The EFM Feature

This weekend in the Washington Post, Peter Wehner, an evangelical and former aide to President Bush, criticizes James Dobson’s recent statements regarding Sen. Obama. Here’s what he says about Obama’s discussion of Leviticus and so forth:

[A]s I understand him, Obama was pointing out why the words of Scripture do not provide a ready policy blueprint for modern American society. Indeed, many of us have grappled with how to arrive at a theologically informed and fair-minded reading of the Bible that takes its moral principles seriously without simplistically applying to our time the cultural norms of previous eras. The chief defect of Obama’s speech was that he didn’t provide more insight into how to navigate these theological waters.

It seems to me that Wehner is giving the Senator entirely too much credit here. While it surely requires a great deal of thoughtfulness to apply biblical principles to today’s problems, that doesn’t forgive Obama for his flippant comments about shellfish — which defy even the most cursory application of Christian principles. Surely a man who has been attending a Christian church for decades knows of Jesus’ words regarding Old Testament laws like these. In fact, forget that — an Ivy League graduate could Google the matter before giving a major address.
Wehner goes on to say this:

The passage of the speech that prompted Dobson’s “fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution” and “lowest common denominator of morality” comments was this: “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. What do I mean by this? It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, to take one example, 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.”
Dobson paraphrased this as “unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe in.” But that’s not what Obama was saying at all. Rather, he was arguing that in a pluralistic nation like ours, politics depends on people of faith being able to persuade others based on common and accessible ground and appeals to reason — which sounds entirely reasonable. Christians who oppose abortion can make an effective case by talking about sonograms, fetal development and the moral imperative to protect the most vulnerable. That doesn’t mean one’s faith shouldn’t inform the question of abortion — or, for that matter, war, poverty and other issues. After all, President Lincoln’s argument against slavery was partly grounded in faith. But appeals to the Bible or church teaching aren’t sufficient in a pluralistic nation. That’s why Lincoln talked primarily about the Declaration of Independence.

I don’t necessarily disagree with this — at least as I read Wehner, he’s saying a biblical appeal could be one (and likely not the majority) appeal made in the context of a wider-ranging argument. That’s what Pres. Lincoln did.
But I do think Wehner’s piece is too harsh toward Dobson — who in turn was too harsh in tone toward Obama. I gather I disagree with Obama’s speech just as much as Dobson does, but name-calling along the lines of “fruitcake” is not going to make us any converts in the culture — and I just don’t think it speaks well of the Savior we serve.
Further, I must say that we, as Dr. Dobson’s brothers and sisters in Christ, should be wary about being eager to jump up and slam him whenever we have the chance. The man has done a lot for the American family, even if some of his recent political pronouncements have not been the best. I’m not saying Wehner indulges in this overeagerness, but I will confess that I am vulnerable to it — and it’s clear to me from inspecting the world in which we live that there are lots of people, some of them conservative evangelicals, who very inappropriately get their jollies from thumping him.

About Charles Mitchell

EFM's resident Yankee, Charles Mitchell, works in the non-profit arena in his native Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Charissa, live near the state capital of Harrisburg with their daughter, Adeline, and are members of a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America.

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