Perfect pitch: Obama talks to the religious right

Barack Obama talks about religion and politics to David Brody of Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. No doubt about it: the man has perfect pitch.

And notice that the CBN reporters treat him very, very respectfully.

Full text below, with the juicy bits highlighted and a couple of typos in the original silently emended.

Brody Question: The latest Time Magazine poll shows that you are viewed as the “most religious” Democrat and you even out poll a number of Republicans. What do you attribute that to?

Senator Obama: I don’t think it’s helpful as candidates or as a country to get into discussions about who’s more religious. That sounds a little like storing up treasures on earth to me. I’ve just always been clear that my Christian faith has motivated me for 20 years and I’m not ashamed to talk about it, or the role that faith should play in our American life.

Brody Question: As you seek or preach unity during your campaign, you recently gave a speech to your church body where you said, “Faith got hijacked, partly because of the so-called leaders of the Christian Right, all too eager to exploit what divides us.” Some Evangelicals were taken aback at what they considered the harsh rhetoric. What was your intention when you said that and why did you feel it needed to be said?

Senator Obama: My intention was to contrast the heated partisan rhetoric of a distinct minority of Christian leaders with the vast majority of Evangelical Christians – conservatives included – who believe that hate has no place in our politics. When you have pastors and television pundits who appear to explicitly coordinate with one political party; when you’re implying that your fellow Americans are traitors, terrorist sympathizers or akin to the devil himself; then I think you’re attempting to hijack the faith of those who follow you for your own personal or political ends.

But as I said in my speech, it’s critically important to understand that these are the “so-called” leaders, not the real leaders. The real leaders are clergy and lay folks who are living out their faith every day in ways large and small, trying their best to determine how best to serve God and their fellow man. They may not agree with me on every issue, they may not even support me in an election (heaven forbid), but they know that hate has no place in the hearts of believers.

Brody Question: There is the so-called “religious left” in this country that focuses primarily on social justice issues and there is the so-called “religious right” in this country that focuses more on personal salvation and the life and marriage issues. Some on the right believe that Evangelicals shouldn’t be the only ones moving left. Rather, the left needs to move toward the middle as well and not just put the focus on their issues. What is your plan to bring these two sides together?

Senator Obama: Well, these are difficult problems and there are no easy solutions. But I think that there are some lessons that both progressives and conservatives might learn. For progressives, I think we should recognize the role that values and culture play in addressing some of our most urgent social problems. As I’ve said many times before, the problems of poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed aren’t simply technical problems in search of a ten-point plan. They’re rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness in the imperfections of man.

For example, I believe in keeping guns out of our inner cities, and that our leaders must say so in the face of the gun manufacturers’ lobby. But I also believe that when a gang-banger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody disrespected him, we’ve got a moral problem. There’s a hole in that young man’s heart – a hole that the government alone cannot fix. So solving these problems will require changes in government policy, but it will also require changes in hearts and a change in minds. I think progressives would do well to take this to heart.

For my friends on the right, I think it would be helpful to remember the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy but also our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn’t the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn’t want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves.

It was the forbears of Evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religion, because they didn’t want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it. Given this fact, I think that the right might worry a bit more about the dangers of sectarianism.

Whatever we once were, we’re 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 non-believers. We should acknowledge this and realize that when we’re formulating policies from the state house to the Senate floor to the White House, we’ve got to work to translate our reasoning into values that are accessible to every one of our citizens, not just members of our own faith community.

Obama’s answers are remarkable both for what he does, and what he doesn’t do. He does speak the language of Christian belief in a way that Evangelicals can recognize. He tries to frame his anti-Chrisian-Right positions as consistent with the Evangelical tradition. But he doesn’t pander to his interviewer.

The first answer is especially deft. “Store not up treasures on Earth” is from the Sermon on the Mount; Obama demonstrates his ability to apply a sacred text to the matter at hand at the same time he deprecates making politics into a religiosity contest. (It might have been even better if he’d said “that sounds a little like praying to be seen of men.”)

But Obama’s willingness to confront Robertson on Robertson’s own turf illustrates his basic toughness. He as much as says that haters like Robertson are false religious leaders. He points out that getting the church in bed with the state is contrary to the Evangelical tradition. And then he goes on to say something that this audience really doesn’t want to hear: that America is not just a Christian nation. And yet he makes his interlocutor like it, partly because he seems to be coming from inside the tradition rather than outside it.

Truly, an awe-inspiring performance. I doubt that any of his competitors, on either side of the aisle, could match it.

Footnote Sorry, I forgot. Since Obama is a churchgoer, he must, according to P.Z. Myers and the rest of the Pinker-Dawkins crowd, be the sort of ignorant, superstitious fool who “believes that chanting their wishes into the sky might get them granted by a magic being.” My mistake.