The Right’s New Religious Test

For months now, Religious Right activists have been quietly attacking Barack Obama’s Christian faith.  For years, the Right had routinely accused anyone who dared to criticize any Republican or right-wing political candidate for their political views of engaging in an unconstitutional religious test or exhibiting religious bigotry.

But the ascent of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, coupled with his open discussion of his personal faith, has forced the Right to not only jettison its long-held position that attacking a political candidate because of his or her faith was off limits, but to go a step further to include outright attacks on the fundamental tenets of Obama’s Christianity. 

For months, activists like Rob Schenck have been declaring “Obama’s Christianity woefully deficient” and demanding that Obama explain, in detail, the basic tenets of his faith so that the Right can judge just “how profound is the religious commitment that Barack Obama has made.”  Others have echoed that point, saying that Obama is not a “true Christian,”  that “there is a clear requirement for one to qualify as a Christian and Obama doesn’t meet that requirement,” and that Obama’s faith “tramples on the historic teachings of Christianity and the Bible.”

Until now, those attacks had been more or less relegated to the right-wing fringe, but it looks like they are about to become mainstream talking points, as James Dobson attacked Obama’s understanding of Christianity on today’s broadcast, as the Associated Press reported

Dobson and Minnery accused Obama of wrongly equating Old Testament texts and dietary codes that no longer apply to Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament.

“I think he’s deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology,” Dobson said.

“… He is dragging biblical understanding through the gutter.”

He said Obama, who supports abortion rights, is trying to govern by the “lowest common denominator of morality,” labeling it “a fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution.”

Listen to Dobson and Minnery discuss Obama and his faith:

The subject of the program was Obama’s “‘Call to Renewal Keynote Address” from 2006, in which Obama said “Whatever we once were, we’re no longer a Christian nation. At least not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, and a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.”  To which Minnery angrily replied:

“Well I say, ‘Excuse me?’ 76% of the people identify themselves as Christian.  There are only six-tenths of one percent who are Muslim, seven-tenths of one percent who are Buddhist, four-tenths of one percent who are Hindu … so he is diminishing the idea that people of Christian faith have anything to say and then he begins to diminish you.”

Obama apparently “diminished” Dobson with this question:

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 we go with James Dobson’s, or Al Sharpton’s?

Minnery was outraged that Obama would compare Dobson to Sharpton, accusing Sharpton of having made his name off racial bigotry and saying that many consider him to be a “black racist,” at which point Dobson chimed in to voice his own outrage:

“He 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 … This 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.”  

After they got over their own hurt feeling, Minnery and Dobson proceeded to zero in on Obama’s understanding of the Bible and the Christian faith, with Minnery accusing Obama of disparaging “serious understanding of the Bible” and calling him “vastly confused about the details of Biblical exposition, [while] painting himself in the highly religious aura.”  For his part, Dobson mocked Obama, telling him that he “ought to read the Bible” and blasting him for allegedly presenting himself “as if he’s some kind of Biblical authority,” which was an odd critique considering that Dobson had just been insisting that he himself was “not a reverend, not a minister, not a theologian.”

But what really got Dobson worked up was this paragraph from Obama’s speech: 

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.

To which Dobson responded by deliberately misconstruing Obama’s point:

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, it is undemocratic to try to pass legislation that I find offensive to the Scripture.  Now that is a fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution … 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 is trying to say is unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe.  I thank God that that’s not what the Constitution says. 

The next line in Obama’s speech was “Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do” – and judging by Dobson’s absurd reaction and interpretation, he couldn’t have been more prescient.    

Dobson concluded by justifying the importance of today’s program, saying there is a need to “let people know what Barack Obama thinks about religion and especially Christianity.”  And then, in an effort to seemingly appear less partisan, Dobson and Minnery took a moment to blast Sen. John McCain for failing to publicly push for a marriage amendment in his home state of Arizona, saying his silence has been “very disappointing.” 

In the end, said Dobson, right-wing evangelicals such as himself are feeling “a lot of frustration with both political parties” this election year.