Barack Obama and the “religious left”

Obama shows how the thing is done.

If you’re curious about how to use religious imagery to carry liberal arguments, watch Barack Obama invoke the idea that all human beings are created in the divine image as the fundamental justification for equality, and then use the imagery of Exodus to sanctify the civil rights movement and the story of Joshua to frame the task of moving forward from here.

The first thing to say about this is that it’s among the best ways to appeal to the part of the African-American community that’s organized around that powerful social engine, the black church. It was so when Martin Luther King did it, and it’s so now. Is that the entire African-American community? Hell, no. But if King’s rhetoric was appropriate, why isn’t Obama’s equally appropriate?

In fact, the use of religious language to appeal to black (and Latino) voters isn’t controversial among liberals. The controversy is about whether liberals should try to woo Bible-believing, church-going, born-again whites. To which I say, “Why not?”

Are racism and reaction more prevalent in that group than among white seculars, occasional churchgoers, and non-believers? Sure they are: in part as a function of education and social class, in part as a result of the narrow-mindedness of much of the white evangelical clergy. But that doesn’t mean that Genesis shouldn’t be joined to Jefferson in appealing to that group to overcome racism and move beyond reaction. After all, Jefferson himself &#8212 no orthodox believer &#8212 chose to frame his assertion of human equality and human rights in religious terms.

We don’t need to carry the white evangelical vote. If we can shrink the Republican advantage among that group, that would be enough. And the Christian tradition, and especially the Gospels, has within it enormous resources for liberalism.

Someone said that if November ’08 comes down to Obama v. Brownback, we’d be running the Sermon on the Mount against the Book of Leviticus. I think Jesus would run pretty strong in that election, in precincts the Democrats don’t usually carry.

Full text here. God damn, but he’s good! And the fact that Joshua’s divinely-assigned task was what we would call ethnic cleansing and genocide is really neither here nor there.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: