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Obama's Emptiness

I still don't understand either Barack Obama or keynote speeches. The former recently gave one of the latter on the subject of religion and progressive politics, and the blogosphere is all atwitter. Some are furious that he would dare say something nice about religion, since doing so amounts to selling out to Jerry Falwell. Others are swooning over the silver-tongued savior of the left.

I read the speech and couldn't see what the fuss was about. It's a long bit of rambling boilerplate, nice-sounding but noncommittal. It's made all the worse by the fact that he was speaking to a conference on faith-based progressive politics, so his audience would already be quite well aware of, and in agreement with, the idea that progressives shouldn't let the right have a monopoly on religion.

That claim is true, but it's hardly sufficient -- after all, nearly every prominent Democratic politician is a believer and makes a labored show of the depth of their faith on the campaign trail. To accomplish anything, progressives need not just to defensively deny the right's framing, since that only reinforces it and invites the type of close scrutiny justifiably given to newly-proposed and against-the-conventional-wisdom claims. What's needed is a positive narrative (one that doesn't need to be framed as a reaction to the right) showing how Christianity can give rise to the set of values shared by both Christian and non-Christian progressives* (once we decide what those values are). But Obama's "liberals can too be religious" angle doesn't give us that narrative. The only bit of real substance in the whole speech (albeit substance that reflects well on Obama's character) came at the very end, when he described how an email exchange with an undecided conservative voter led him to tone down the ad hominem in his website's statement on abortion. But less ad hominem is only the first step.

* This project is essentially liberal, as it roots a shared political program in a substantive worldview already head by a group of people, without demanding that people who don't already hold that worldview have to change their minds -- they can find justifications for the same political program in their own worldviews. It also reminds me of the pragmatist interpretation of Arne Naess's "apron diagram" theory, in which varying philosophies -- he talked about Christianity, Buddhism, and his own secular version of Spinoza -- will, if interpreted rationally, lead to the same Deep Ecology platform.


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