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Getting Religion

Clinton and Obama talk faith on CNN.

12:00 AM, Apr 15, 2008 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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On the question of the moral status of the fetus, Obama pleaded humility: "I don't presume to know the answer to that question." He is supremely confident, though, in the rightness of the regime of legalized abortion. He believes that the unborn have "a moral weight" in political life. But what that means on the Obama scales of justice--or how his Christian faith might guide his search for a democratic answer--remains an utter mystery. Obama was also asked to explain his remarks last week that young women should not be "punished with a baby" if they have an unintended pregnancy. "Well, keep in mind, on that same day, I said children are miracles, and so I think it's important not to parse my words too carefully here." Yes, we'll leave the parsing to the professionals for now.

The problem with candidate forums on religion is that they invite the very thing that many voters claim to detest: faith-based political pandering. The candidates did not fail to deliver. Clinton praised Pope Benedict XVI, who visits the United States this week, as "a strong voice on behalf of what we must do to deal with poverty." The Vatican--along with Catholic swing voters in Pennsylvania--might be surprised to learn that a papal blessing for liberal anti-poverty schemes was in the works. Jim Wallis, president of the left-leaning Sojourners and a Democratic advisor, rose to inform Obama that the faith community seeks a "new commitment" from politicians to reduce poverty: cut the number in half within ten years. The fact that Wallis has spent a career advancing government programs that aggravate the problem of poverty and family breakdown was beside the point. Obama did not flinch: "I absolutely will make that commitment."

Media elites are openly fawning over the ability of these Democratic contenders to talk the language of faith--as were many audience members at this week's forum. The "God gap" between the Democratic and Republican parties, many claim, is narrowing. Amy Sullivan, a self-styled "progressive" evangelical and Time magazine editor, has consulted Democratic leaders for years. She now sees "a real generational shift" of the evangelical community toward her party's program for social justice. E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post columnist and a liberal Catholic, delights in the break-up of the evangelical attachment to the Republican Party. "It is a great sell-out of religion," he says, "to insist that it has much to teach us about abortion or gay marriage but little useful to say about social justice, war and peace . . . or our approach to providing for the old, the sick and the desperate."

Here on display is the impoverishment of a Christian political concept, that of social justice. Religious liberals have shaped, and perverted, the idea for decades. They talk as if social justice could be achieved in societies that assault human dignity and degrade human sexuality. Missing in all this is a deeply Biblical view of what it means to be human and to live out our binding obligations. In this, liberalism neglects the supreme dignity--and the tragedy--of our fallen nature. By denigrating the debates over abortion, bioethics, marriage, and sexuality, the religious left has abandoned the moral axis of any vision for a just society.

It is a hopeful sign that voters of faith, especially conservative Christians, are broadening their political concerns to tackle issues of poverty, the environment, and human rights. The narrow agenda and angry political style of the religious right--manipulated by Republican leaders for decades--demands to be challenged. The identification of the gospel with a partisan agenda has done untold damage to our politics and to the public integrity of Christianity.

But there is a danger in the opposite direction as well, of course. To paraphrase Barack Obama, clinging to illusions about the redemptive power of politics or political leaders is not a new temptation. Yet it would be strange, and deeply troubling, if this ancient conceit found a safe haven in evangelical colleges, especially at those called Messiah.

Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy and a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.