The Common Good

Analysis: Dobson confused at best about Obama speech, defenders say

Date: June 28, 2008

James Dobson thinks that Barack Obama holds to a "fruitcake interpretation" of the Constitution’s religion clauses -- but Dobson’s own interpretation of a two-year-old Obama speech that occasioned the critique may be far fruitier.

That’s what Obama’s defenders are saying, backed up by some journalists and experts in religion and politics. Nonetheless, some on the Religious Right have leapt to Dobson’s defense.

In his June 24 radio program, the Focus on the Family founder harshly criticized Obama’s understanding of religion’s role in American politics as well as his understanding of the Bible.

"What [Obama is] trying to say here is unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe," Dobson said on the broadcast, which reportedly garners millions of daily listeners on Christian radio. "And if I can’t get everyone to agree with me, it is undemocratic to try to pass legislation that I find offensive to the Scripture. That is a fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution!"

The Obama speech that Dobson used as the springboard for his criticism was delivered in June 2006 to a Washington conference of moderate and liberal Christian anti-poverty activists. In it, he addressed his view of the proper role of religion in influencing public policy.

But in the speech the Illinois senator, now the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, actually criticized liberals and secularists who try to divorce religious motivations and imagery from public policy.

"At times, we try to avoid the conversation about religion altogether, afraid to offend anyone. At worst, there are some who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant [and perpetuate] a caricature of religious Americans," he said.

But, Obama noted, "the majority of great reformers in American history were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition."

Nonetheless, he cautioned religious conservatives who would try to argue for a policy simply on biblical grounds, without broadening their appeal to those who might not share their faith or interpretation of Scripture.

"Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values," Obama said. "It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all."

That passage specifically provoked Dobson’s "fruitcake" comment. He said Obama was asserting an argument that would require Christians "to go to the lowest common denominator of morality" when advocating causes in the public square.

That attack is utterly off-base, said one Christian leader whose organization sponsored the conference at which Obama delivered the speech in question. "There’s certainly a misunderstanding, a misreading of what Barack said," said Jim Wallis, head of the Call to Renewal/Sojourners organization. "If anything, he was defending the right of people of faith to bring their religious understandings into the public square; the question was, ‘how we do that?’"

A group of Christian pastors, led by Houston minister Kirbyjon Caldwell, has launched a site – jamesdobsondoesntspeakforme.com – for other Christians to sign a statement denouncing Dobson’s attack. Caldwell, a United Methodist, has endorsed Obama, but has supported President Bush in the past.

Tom Minnery, Focus on the Family’s vice-president for public policy, appeared on the show with Dobson and echoed many of his criticisms. In a June 27 telephone interview, he said that the criticism was valid because Obama was trying to have it both ways in the speech.

"The speech has a very inconsistent message – he flip-flops back and forth; he says, ‘Of course we can bring religious speech into the debate,’ but then he says elsewhere in the speech that you have to define our arguments in universal terms," Minnery said.

"When people do express beliefs in language accessible to all, many times the secular left discounts them -- for example, on the intelligent-design argument," he continued, referencing attempts by many conservative Christians in recent years to influence the way evolution is taught. Intelligent-design theory teaches that some life forms are so naturally complex that they could not have evolved spontaneously without the help of some unseen architect or designer. Most mainstream scientists and educators counter that it is simply creationism in disguise.

But one expert journalist said Minnery and Dobson were distorting the candidate’s argument. "What Obama said was that in a pluralistic America, religious believers cannot reasonably expect to create majorities for their favorite policy prescriptions -- ‘moral principles’ in Dobson's terms -- unless they couch their arguments in terms that can be understood and appreciated by and persuasive to people other than believers," wrote Don Wycliff, a Notre Dame University journalism professor, in a June 27 opinion piece for the Chicago Tribune. "There's nothing complicated about that -- unless your purpose is not to understand but to play politics."

Wallis said Dobson’s argument has theocratic undertones.

"It assumes, underneath, that perhaps Dobson is kind of supporting a notion of Christian theocracy where, in fact, Christians – by just appealing to their revelation, their Bible – [that] their view has to prevail. And what I say is that those Christians don’t get to win just because they’re Christians." He said. "So, you have to argue about the common good. That’s what Barack said, ant that’s why I also say that you have to frame your religious convictions in moral terms that are accessible to more people."

But Minnery contended that that makes no sense in a country whose founding principles, he believes, are inextricably linked with Christianity.

"Let’s just think about something here: ‘Thou shalt not commit murder.’ That’s a very religious statement -- and that was affirmed in the Old Testament and reaffirmed in the New Testament. That’s the law of the land. Murder is illegal; should we get rid of the laws against murder because they originate in a religious document?" he asked.

Minnery noted that many of the nation’s monuments contain references to God as the source of law and human rights. "When Sen. Obama says that we have to make our case in universal language that is accessible by all by those who believe and those who don’t believe, I say that you can’t do that in this country -- especially when you’ve got so many of these statements carved in stone in the U.S. Capitol."

Dobson and Minnery also expressed great offense at another passage of the speech in which Obama dismisses the idea that the nation’s laws can, in any substantial way, be based on a generic Christianity.

"Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation. At least not just [Christians]. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, and a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers," Obama said. "And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would it be James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton’s?"

On the program, Minnery said that Obama, in that passage, "diminished" both Christianity and Dobson.

"Well, I say, ‘Excuse me?’ Seventy-six percent of the people identify themselves as Christian. There are only six-tenths of 1 percent who are Muslim, seven-tenths of 1 percent who are Buddhist, four-tenths of 1 percent who are Hindu…. So he's diminishing the idea that people of Christian faith have anything to say. And then he begins to diminish you," Minnery said.

Asked if he believes non-Christians are somehow less American than Christians, Minnery said, "Nobody’s saying that -- in fact, Christians are the first to believe that we operate under a civil government, not a Christian government, not a theocracy. But it’s a civil government, meaning all have an equal right to participate, and sometimes the charge comes from the left that Christians want to impose their government on all."

But that’s not the case, Minnery said. "We want to have an equal access to the ballot box."

On the show, Minnery and Dobson took particular umbrage at what they perceived as Obama’s equation of Dobson with Sharpton, the controversial Baptist minister and civil-rights leader.

"[H]e has compared you somehow as being on the right what Al Sharpton is on the left. Al Sharpton achieved his notoriety in the '80s and '90s by engaging in racial bigotry, and many people have called him a black racist," Minnery said. "And he is somehow equating you with that and racial bigotry."

Dobson seemed to think Obama had implied that he wanted to eject non-Christians from the country. "Obviously, that is offensive to me," Dobson said. "I mean, who wants to expel people who are not Christians? Expel them from what? From the country? Deprive them of constitutional rights? Is that what he thinks I want to do? Why'd this man jump on me? I haven't said anything anywhere near that."

But to one student of religion and politics, any fair reading of Obama’s speech shows that Dobson is taking offense at something that isn’t there. "I mean, was Obama launching any kind of ad hominem attack against Dobson? I really don’t think so," said Laura Olson, a Clemson University political scientist and expert in the Religious Right. "In a way, Dobson could read the fact that Obama mentioned him as a compliment because he is the most obvious person right now to attach to that political movement."

On the obvious level, Olson said, Dobson’s understanding of Obama’s comments represents two vastly different ways of looking at the world. "Obama’s interpretation of religion and the proper place of religion and the public square is fundamentally different than that of Dobson," she said.

But, on a deeper level, Olson added, "what makes this interesting is, you know, why is Dobson … talking about it now? Why is he choosing to make this an issue?

"The way I’m interpreting this is that,….Dobson is, I’m sure, a little bit -- if a not a lot -- concerned."

That’s because of the host of younger evangelical leaders who have begun to embrace a broader political agenda than the anti-abortion, anti-gay positions that have been the hallmarks of the Religious Right, Olson said.

"Dobson obviously has inserted himself into politics in recent times -- endorsing [President] Bush the last time -- so what’ he’s doing now, I think, you know is a continuation of that and perhaps kind of a defensive move to suggest to his listeners, ‘Hey, I bet there’s some of you out there in my listening public who might be attracted to Sen. Obama, who might be swayed by his rhetoric which is, at minimum, a lot better than the religious rhetoric that we’ve seen from a Democratic candidate in a long time.’"

Wallis said that was exactly what Dobson was trying to do. "This speech is two years old, it got lots of publicity at the time, and I can’t imagine that Dobson didn’t hear about it at the time, because it got a lot of attention," he said. "So, all I can conclude is that really the issue here is indeed political -- that James Dobson and other members of the Religious Right are really threatened by the changing agenda of evangelicals."

However, Dobson has also been critical of Arizona Sen. John McCain, Obama’s Republican rival. Minnery said that the speech had only come to his attention in recent weeks due to Focus on the Family staffers. On the program, Dobson said video clips of Obama’s speech have "gone viral" in Christian circles on the Internet.

"So little is known about Sen. Barack Obama that every public speech like this of his is significant simply because we have not heard many of his speeches like this prior to the presidential campaign," Minnery said in the interview.

Asked about the assessment that the incident shows Dobson is worried that his influence over the Religious Right -- and politics as a whole -- is slipping away, Minnery said that didn’t matter.

"Whether he is a leader or not is up to God." He said. "God has directed this ministry for many years. And we don’t decide those things."