James Dobson v. Barack Obama

James Dobson, on his Focus on the Family radio show the other day (June 24, 2008), did a 20-minute diatribe against Barack Obama. Dobson took offense at what Barack Obama said about him in a speech from two years ago. Evidently, Dobson hadn’t read the Call to Renewal speech or heard it until just recently.

In the "Call to Renewal" speech, Obama said,
“Given the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers. And even if we did have only Christians within our borders, who's Christianity would we teach in the schools? James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's?”

To which Dobson responded,
“I don't want to be defensive here. Obviously, that is offensive to me. 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. He also equates me with Al Sharpton, who is a reverend. I am not a reverend, I'm not a minister, I'm not a theologian, I'm not an evangelist. I'm a psychologist. I have a Ph.D. in child development from the University of Southern California. And there is no equivalence to us.”

Dobson is missing the point. Dobson hates being equated to Sharpton, and he has allowed his being offended to get in the way of understanding what Obama is saying. Dobson's argument against Obama's linking of Sharpton with Dobson is that Dobson is not a reverend or a theologian but instead a psychologist. This may be true, but it does not keep Dobson from bestowing theological judgments against people or ideas that he opposes and pastoral blessing on those that he deems to be properly Christian. Obama’s point that Sharpton represents the Christian left while Dobson the Christian right is an appropriate observation. Obama is simply stating that America has to be careful not to favor one set of religious views over another, even the religious views within Christianity.

Obama said,
“Which passages of scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage so radical that it's doubtful that our Defense Department would survive its application? ...Folks haven't been reading their Bibles.”

To which Thomas Minnery (Dobson’s co-host) responded,
“That kind of commentary drives me crazy. It’s almost willful to confuse the dietetic laws of the Old Testament that applied to the Israelites to suggest that the Levitical law governing stoning of a belligerent, drunkard son somehow applies to the church age of the New Testament. The Lord was trying to purify, trying to create a holy nation, and laws that applied to them then, the Levitical code, the dietary laws, no longer apply. Many of the principles in the Old Testament apply, but not those laws. And it seems that he’s willfully trying to confuse people with what Jesus said in the New Testament.”

To which Dobson comments,
“I think he’s deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology…He is dragging biblical understanding through the gutter.”

And Minnery adds,
“And you remember, more recently, he quoted the Sermon on the Mount – cited the Sermon on the Mount as justifying same-sex marriage.”

Obama does have a penchant for making the old, tired argument about the non-existent boogey-men who want a “theocracy.” The argument is that these theocrats are dangerous and that they are not even consistent by accepting all the Levitical laws as binding on modern society. However, nobody in the religious right camp suggests this – it is a straw-man.
Obama says in this speech that “folks haven't been reading their Bibles,” but that kind of off-scripted statement does not help Obama’s cause. On another occasion, while in Ohio in March, Obama said, “I don't think it [a same-sex union] should be called marriage, but I think that it is a legal right that they should have that is recognized by the state. If people find that controversial then I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which I think is, in my mind, for my faith, more central than an obscure passage in Romans.” Where in the Sermon on the Mount does Jesus refer to homosexuality, and why is Romans, an important letter from the Apostle Paul, dismissed by Obama as “obscure?” It seems that it is Obama that needs to be reading his Bible.
The point Obama is trying to make by referring to Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and the Sermon on the Mount has to do with the proper role of religion in a pluralist society. The reason we need to be careful about trying to foist our religious beliefs on others in the political arena is that questions would be raised, “Whose religious beliefs shall we favor in our nation’s political enterprise? And how do we choose that?”

Obama said,
“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. This may be difficult for those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice.”

To which Dobson responded,
“Am I required in a democracy to conform my efforts in the political arena to his bloody notion of what is right with regard to the lives of tiny babies? What he's trying to say here is, unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe. What the senator is saying there, in essence, is that I can't seek to pass legislation, for example, that bans partial-birth abortion, because there are people in the culture who don't see that as a moral issue. And if I can't get everyone to agree with me, than it is undemocratic to try to pass legislation that I find offensive to the Scripture. Now, that is a fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution.”

Obama did not say what Dobson is making him out to say. In fact, Obama is saying the exact opposite. Just moments earlier in this same speech, Obama had said, “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. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryan, 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. 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.” The “fruitcake interpretation” is found in Dobson’s interpretation of Obama’s words.

Obama said,
“They [the American people] don’t want faith used to belittle or to divide.
They’re tired of hearing folks deliver more screed than sermon.”

To which Dobson responded,
“You know, how interesting it is that Senator Obama is condemning pastors there for their highly emotional diabtribe, when he sat for twenty years under the tutelage of his own pastor, and eventually had to disown him.”

Minnery added,
“And he only disowned him when it became public that Reverend Jeremiah Wright was delivering ‘more screed than sermon.’ Apparently, Senator Obama didn’t recognize it in his own pastor, in his own church.”

Dobson and Minnery are absolutely right. This is a deeply troubling thing. Anybody who is thinking about supporting Obama had better answer this question. How could Obama speak against those who “deliver more screed than sermon” while listening to Jeremiah Wright do just that week-in and week-out at Trinity United Church of Christ? How can Obama legitimately portray a calm and steady demeanor on issues (especially concerning race and religion) while being under the mentorship of Wright?

Near the end of the show, Dobson criticizes all the candidates for not talking about preserving the family.
“It is as though the family does not matter… They don’t give a hoot about the family!”

But in this very speech that Dobson has been criticizing, Obama said,
“Our failure as progressives to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical. Our fear of getting preachy may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems... Solving these problems will require changes in government policy; it will also require changes in hearts and minds... I think we should put more of our tax dollars into educating poor girls and boys, and give them the information about contraception that can prevent unwanted pregnancies, lower abortion rates, and help assure that every child is loved and cherished. But my Bible tells me that if we train a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not turn from it. I think faith and guidance can help fortify a young woman's sense of self, a young man's sense of responsibility, and a sense of reverence all young people for the act of sexual intimacy.”

Sounds like family values to me…


Beside Myself With Excitement about 3 Rivers Prog Rock Fest


I know that there are those of you who wonder about my quirky musical taste. I love the genre call "progressive rock." It's an underground genre, but those of us who love it are very loyal.

And we have our festivals. Most feature "Yes-wannabes" and "Almost-Floyds." But the one coming up at Pittsburgh's Pepsi Roadhouse in August is going to be one for the ages. It's called the 3 Rivers Progressive Rock Festival (3RP). Four (count 'em - 4!!) of my favorite prog rock artists will be there, along with six other bands that sound pretty good.

I've seen The Flower Kings before - Roine' Stolt and company are an amazingly talented band in the vein of Peter Gabriel, old-time Genesis, and Yes. Stolt's songs are symphonic rock with jazz fusion and just enough rhythm and blues plus folk thrown in for good measure.

California Guitar Trio are virtuosos with a sense of humor. As their name implies, they play three guitars, doing instrumental music fusing classical, rock, blues, jazz, world music, progressive, and surf music into an amazingly entertaining show. They do their own songs as well as covers of classic rock songs (Bohemian Rhapsody, Echoes, Tubular Bells) and classical pieces (Beethoven's Fifth).

But the highlight of the show, and what all modern prog rock fans are soooo excited about is that both Spock's Beard and Neal Morse will play on the same night!

Neal Morse was the leader of Spock's Beard through six albums, writing the majority of the music and acting as the frontman as the lead singer while contributing with keyboards and guitar. The great heyday of Spock's Beard was the late 90s and early 2000s, when the band was critically reviewed as the best of the best in Prog Rock. Neal Morse was known as the creative genius of the band. Spock's Beard's music was in the vein of Genesis, Gentle Giant, Yes, and other symphonic bands. The lyrics were very spiritual. But in 2002, Morse announced that after a Christian conversion a few of years earlier, he felt it was time to go solo and attempt to create progressive rock music that would be distinctly Christian in its message.

Spock's Beard announced it would go on without Neal. Nick D'Virgilio stepped out from behind the drumkit and took over lead vocals. Everybody was comparing this to when Peter Gabriel left Genesis and Phil Collins had done the same.

Neal Morse and Spock's Beard have each produced albums since (Neal 4, SB 3). And both have proved that they can create excellence on their own. But, in my opinion, Neal is still one of those unique talents that comes along once in a very great while. He rarely tours now, and when he does he usually does one-man shows. I have been hoping to see him with his full band, playing all my favorite epic masterpieces that he's done over the years.

Spock's Beard were first announced to be at 3RP, along with the other acts. The website said that another act or two would be added in the future. Then the announcement came a couple days ago - Neal Morse will be headlining Saturday night, with Spock's Beard playing right before him!

MAN! Am I excited about this. Perhaps (oh please, oh please!) Spock's Beard will unite with Neal for a set of their classic songs.

Here's the performing acts:
Saturday, Aug. 23rd 2008
The Mandrake Project
Spock's Beard
Neal Morse

Sunday, Aug. 24th 2008
Rocket Scientists
California Guitar Trio
The Flower Kings

Want to listen? Check out my "muxtape" of my "favs from 3RP"


The Creation Sets in Motion the Development of Human Creativity

God is the creator of potential.

When the Triune God created the cosmos and placed humanity at its center, the goal was development.

The ancient church father Irenaeus taught that Adam was not created as a fully mature end-product, but with a future goal in mind. The human race was never meant to be stagnant – we were created with great potential and placed in a cosmos of great potentiality.

Al Wolters writes,

"The mandate to develop creation is being fulfilled in history.

"The given reality of the created order is such that it is possible to have schools and industry, printing and rocketry, needlepoint and chess… What is involved here is the opening up of creation through the historical process. If we fail to see this, if we conceive of the historical differentiation that has led to such institutions as the school and the business enterprise, and such developments as urbanization and the mass media, as being basically outside the scope of creational reality and its responsible management by the human race, we will be tempted to look upon these and similar matters as fundamentally alien to God’s purposes in the world and will tend to brand them as being inherently ‘secular,’ either in a religiously neutral or an outright negative sense.

"However, if we see that human history and the unfolding of culture and society are integral to creation and its development, that they are not outside God’s plans for the cosmos, despite the sinful aberrations, but rather were built in from the beginning, were part of the blueprint that we never understood before, then we will be much more open to the positive possibilities for service to God in such areas as politics and the film arts, computer technology and business administration, developmental economics and skydiving." (Creation Regained, pp. 43-45)


How Will History Regard George W. Bush?

And, what will be God’s judgment upon him?

Evangelicals are credited with getting Bush into office and especially with keeping him there. I was one who voted for him in 2000 and then voted against him in 2004. Why? Because I became convinced that Bush’s presidency was a sham – that this “Christian” was responsible for misleading the American public with manipulating the intelligence to drum up support for the war.

I also became convinced that this “Christian” president had surrounded himself with people who were some of the worst public servants possible. Donald Rumsfeld was incredibly incompetent in his role as Secretary of Defense. Dick Cheney was a dangerous man in his role as Vice President. Condoleezza Rice was asleep at the wheel. Colon Powell, the one man with a contrary voice in this administration, was both marginalized and used for the Cheney/ Rumsfeld/ Wolfowitz war agenda.

I later also came to believe that this “Christian” president’s administration not only allowed torture, but encouraged it (as we considered both Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay). I was appalled to think that this “Christian” president’s witness to the world was that we “Christians” in the United States can disregard Geneva Conventions and our own standards of justice.

How will history regard Bush and his administration? We are starting to see now.

The U.S. Subcommittee on Intelligence just issued a report that states that, “on numerous occasions,” the Bush Administration’s prewar statements “misrepresented the intelligence and the threat from Iraq.”

The chairman of the committee, John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV stated, “In making the case for war, the Administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent. As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed…There is no question we all relied on flawed intelligence. But, there is a fundamental difference between relying on incorrect intelligence and deliberately painting a picture to the American people that you know is not fully accurate.”

Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan has been making the rounds on the talk shows after publishing his book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception. The Washington Post reports, “He describes Bush as demonstrating a 'lack of inquisitiveness,' says the White House operated in 'permanent campaign' mode, and admits to having been deceived by some in the president's inner circle about the leak of a CIA operative's name.”

In the book, McClellen writes, "Over that summer of 2002, top Bush aides had outlined a strategy for carefully orchestrating the coming campaign to aggressively sell the war. . . . In the permanent campaign era, it was all about manipulating sources of public opinion to the president's advantage."

Added to this, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, has brought this administration’s policy of detaining prisoners at Guantanamo Bay into the spotlight again, granting habeas corpus to the detainees. President Bush stated that he disagreed with the ruling. But, as conservative George Will makes clear, “The purpose of a writ of habeas corpus is to cause a government to release a prisoner or show through due process why the prisoner should be held. Of Guantanamo's approximately 270 detainees, many certainly are dangerous ‘enemy combatants.’ Some probably are not. None will be released by the court's decision, which does not even guarantee a right to a hearing. Rather, it guarantees only a right to request a hearing. Courts retain considerable discretion regarding such requests.”

On top of that, today the Associated Press reports, “Medical examinations of former terrorism suspects held by the U.S. military at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, found evidence of torture and other abuse that resulted in serious injuries and mental disorders, according to a human rights group.”

Also, McClatchy Newspapers reports, “The framework under which detainees were imprisoned for years without charges at Guantanamo and in many cases abused in Afghanistan wasn't the product of American military policy or the fault of a few rogue soldiers. It was largely the work of five White House, Pentagon and Justice Department lawyers who, following the orders of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, reinterpreted or tossed out the U.S. and international laws that govern the treatment of prisoners in wartime, according to former U.S. defense and Bush administration officials.”

How will history regard Bush and his administration? The evidence is mounting.

And, what will be God’s judgment upon him?

I do not presume to be God, but it seems that the person who takes on the responsibility to lead the most powerful nation in the world, and does so as a confessed Christian, will be judged by a very high standard.

“For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14).


Envision: Quotes on Social Justice

My friend Joel Daniel Harris is attending Envision 08: The Gospel, Politics, and the Future at Princeton this week. He offers the following quotes at his blog that should get us all thinking.

"The church should be about the earthing of heaven..." - Richard Cizik quoting others

"When we partner for God's purposes, we win no matter who we partner with... whether Muslim, or homosexual, or a different vein of Christianity, or differing morality, etc." - Richard Cizik

"Jesus didn't go around pimpin' it out that he was the Son of God." - Shane Claiborne

"Just as important as 'making poverty history' is making poverty personal." - Shane Claiborne

"We (Christians) don't have to agree on everything but we should be known for disagreeing well and respectfully." - Shane Claiborne

"Teaching Intelligent Design according to a scientific understanding actually diminishes the faith... Iprefer to live in an enchanted universe where mystery reigns rather than denigrate God to the realm of science." - Randall Balmer

"I would suggest that those who care so much about the concept of Intelligent Design should care more about the creation of that Intelligent Designer." - Randall Balmer


American Civil Religion and the Problem of Israel/Palestine

James Skillen, of the Center for Public Justice writes,

Religions are ways of life and not merely the consciously intended practices of worship and pastoral service. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim ways of life are supposed to guide the adherents of those faiths in what they do all week long and not only in the ways they worship. Religions as ways of life generally function like the glasses through which we see things; we are not always conscious of the glasses (or our eyes) when we see things, even though they are what make it possible to focus on anything in particular.

In this light it is possible to understand why the American way of life is often overlooked when people talk about religion, even though it often challenges or conflicts with the ways of life called for by the scriptures and authorities of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communions. The American way of life might not structure our Saturday or Sunday worship services, but it certainly functions as the glasses through which many Americans see and make sense of their daily lives. Let me illustrate.

We will never adequately understand America's support for the State of Israel unless we recognize that support as an expression of the American civil religion or way of life, which is often in conflict or tension with other religious ways of life. I am discovering the depth of the tensions among these religions as I write a paper on three Zionisms, a paper that will be part of a forthcoming book on religion in international affairs. The three Zionisms are (1) American new-Israelitism, (2) Jewish Zionism, and (3) contemporary Christian Zionism. These three Zionisms are very powerful influences shaping political practice and foreign policy decisions.

Consider the current American presidential campaign. In May, one of Barack Obama's advisers on Middle East policy, Robert Malley, was strongly criticized by pro-Israel advocates (both Christians and Jews) for having said that Israel as well as the Palestinians had been responsible for the failure of peace talks during the Clinton administration and for meeting more recently with officials of Hamas, which now controls the Gaza region of the Palestinian territory and is considered a terrorist organization by the George W. Bush administration. Obama felt compelled to dismiss Malley immediately from any formal advisory role in his campaign and assured critics that he is as fully supportive of Israel as Hillary Clinton and John McCain are.

Commenting on the Malley-Obama incident, Gordon Rachman (Financial Times, 5/27/08) writes that it's a shame the presidential candidates cannot even raise critical questions about Israel without fear of being denounced by the powerful Christian and Jewish pro-Israel lobbies in the United States. "This taboo is all the more bizarre," says Rachman, "since the Israeli government itself is currently negotiating with Hamas." Rachman adds that the "last time I was in Jerusalem, Israeli officials complained to me that the US's refusal to talk to the Syrians was foolish . . . . Now it turns out that the Israelis themselves are holding talks with Syria--but sponsored by Turkey, not the US." Rachman also quotes a McCain spokesman who said, "It is easier to have an open discussion on Palestine in Tel Aviv than in Washington." "Why is the American debate so constrained?" asks Rachman. It is, he says, because Jewish and Christian evangelical voters are so "fervently pro-Israel." But why, we must ask, are those voters so fervently and powerfully pro-Israel?

An adequate answer to the last question cannot be developed here, but it would move along the following lines. American Christian Zionists are convinced that the end of history and God's final judgment of the world will follow the fulfillment of certain biblical prophecies, which include God's blessing or cursing of America depending on whether America stands firm behind the State of Israel. American Jewish Zionists are strongly pro-Israel not for reasons of biblical prophecy but out of commitment to the success of modern Jewish nationalism, and they, too, demand American commitment to Israel above all else. And why are these two Zionisms so closely connected to the United States? This is where American new-Israelitism comes in. The American way of life is predicated on the conviction that God chose this nation to be a new Israel, a light to the world, a city set on a hill, to lead the world to freedom and democracy. And this new-covenant nation should now support the State of Israel (which represents God's old covenant people returning to the Promised Land) in order that the fulfillment of end-times prophecies will include God's blessing (rather than cursing) of America.

Now you may think that all of this is theological nonsense or beside the point, politically speaking. But you'd be wrong. Even though America's actual influence in the Middle East has been declining and many of its pro-Israel policies failing, the unquestioned civil-religious faith of Americanism that helps to sustain Jewish Zionism and Christian Zionism lives on and is even gaining strength among vast numbers of Americans. And if any candidate wants to succeed in politics, he or she had better toe this line if they want support from the pro-Israel lobby.

To open a genuine public debate about American policy in the Middle East, therefore, will take more than standard political arguments. It will require debates that go all the way down to the religiously deep ways of life that drive peoples and nations. And it will require coming to grips with the religious character of the American way of life.

James W. Skillen, President, Center for Public Justice