Thursday, June 04, 2009

Obama and Civil Religion:

President Obama's speech in Cairo is making news. He, notably, reaches out to Islam and at the same time cites the Founding Fathers and Islam's rightful place at the table in America. And he's right; America was founded to be religiously pluralistic. Islam, along with Christianity, Judaism, and religious free thinking, are all American as George Washington and apple pie.

From his speech:

I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith.

As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam. It was Islam — at places like Al-Azhar University — that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.

I know, too, that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President John Adams wrote, “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.” And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our Universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch. And when the first Muslim-American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson — kept in his personal library.

It was nice to see the President cite the Treaty of Tripoli, which also stated that the United States government is not in any sense founded on the "Christian Religion."

I think the President's address sends the right message to the Muslim world. Though, I'll also credit G.W. Bush for trying to do the same thing. Bush took pains to note that our war was not with Islam but with a radical strain within Islam, that Islam, properly understood, is a "religion of peace," and that Muslims worship the same God Jews and Christians do. And a great deal of Bush's conservative Christian base balked at his message. President Obama, like Bush before him, simulaneously reached out to moderate Muslims and attempted to implicitly nudge the Islamic religion towards a more benign and enlightened direction. The difference is, for complicated reasons I don't need to get into, Obama is in a better position to deliver this message to the Islamic world than Bush.

And both Obama AND Bush delivered this message in large part because the American Presidency and its civil religion, established by George Washington and the other Founding Presidents, demanded it. I sometimes get criticized for focusing on the "key Founders" (a handful of men as seen on US currency) to explain American Founding politics. However, when it comes to explaining the PRESIDENCY, I'm on strongest ground in focusing on four or five men, because they were literally only four or five men. From Washington to Monroe none was identifiably orthodox Trinitarian Christian, and all, with rare exception, took pains to systematically avoid speaking in orthodox Trinitarian terms, or otherwise intimating that Christ was the only way to God. Their theism transcended so called "Judeo-Christian" politics; indeed they put Jews in the same box as Muslims as all believers in "true religion."

It may be naive for Bush and Obama to speak as though Islam is a religion of peace or that Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God. But, let us remember, that theological naivete was, by precedent, built into the American Presidency by Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Obama and Bush walk in their shoes when they state such things as Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

As John Adams put it:

“It has pleased the Providence of the first Cause, the Universal Cause, that Abraham should give religion not only to Hebrews but to Christians and Mahomitans, the greatest part of the modern civilized world.”

– John Adams to M.M. Noah, July 31, 1818.

Or as Thomas Jefferson put it:

“Every religion consists of moral precepts, and of dogmas. In the first they all agree. All forbid us to murder, steal, plunder, bear false witness &ca. and these are the articles necessary for the preservation of order, justice, and happiness in society. In their particular dogmas all differ; no two professing the same....Among the Mahometans we are told that thousands fell victims to the dispute whether the first or second toe of Mahomet was longest; and what blood, how many human lives have the words ‘this do in remembrance of me’ cost the Christian world!…We see good men in all religions, and as many in one as another. It is then a matter of principle with me to avoid disturbing the tranquility of others by the expression of any opinion on the [unimportant points] innocent questions on which we schismatize, and think it enough to hold fast to those moral precepts which are of the essence of Christianity, and of all other religions.”

– Thomas Jefferson to James Fishback, Sept. 27, 1809

In discussing the controversy over funding the Christian religion in the state of Virginia, George Washington put Muslims in the same box as the Jews when he noted he had no problem with with government funding of the Christian religion, provided Jews and Muslims, or other non-Christians were exempted or accomodated from having their tax dollars support a religion in which they did not believe:

...I am not amongst the number of those who are so much alarmed at the thoughts of making people pay towards the support of that which they profess, if of the denomination of Christians; or declare themselves Jews, Mahomitans or otherwise, and thereby obtain proper relief.

-- George Washington to George Mason, October 3, 1785.

Moreover, Washington twice spoke of God as the "Great Spirit" when addressing Native Americans, once going so far as to pray in the name of the "Great Spirit." From a strict orthodox perspective, this is worse than praying to "Allah" because at least Allah claims to be the God of Abraham, while the Great Spirit makes no such claim.

And Madison and Jefferson too spoke of God as the "Great Spirit" when addressing American Indians who showed no desire to convert to Christianity.

When I discuss this dynamic with folks skeptical of my thesis, they oft-react, "the FFs were just acting as most politicians do today." Indeed, the FF Presidents did speak like Presidents Bush and Obama when they pretend or really believe that most or all religions worship the same God. But the American FF Presidents were the ones who started it! Before the American Founders, heads of state were almost always officially connected to various churches and were oft-both heads of church AND state. The American Founding Presidents created the tradition of Presidents who could at once invoke God, but also do so in a such an ecumenical, pluralistic way that they appeared to be all things to all people, even to those outside of the "Judeo-Christian" tradition.

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