Friday, October 26, 2012

Must we vote for the lesser of two evils?

I cannot get the upcoming US elections out of my head. I had hoped to be able to write a new post on some overseas topic, but these elections keep impinging themselves on my mind. It does not help that the media are filled with election news. Next week, when I am in Nigeria for a short visit with some students. I hope to get a new perspective on the world, although there too people will be paying close attention to what is happening on November 6. Maybe after the elections are over! Or maybe not!

The last few weeks several people have told me that when they vote, they often choose what they call "the lesser of two evils." This seems to be a common problem, but this year it appears to be worse than most.

What they seem to imply is that politics is evil, although I am sure that is not their intention. But this comment does make me reflect on how difficult it is to vote meaningfully in today's highly partisan context.

When I heard the same claim made in the past, I was not convinced that such a choice should be necessary. I was younger then. There was a lot discussion about having to vote for the lesser of two evils, but this was said in order to justify the establishment of a Christian political party that would eliminate the problem.

I questioned this perceived wisdom at the time. I argued that political candidates should not be preferred just because they are Christians or belong to a Christian political party. It is possible that one might disagree with their policies. This was my experience in the Netherlands. It is true in Canada as well, where Christian parties also exist, although I have never voted for them.

Today I feel even more strongly about this issue, especially after my experience in the Philippines during the People Power Revolution in 1986. This followed a highly disputed election in which President Marcos used fraudulent methods to have himself declared the victor over Corazon Aquino, whom he had dismissed as a "mere housewife."

I was present both when the Batasang Pambansa, the national assembly, examined the much-disputed ballots and when the revolution ensued. Soon after it began, I was on the highway that separated the two military camps. Later I went inside Camp Crame, where I had led Bible studies with some political prisoners. There I met the coup leaders. During the revolt the only room I was not allowed into was the "war room" where they met to formulate strategy.

Cardinal Sin went on the radio at the very beginning and urged Filipinos to support the coup leaders huddled inside Camp Crame. I joined my Filipino friends as they flocked to the highway at his urging. He described what was happening as a struggle between "the children of light and the children of darkness." I agreed.

If I had been able to vote in that election, I would have voted for Aquino. Her weaknesses later became very evident, but they were nothing compared to the crimes that Marcos perpetrated. Here the choice was clear; there was no question of choosing between the lesser of two evils. Filipinos chose the side of the angels.

Admittedly, the choice in most elections is not as clear as it was in the Philippines. I have voted in elections in two countries: the Netherlands, where I was born and later lived as a graduate student, and Canada, where I am a naturalized citizen. And I have witnessed elections in many more countries where I happened to be living and working.

Indeed, in many elections the choice is not easy, but to describe it as choosing between two evils suggests a rather negative view of reality. It is one that dismisses the goodness of God's creation, and sees only the evil that followed the fall into sin. Perhaps I am being unfair to those who use such language, but bear with me. It has caused me reflect on the significance of this phrase and what lies behind it.

If we dismiss the goodness of creation, where can we discern God's redemptive work in Christ? Where is a vision of God's grace? Because grace is always present, nothing and no one falls outside the orbit of grace.

Thus some evidence of grace can still be seen even in a very depraved person. His mother, for example, will continue to love him, even if others find that almost impossible. Thus I ask myself: Why do some people only see the evil that people do and not the good?

This is a brief theological reflection that not everyone will necessarily agree with. But we ought to look at what is good in people and not just what is bad. Yet I do admit that, like most of us, I have to struggle against a tendency to do the opposite.

The same preference ought to apply in the realm of ideas, which is what we should concern ourselves with when we talk about politics, and therefore not whether we like candidate x, because she has a warm, bubbly personality, or despise candidate y because he is an adulterer.

We should not label political ideas as inherently good or bad. Whether they are good or not depends on context. A policy can be good in one jurisdiction or period of time, but not in another. Not every political idea can be labelled as evil. In fact, there are many good ideas that are touted by groups that some of us might reject.

I prefer to look for what ideas people have in common, and what I can learn from them. In some cases that can be very difficult. Even the Tea Party, which I happen to disagree with for the most part, does have some good points that are easily overlooked. I have mentioned one in a previous post.
In the presidential election this year, both candidates have obvious weaknesses. It is hard to hide them when these weaknesses are exposed relentlessly day by day by the media. What is worse, they are caricatured in attack ads that are not only degrading but even border on slander. These ads should not be permitted.

Such negativity feeds the attitude that dismisses politics, and therefore all politicians, as evil, so that all people can do is choose the least of many evils. I find that attitude unchristian. People of every religious persuasion will probably agree that this attitude is unbecoming of their faith as well.

So, let us refrain from talking about "the lesser of two evils." I would prefer to say that I will vote for the best person, someone who espouses the best ideas. As I wrote last time, my preference in this election is Obama, even if I cannot vote for him.

While it is true that Obama has not delivered on many of the promises he made four years ago, let us never forget that he was blocked by a bitterly partisan Congress. Romney often mentions the bipartisan spirit that existed when he was governor in Massachusetts, but that same spirit is no longer possible in what is now a fifty-fifty nation, nor it is likely to return any time soon. But then Romney may have used rose-colored glasses when looking at the past.

Romney has also become a victim as well of this partisanship. First, he had to win the nomination by swinging in the direction of the Tea Party, but then he had to move to the middle to attract moderate voters in order to win the election. Hence his flip flopping. If he becomes president, gridlock will continue, and may get worse.

Politics in Canada is also becoming increasingly partisan. This is fed by a number of politicians at the federal, provincial and local levels who are partisan by nature. I deplore this development.

Today the world needs politicians who can rise above such partisanship and, instead, help build bridges with the opposition for the common good. Unfortunately, I do not see that happening very often.

Those of us who are largely spectators in politics can do our part by ridding ourselves of our own partisan spirit. One way to do that is to stop dividing the world into "us" and "them," especially in the area of politics.

At least in Canada, we do not have to register as voters who support a particular political party. That helps, but more is needed to make politics more enjoyable instead of the blood sport it has become.

After November 6, I can safely predict that half the American nation will be overjoyed and the other half will be angry and hurt. But there is little that can be done at this moment to prevent that. This partisanship may, in fact, get even worse, especially if Romney were to win the popular vote but lose in the electoral college.

What we can do is rid ourselves forever of the attitude that dismisses politics as something inherently evil. This attitude is probably unintentional or even unconscious, but it is nevertheless real. It stems from a world-view that regards the whole world as evil, and some parts are even considered irredeemable.

As I have already mentioned, those who say they are choosing the lesser of two evils when they vote may not necessarily have such a worldview. It may be just the language they use, but it would be better if they said they want to vote for the best person.

What concerns me especially is the degree of partisanship today. One way to tackle it is to encourage people to look examine what is good in each candidate and the platform that each espouses. But that is hardly possible in the toxic political atmosphere today.

One important step is the elimination of all attack ads. These ads are largely funded by Super PACS that, as a result of a January 2010 decision of the US Supreme Court, are now allowed unlimited spending on behalf of political candidates. In this election that funding has already passed two billion dollars. That is a record.

This ruling is yet another example free speech run amok in the US. It will not be easy to overturn that very controversial decision. But the attack ads need to go.

Many mothers admonish their children by saying, "If you can't say anything nice about someone, don't say anything at all." That is a wise piece of advice that all candidates and their supporters should heed. Maybe then we will be able to see the good there is in each of them and on that basis vote for the best person, and not the lesser of two evils.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Why I endorse Obama

It is too bad that Canadians are not allowed to vote in American elections. If they could, President Obama would probably win by a landslide.

A recent poll of the bosses of small businesses in Canada revealed that a sizable majority (69 %) chose Obama as being better for business than Romney (21 %), which contrasts sharply from what a similar poll of their counterparts in the US shows.

This election will be a watershed for the US, and it may yet prove to be a watershed for the rest of the world as well. Hence the attention that this election campaign is getting both in the US and outside that country.

The other day I watched the second presidential debate with a roomful of Canadians, although one has dual citizenship because she was born in the US. Except for her, none of us can vote on November 6, but all of us watched the debate avidly and, I must admit, everyone cheered for Obama.

The whole world will be affected by whoever will be president after this election. Not only are American foreign policies vitally important to much of the world but the influence of American domestic legislation is also felt far beyond America's borders. Let me give just one example.

A few years ago, shortly after I boarded a Dutch plane in Amsterdam that was flying to Toronto and did not involve flying over US territory, I was shocked to hear this announcement: "The Department of Homeland Security requires . . . " This is a blatant case of extra-territoriality that no other country enjoys.

The whole world is collectively holding its breath awaiting the results of the election. In most capitals, with the notable exception of Jerusalem, there will be a huge relief if Obama is reelected. Governor Romney has made himself a laughing stock in many countries early in this campaign.

Since then he has not done much to demonstrate his expertise in foreign affairs, although we will see what he says in the final debate. The policies that he has announced thus far have not done much to improve his image in the rest of the world. Those policies, of course, were largely for domestic consumption.

Canada is becoming increasingly polarized politically, partly due to ideologies that have spread across the border from the US. In addition, Canada is now well on the way to losing its democracy due to legislative practices that are common south of the border, such as adding items to bills for the sake of expediency.

In the tradition of newspapers endorsing political candidates, I want to use my blog to offer an endorsement of Obama. I am under no illusion that this will make a difference. A few may cheer it, but others probably will condemn it as interference in American affairs.

But, as I have already argued, this election will affect the whole world. Thus the whole world should be able to speak out about whom they would prefer as president of the USA.

I have watched all the debates thus far and have listened carefully to the candidates. Quite frankly, I was dismayed by the vitriol. These men are not just political opponents, they despise each other.

I am also dismayed by the anger displayed by ordinary Americans who are polarized as never before. This is frightening and worrisome at the same time. Democrats and Republicans seem to despise each other the same way that the nominees do.

On one side is the current president who is a man of great personal integrity, but has been far too timid in his first term, partly because he was stymied in his efforts by his opponents but also because he squandered the opportunity at the beginning of the term to make far-reaching changes.

On the other one finds a candidate who hides inconvenient facts, refuses to be specific about his policies, and behaves as a political chameleon. Will the real Romney please stand up!

Obama has weaknesses as president, but this office is almost impossible. His new grey hairs testify to that. Yet, from a Canadian perspective, there is much to admire in him. However, he is also misunderstood.

He is not a Marxist, as some Americans claim. The chief legacy of his first term, Obama care, is a watered-down version of the universal health care that Canadians can rightly be proud of. If Obama is a Marxist, I hate to think what Canadians are.

Romney, sad to say, is a chronic liar, whose "binder full of women" is not only laughable but it also totally misrepresents what he accomplished on behalf of women while he was the governor of Massachusetts.

I can also cite his belated explanation that the "47 percent" he mentioned in his infamous May speech does not accurately represent his views, since he wants to be president of 100 percent of the American people. This is typical of the flip-flops for which he is noted.
Romney is, in fact, the candidate of  "the 1 percent" made famous during last year's Occupy movement who described themselves as "the 99 percent." The Tea Party movement has not wholly endorsed Romney, but the super-rich, the ".01 percent," have and they are the chief financiers of his campaign.

They are the people, of course, who will benefit most from Romney's proposed tax cuts, while the middle-class, as always, will have to pay for the shortfall in the budget. Romney's math simply does not add up, as Obama pointed out repeatedly during the second debate. Hence Romney's refusal to be specific about which programs and subsidies he will cut when he becomes president. That would be political suicide.

The Tea Party people, because of their small government ideology, are very angry with Obama, but many of them are sufficiently concerned about social justice to see through Romney's rhetoric and his specious move to the right during the primaries, as well as his further move back to the center during the first debate.

The Tea Party movement is powerful and has helped to elect many representatives to Congress. Paul Ryan is their man on the ticket, yet Ryan too refuses to put specific plans on the table. The Republican campaign is directed by those who see government as being of the rich, by the rich and for the rich.

Obama would side with "the 99 percent," but this movement is now largely dormant after, literally, being swept off the streets by those who possess that power. This movement is far from dead, however.
The inequities that the Occupy movement pointed out then are now being trumpeted by The Economist in a 19-page report that discusses the social, economic and political challenges that such inequities pose for the whole world.

The Occupy movement raised concerns that are not popular with those who control much of the economy and the government. But the wealthy who squelched the movement read The Economist regularly. Their response to this report will be interesting.

Unfortunately, the solutions that are proposed in the report are inadequate, but they at least begin to address the concerns of the Occupy movement. Ironically, this report may help to awaken this sleeping giant.

Regular readers of this blog will know what my stance is on many of the issues that I have discussed. Thus, if I could vote, that my vote would be for Obama should not be surprising. Or, more precisely, it would be a vote against Romney and everything he represents politically.

My vote would have nothing to do with his Mormon faith. That is a non-issue with me, although I doubt that all evangelicals in the US would concur. A majority of them will disregard any questions they may have about Romney's faith when they vote for him. For them politics trumps religion.

Therefore I pray that Obama will win reelection on November 6. Not because he has been such a great president so far, but because Romney is the wrong man for the most important job in the US and, indeed, the whole world.

This is a crucial election for the US, but also for the rest of the world. Foreigners will never be allowed to vote for the American president, thus all I can do now is endorse Obama. He is the best man for the job in my considered opinion. Many people in the world will no doubt agree with me.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Extremists and the rejection of education, especially for women

Why do extremists, particularly Islamic extremists, despise education? One sees this in country after country. From the arid plains of northern Nigeria to the mountain valleys of Pakistan, they display their disdain, if not outright hatred, for Western education, which they regard as evil and even refer to as an "obscenity."

In Nigeria, Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is forbidden," wants to ensure that all of northern Nigeria is ruled according to sharia (Islamic law).  Its opposition to anything western is so strong that it is intent on driving all Christians out of the North, unless they convert to Islam.

The founder and former leader, Mohanmed Yusuf, was apparently a highly educated man, but he strongly opposed all man-made laws and modern science. In an interview with the BBC, he rejected the concept of a round earth, Darwinian evolution, and the idea that rain is water that has been evaporated by sunlight.

Boko Haram has attacked and bombed churches, partly for historical reasons. Christian missionaries in the past, it claims, used Western education as a tool for evangelism. This may help to explain its rejection of everything associated with the West. But it has also killed Muslims who have criticized it.

Many Muslim leaders, both in Nigeria and abroad, have condemned Boko Haram for its use of violence. There is also a suspicion that it has expanded to include criminals and others who are using it to cover up their own nefarious activities.

In Pakistan, the Taliban made headlines by attempting to assassinate Malala Yousafzai, a 14 year-old girl who became famous in her country for promoting the education of girls. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. They have bombed hundreds of schools, mostly for girls, in the area where this brave girl lived. Her father owned and ran a girls school and is a crusader for female education.

She continued to speak out for the right of girls to study even after her school was closed. The Taliban has targeted her because, as a Taliban spokesman expressed it, "She was pro-West, she was speaking against Taliban and she was calling President Obama her idea leader. She was young but she was promoting Western culture in Pashtun areas."

Political and religious leaders not only in Pakistan but throughout the world have condemned this cowardly attack on a female high school student. The Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Hina Rabbani Khar, has said this attack represents the "clash of two mindsets; the one striving for peace, development, education and peaceful coexistence and the other desiring to keep the nation in the dark and in the cruel clutches of ignorance and barbarianism."

But the international organization Human Rights Watch has criticized Pakistan for its failure to act. It has not put a stop to the public intimidation of women and girls in Pakistan by religious extremists, the organization charges.

The Taliban are notorious for their rejection of female education. This attack shows how far they will go to achieve their goal. This time they may have shot themselves in the foot, especially if the condemnation of this attacks continues.

Both Boko Haram and the Taliban have given Islam a bad name. Their rejection of education, especially Western education and the education of women, makes many people think that all Muslims are opposed to education. That is not true.

During the Middle Ages, Muslim political leaders were able to debate the finer points of philosophy and theology while their counterparts in the Christian West were struggling just to write their own names. Muslim scholars have preserved many Greek writings, including much of the corpus of Aristotle, which had been lost in the West. Without them Thomas Aquinas might never have become famous.

Even today, Muslims value education. It is only a handful of extremists that have given Islam a reputation that this religion does not deserve.

Extremists of many faiths have demonstrated how much they too despise education, thus this is not unique to Islam. All extremists want to keep people ignorant, so that they can continue to attack what they perceive as Western or secular or whatever, and thus must be rejected.

They also want the freedom to perpetuate their misogyny. They hate women who do not acknowledge their place in society. But this misogynous thinking is found in many parts of the world, not just among extremists.

There are many Christian denominations where the role of women in the church is restricted. The Roman Catholic Church is the prime example. Women are permitted to become theologians, but are not allowed to be priests since priests must be male. Other denominations have similarly limited the role of women.

Those who deny the priesthood to women are generally not considered extremists, but they are relatives to those who bar women from getting the education they deserve and severely curtail their role in society. This is only one example of how, even in Western societies, women are discriminated against because of their gender.

Therefore it is wise for people in the West to be cautious in casting stones at extremists in other parts of the world for their rejection of education, especially for women. There are many complex cultural and historical factors that lie behind their behavior.

This is not to excuse such behavior. On the contrary, it must be condemned. Those who try to assassinate a teenage girl must be brought to trial. But many people in Pakistan share their sentiment, and thus Pakistani society as a whole must also be held responsible.

In Nigeria, the northern part of the country, what are called the sharia states, has not shared fully in the oil riches that Nigeria has blessed with, although some Nigerians might call it a curse. In these states students often do not enjoy a modern educational system, but instead attend madrasas, Islamic schools where the Qur'an is taught.

The Nigerian states marked in green are where sharia has already been declared

Universal basic education, which was promulgated many decades ago, has failed miserably to provide a proper education to millions of Nigerians because the necessary resources were never provided. Not only the North but the entire country has suffered as a result.

I have taught in Nigerian universities and seminaries and have witnessed first hand how poorly prepared many students are. In the North, for historical and other reasons, the preparation is even worse than in the rest of Nigeria.

Education in many parts of the world has become secularized. In addition, it is associated with a West that is widely condemned for its immorality and hypocrisy. Thus it should hardly surprise the rest of the world when extremists in Nigeria condemn Western education.

Yet education is important. Thus the world should encourage the people of Nigeria to get a good education and not to let extremists in the North deprive them of this basic human right.

The world should also ensure that all women, not only in Pakistan but elsewhere as well, are able to go to school. The attack by the Taliban on Malala Yousafzai may yet prove to be a crucial step in making that possible. As Muslims always respond when they make statements like this, Insh'Allah (God willing).

Monday, October 8, 2012

Romney's faith and the public square

Politicians, as a rule, do not like to talk about their faith and how it relates to politics. They prefer to relegate faith to the private part of their existence. And they do not want to discuss its relevance in the public square.

Yet most voters continue to say it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs. But they have only a limited awareness of the faiths of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. And there is little evidence to suggest that concerns about the candidates’ respective faiths will have a meaningful impact in the upcoming elections.

In the previous post I introduced a speech President Obama delivered in 2006 in which he openly discussed his faith and its role in politics. This time I want to do the same for Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for the presidency.

I will focus on an interview which appeared originally in the Washington National Cathedral’s magazine, Cathedral Age, that asked President Obama and Governor Romney the same set of questions about the presence of faith in their lives. A version of this interview was published in The Huffington Post.

Since I dealt with Obama last time, in the interest of fairness I will limit my remarks this time to Romney, except to note that Obama's answers are appreciably longer and, in some cases, more profound.

In response to the question how faith plays a role in his life, Romney answers openly:

"Faith is integral to my life. I have served as a lay pastor in my church. I faithfully follow its precepts. I was taught in my home to honor God and love my neighbor. My father was committed to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s cause of equality, and I saw my parents provide compassionate care to others, in personal ways to people nearby and in leading national volunteer movements. My faith is grounded in the conviction that a consequence of our common humanity is our responsibility to one another -- to our fellow Americans foremost, but also to every child of God."

Romney is a Mormon. He has never hidden his faith, as his answer reveals. He served as a missionary  in France for thirty months before he began his career in business and politics. 

His faith, however, is an issue for some Christians, who regard the Mormon Church as a cult. The proper name for the largest Mormon denomination is: "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." The Mormon Church is certainly Christian to the extent that Christ is at the center of its beliefs and individual Mormons try to live following the teaching and example of Christ. However, they do deny the Trinity and several other cardinal Christian beliefs. Thus some Christians reject Romney because of his Mormon faith.

Now is not the time to debate the issue of whether Mormons are Christians. What is more crucial during the election period is whether or not Romney's Mormonism will hurt him at the polls. Will people perceive the Mormon Church as a threat, the same way that the Roman Catholic Church was regarded shortly before the election in 1960? Yet after John F. Kennedy's election this issue became moot. The same thing will probably happen if Romney is elected as president.

In his answer to the first question, Romney revealed his concern for social justice and his belief that people everywhere must serve each other. This attitude is confirmed in his answer to the second question about his favorite scriptural passage. Here Romney quotes Matthew 25: 35–36, in the King James Version:

"For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me."

We should not question the sincerity of his faith or his concern for people. A concern for social justice is not absent even in the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.

The third question is perhaps the most pertinent for our topic: "How do you view the role of faith in public life?" Obama's answer is longer, but Romney's is relevant to many issues that are very controversial today:

"We should acknowledge the Creator, as did the Founders -- in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests."

Yet I wish that Romney had said more in his response. This is inadequate in describing how all people, but especially politicians, should try to make their faith relevant in the public square. I would like Romney to address this question at greater length. As in the campaign thus far, he has refrained from being specific on many issues, including this. That has led to charges of hypocrisy and a lack of integrity.

The final question dealt with the role of faith in unifying America. Romney's answer is rather brief:

"I believe that while we are a country with so many differences in creed and theology, we can all meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview."

Whether all Americans share a common worldview is highly debatable, but the divided nature of American society has never been clearer than in this election. Americans are divided not only in creed and theology but in every way. We can only pray that the service model that Romney presents will be able to unite everyone.

This interview is hardly an adequate source for Romney's views on the topic of faith and the public square. No doubt they are richer than is evident here, but it is a start. I make no pretense of being exhaustive with regard to Romney, just as I was not with Obama. 

Obama's speech and this interview suggest to me that faith has not yet been eliminated entirely from public discourse in the US. In Canada, which is more secular than the US, the faith of politicians is not discussed publicly. 

Thus Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is an evangelical Christian, does not feel called upon to explain how his faith influences the legislation that his government proposes. It does, but he looses either way if he discusses it. However, that is a story for another time.

Thankfully, in the US it is quite different. Let me give another example of this openness. Last month, The New York Times quoted Michele Obama on her interpretation of Christianity. She said:

"Our faith journey isn’t just about showing up on Sunday. It’s about what we do Monday through Saturday as well … Jesus didn’t limit his ministry to the four walls of the church. He was out there fighting injustice and speaking truth to power every single day."

I do not hear such language very often in Canada. In the US it is still possible for politicians to speak openly about their faith and its role in politics. One might wish that they would say more or say it differently, but at least they are able to say something in public. For that I am thankful on this Canadian Thanksgiving Day.

Regardless of who wins in November, in the US politicians of every stripe can still talk openly about their faith. But will their faith be a positive influence for the entire nation? That is the question that Americans must ask as they march to the polls in a few weeks.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

President Obama on the role of religion in the public square

It is difficult, if not impossible, to describe how Christians perceive the role of faith in the public square. There are probably as many views as there are Christians. These run the entire gamut, from those who reject any such role at all to those who want to apply Old Testament laws literally in the modern state.

Rather than attempting to survey all these views, in this post I want to describe how one of the two leading politicians in the US today views this role. In the near future, I will look again at the issue of how Christians view the role of faith in the public square, but then from a wider perspective.

Today I have selected the candidate of the Democratic Party for the presidency, President Barack Obama. The approaching November elections makes the topic of the role of faith especially relevant.

Next time, in the interest of political fairness, I will discuss Governor Mitt Romney, the candidate of the Republican Party. However, I find Obama's comments on faith clearer than those of Romney, when they were both interviewed on this topic. I will refer to that interview further at that time.

Obama has spoken very clearly on this issue. What he says reflects his Christian faith. He is indeed a Christian, although a few Americans persist in their erroneous belief that he is a Muslim. Making such a fallacious claim is not enough, the onus is on his critics to prove that he is not a Christian either in his beliefs or his lifestyle.

In a speech made about six years ago, Obama spoke eloquently about the connection between religion and politics. His words are still relevant today. They have not become stale, nor is there any indication that he has changed his perspective on this topic.

Obama's speech has been recognized by many as perhaps the most important speech on religion and politics in 40 years. Click here for the full text of his speech.

Obama begins by dealing with an accusation that was made about him: "Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama. Christ would not vote for Barack Obama because Barack Obama has behaved in a way that it is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved."

Obama talks about his faith very openly. He tells how, after neglecting faith for many years, he was able to affirm his Christian faith at Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in Chicago. For him faith itself and the use of faith language are both very important.

Thus, Obama asserts, "secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square."  Here the role of faith is the public square is clearly affirmed by him.

"Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause," Obama notes. "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."

Obama also recognizes that the US is a pluralistic and democratic society. Thus there are limitations on how people can exercise their faith. He explains:

"Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. 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.

Not everyone will feel comfortable with Obama's language. Many will insist that people of faith need to speak more bluntly about the issues that concern them. Obama too is aware of this difficulty. He immediately adds:

"Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing."

What Obama says here should serve as a warning to those who want to focus narrowly on certain issues, such as abortion, making such issues a litmus test for politics. But politics, as Obama states clearly, involves the ability to compromise. Too narrow a focus makes it impossible for people of faith to play a significant role in the public square.

Obama recognizes that "any reconciliation between faith and democratic pluralism requires some sense of proportion." This applies to both sides, he adds:

"Even those who claim the Bible's inerrancy make distinctions between Scriptural edicts, sensing that some passages - the Ten Commandments, say, or a belief in Christ's divinity - are central to Christian faith, while others are more culturally specific and may be modified to accommodate modern life."

"But 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. It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase 'under God.' I didn't." 

Obama then wraps up that part of his speech by making this observation: 

"So we all have some work to do here. But I am hopeful that we can bridge the gaps that exist and overcome the prejudices each of us bring to this debate. And I have faith that millions of believing Americans want that to happen. No matter how religious they may or may not be, people are tired of seeing faith used as a tool of attack. They don't want faith used to belittle or to divide. They're tired of hearing folks deliver more screed than sermon. Because in the end, that's not how they think about faith in their own lives."

I found this speech very impressive. I may not agree with every one of his assertions, but he does explain very clearly and cogently how he sees the role of faith in that part of the public square we call politics.

You do not have to agree with his politics at all in order to commend him for his honesty and forthrightness. If only all politicians displayed those virtues, politics would change for the better. Most prefer not to breathe a word about their faith or its role in politics.

When I watch the presidential debates this month, I will remind myself of Obama's words and be thankful for his evident wisdom. I hope you will too.