President Barack Obama delivers a eulogy for the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney, at the TD Arena in Charleston, S.C., on Friday. Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Faith, the Public Square and the ACLU…

The following was originally published on July 6th, 2008 at Talking Points Memo and the original Fort McHenry at Barackobama.com.

Senator Barack Obama’s recent speech on faith has caused some people to freak out.

Well, I would have freaked out too, if I hadn’t been reading his other speeches, reading his books, or just not paying attention to the altogether.

But he has saying these things. He’s been saying them for years, and one organization out there probably has some surprising things to say to him about Faith and the Public Square…

On July 1st, Barack Obama went to Zanesville,Ohio to give a speech about Faith. It was notable, not for the fact that a Democrat was out there, openly talking about his religious convictions (in a way the Republican Candidate won’t be), but for his proposal to, apparently, expand on Bush’s Faith based Programs. At least that’s what the headline writers focused on:

And with that, a million hearts across America started to break. If you listen carefully, you can hear the tiny violin I’m playing for them right now.

That is the opening paragraph of the AP story posted early in the morning of July 1st.

One problem…the AP got it wrong.

Here’s what the Senator actually said:

Gee, AP. I can totally see how you got that confused.

Note to the AP, you might lay off the sprinkled donuts. Just hand them to John McCain, don’t snack on them yourselves. You get a sugar rush, and apparently, it affects your reporting.

A friend of mine sent me an email that same morning. His tone was one of clear disappointment. He lamented Bush’s blurring of church and state, and was disappointed that Senator Obama seemed to be headed on a similar course.

A lot of us on the left have been freaking out about the Senator’s recent, so-called shift to the center, saying he’s already playing not to lose. But for anyone who’s read the Senator’s speeches, read his books, or has been…you know…paying attention…his stance shouldn’t come as a total surprise. I think the problem comes down to his one paragraph that I don’t think a lot of people read on Page 11 of The Audacity of Hope:

As much as he is one of us, Senator Obama is his own man, capable of an independent thought or two, even those of us on the left uncomfortable.

Funny thing, I thought that’s why we liked him.

Traditional liberal discomfort with the notion of Religion stretches back to a more fundamental discomfort with Religion in the public square. Let’s face it, Religion has been used as a weapon so many times, that it’s hard not to view it with suspicion. Added to that, so many Religious types have revealed themselves to be nothing more than knee-jerk, mouth-breathing Conservatives, therefore, the enemy. These (among others) are the reason why so many of us have shifted away from Church. Why sit in the pews, and have things that you cherish and believe in belittled by your Pastor, Reverend or Priest?

Senator Obama put it another way:

Mind you, that was from the same speech that got James Dobson’s knickers in a twist.

Liberals, however, have a heritage of using Religion, and Religious imagery as both sword and shield. The moral underpinnings of the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Sufferage, the Labor Movement carried with it the morality and justice of the Church (the kind we all used to love) that ushered in these new ages and new ideas.

Martin Luther King, after all, was a Baptist Minister. He wasn’t thanking Gaea, Zeus, Xenu or the Earth Spirit, when he extolled that we would be “Free at Last”.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,” Lincoln said in his second Inaugural Address.

Shortly before resorting to the “Johnson Treatment”, LBJ would often say “Come now, let us reason together”, which was taken from Isaiah 1:18.

Impressed? Don’t be. I had to look ’em all up.

So, when Senator Obama talked his talk in Zanesville, he was echoing words he wrote back on page 221 of The Audacity of Hope:

This position is unacceptable to a lot of progressives. They believe, as I do, in the separation of church and state. After all, another friend told me, it’s in the Constitution.

Yeah…except for the part where it isn’t…at least not explicitly.

Oh boy, this is going to be complicated.

(Okay, let me first say that I’m a total layman. I don’t have a Law Degree, so if there are any Lawyers out there reading this, and I’ve totally blown this, lemme know.)

Okay, first things first. Separation of Church and state.

Nowhere in the Constitution can you find the phrase “Separation of Church and state” Instead, the First Amendment says this:

It’s also mentioned, briefly in Article 6:

Now, I am by no means saying that the Separation of Church and State is a false idea. Quite the contrary, it is as basic to the American ideal as the right to bear arms is. It may not say as much in the Constitution, but it has (right or wrong) become a part of who we are.

Apparently, Justice Scalia decided to delete that first part. Then again, who cares what the Framers thought, right fat man?

Looking at Wikipedia, the concept of Separation of Church and State seems to trace its origin to a letter from Thomas Jefferson in 1801 to the Danbury Baptists:

Okay, it may not be in the Constitution, and I have no idea if it even counts as one of the Federalist Papers, but one of the Founders clearly believes there to be a wall between the two.

The Senator reiterated this point in the Call to Renewal speech:

Consider this put another way, from another source:

Wow. Who said that?

Apparently, those infamous right-wing Religious Fundamentalists, the ACLU.

Yeah, that ACLU. Our ACLU. The one I was a card-carrying member of (at $35 bucks a pop.)

They go on:

And to further back the Senator up, the ACLU says:

Basically, the notion of prayer in the public schools is not illegal…so long as it is being exercised by individual citizens. Even Teachers can join in, so long as they are acting as individual citizens. The nanosecond such prayer becomes a mandate by these employees of the state, then they’re violating the Establishment Clause.

It’s a fine line, and even we liberals don’t know it all the time. I really didn’t know it until I did the research for this piece. It is so often said that Prayer in Public Schools is illegal. It’s not…depending on how its performed.

So the ACLU is okay with Senator’s notion of Prayer in the Public Schools.

But they go further still. They actually have an opinion on Faith-Based programs. And what they said shocked me further still:

I have a strange hunch that the ACLU will have no problem with what Senator Obama is trying to do. In fairness, they have fought, and continue to fight against aspects of these same Faith-based programs that discriminate, divide or (more importantly) directly violate the establishment clause.

But that’s exactly the situation the Senator is looking to avoid:

So what is Senator Obama proposing to do? You can say a lot of things, but when the AP says “expand” the connotation is that he wants to take Bush’s program and make it bigger. Reading his speech, something I encourage everyone to do, I think he’s looking to scrap a program that has been bitterly partisan and ineffective and helping those it claims to help.

The partisan part of the Office is what drives those hard memories around the Liberal Blogosphere. It’s what drove David Kuo to resign and write his book. The Office was little more than a tax-payer funded bribe machine, paying off well-connected Religious Leaders to make sure the Conservative Base turned out in 2004. It’s remarkable how little we’ve heard from the Office since then. It seems to have gone to the same place all those Orange Alerts went in anticipation of the Democratic Convention.

Now we have Senator Obama proposing a seemingly better version of the same idea. If anything, he wants to help fellow Community Organizers do his old job better. But does the Senator proposing a thing automatically make it a good idea? No. But conversely, just because George Bush proposes an idea, doesn’t automatically make it bad either. (I so wish I could take credit for that, but I was writing this at the same time E.J. Dionne was writing his piece, and he is a writer of bigger stature so…sigh…he gets the credit.)

I’m not sure if this a good idea or not. For one thing, what’s going to be the criteria? Are you telling me that a group of Wiccans will be able to access Federal Funds if they have an effective Drug Treatment Program? Can a group of Atheists get some dough if they have a way to help First Time Offenders transition back to normal society? Could Tom Cruise and John Travolta (shudder) get Federal Dollars for Narconon?

Perish the thought.

Still, my feeling is yes, right or wrong, for Obama’s idea to work they have to. After all, his program is going to be called the Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Neighborhood is the key word here. But as the Senator said, he doesn’t have all the details worked out yet. This is one area that will bear watching.

Another thing, as much as I am opposed to the idea, there will be another Republican in the White House one of these days (2050 anyone?). What’s to stop him or her from turning this Office into the same Partisan cesspool it was under Bush?

Probably nothing.

In the end, we are Liberals after all; and Liberals are the tolerant ones. We should not be scared of this idea, or any of the Senator’s ideas; even the ones that contradict our own. They are nothing if not thought out. They always come from a place that we as Democrats, much less Liberals and/or Progressives, can access and access easily, love of country, love of our fellow man.

It is for our fellow man, that we do these things, fight these fights.

Our fellow man has decided that he wants to go to church. No matter what you think of the idea or think of his practice, it is ultimately his choice and his choice alone. If you are a Liberal, you willdefend his right to make that choice. It is a Conservative who seeks to tell him where to go, what to do, and who to pray to. The Liberal only wants to make sure that nothing bars that man’s path to God, no matter what God it may be.

Right or wrong, I don’t think Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, despite my own reservations will do that.

But in the end, those you of with doubts about Senator Obama, remember, he also said this in The Audacity of Hope:

Good enough for me.

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