 - 12:35pm
As a Catholic priest, I must witness to the truth. I wish Michael Sean Winters would do the same. Dr. James Dobson is an upstanding man of faith and integrity. If Michael Sean did his homework, instead of just buying the Democratic Party line, he would see that Dr. Dobson is not a minister. He is not a clergyman. To put him in the same class as Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Reverend John Hagee is dishonest and an outright lie. I defy anyone to give an example of when Dr. Dobson ever demonized anyone.He ''proclaims the truth in love.'' Dr. Dobson's views and writings are similiar to those of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In fact, if you did not know who wrote his writings, you would think that they came from the USCCB. Michael Sean has obviously decided to back a pro-abortion candidate and will falsely attack anyone who criticizes or has a different opinion than that of his candidate. Dr. Dobson's organization does great work in helping woman who find themselves in crisis pregnancies.
Anonymous | 6/25/2008 - 11:16am
The views of James Dobson may be discounted as those of a zealot. Charles Taylor, on the other hand, is not so easily dismissed. He has taken issue with the position espoused by many secularists and endorsed by Obama (and apparently Winters): that religious citizens should ''translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.'' A few excerpts from a recent essay on this issue by Taylor: “What are we to think of the idea, entertained by Rawls for a time, that one can legitimately ask of a religiously and philosophically diverse democracy that everyone deliberate in a language of reason alone, leaving their religious views in the vestibule of the public sphere? The tyrannical nature of this demand was rapidly appreciated by Rawls...” “...The state can be neither Christian nor Muslim nor Jewish; but by the same token it should also be neither Marxist, nor Kantian, nor Utilitarian.” http://www.ssrc.org/blogs/immanent_frame/2008/04/24/secularism-and-critique/
Anonymous | 6/26/2008 - 9:19am
My bad in calling Dobson a Reverend, although his organization lists "ministries" among the headings, so the organization he heads is not merely engaged in advocacy. The quotes from Rawls are more interesting. I would submit - and I think Benedict XVI would agree - that Rawls was wrong in pitting reason against faith. We can enter the public realm anytime with our religion, but it needs to be reasonable.