Category Archives: religion

Parsing Obama

So, here comes Barack Obama’s long-awaited speech to the Muslim world, to decidedly mixed reaction.  I am not going to dwell at the moment on the specifics of his Israel policy (for a very pessimistic assessment see this post by Ron Radosh, though there are many Israel supporters who do not share Ron’s endorsement of the settlements).  I also agree that the part of the speech dealing with Iran was rather weak, full of lofty sentiment signifying nothing.  But some of the scathing criticism directed at Obama strikes me as rather misguided.  For instance, Charles Krauthammer found it to be infected by “self-absorption”; but was Obama’s talk of the aspects of his personal story that were relevant to the issues at hand all that different from what, say, Ronald Reagan did?

Does it really matter that Obama never used the words “terror” or “terrorism,” referring instead to “violent extremism”?  The power of the T-word has been somewhat diluted by overuse; besides, to many (non-terror-sympathizing) Muslims it is undoubtedly a red-flag word, due to their common belief that the West looks at a Muslim and sees a terrorist.  I think it was a positive thing to say, and drive home the point, that terrorism by any other name would smell as foul.

The President’s powerful affirmation of the memory of the Holocaust, and firm condemnation of Holocaust denial, was a key part of the speech.  Some believe that, by transitioning immediately to the plight of displaced Palestinians, Obama drew a moral equivalence between the Holocaust and Palestinian displacement.  Re-reading the speech, I see no such equivalence (though someone who wants to believe the two tragedies are equal could read it that way).  I think Obama was simply saying that the Palestinians have their own history of suffering which cannot be denied.  Should he have said more to acknowledge the Palestinian (and Arab) leaders’ own responsibility for perpetuating this suffering?  Probably.  Did he go too far in suggesting that each side’s view of the conflict was equally valid?  Probably.  But here’s an important point: the speech was intended as outreach to the Muslim world.   To say “Israel is 100% right and the Palestinians bear 100% of the blame,” even if it were true (and I don’t believe it is) would not be very productive.  Confronting a Muslim and Arab audience with the fact that Israel’s stiff-necked stance has something to do with “the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond” is a pretty good start.

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Filed under anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, Barack Obama, Iraq, Islam, Israel, Middle East, Muslims, religion, religious freedom, September 11, terrorism, US foreign policy, West

Damon Linker blogging at TNR

Damon Linker, former editor at First Things and author of The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege, now has a blog  at TNR.com.  I met Damon a few years ago at a Liberty Fund conference, and we had some great conversations.  (Sadly, the only thing that sticks in my mind is that when we discussed his upcoming book about his disillusionment with religious conservatives and the fact that it was hard to find a sexy title for such a book, I jocularly suggested Spanked by the Right.)  Damon writes mostly on issues of religion and public affairs with a great deal of insight and subtlety, and his blog is highly recommended to anyone interested in these issues.


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Filed under blogs, religion

A secular inaugural speech?

Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, praises Barack Obama for delivering an inaugral address “notably lacking in religious rhetoric”:

Yes, he mentioned God, but as an atheist, I have no objection to a president who believes in God making such a reference. What he did not do was invoke a Higher Power as a source of and a justification for public policy.

Jacoby also expresses satisfaction that Obama specifically mentioned “nonbelievers” along with various religions as a part of America’s diversity.  On that, I completely agree.  But on religious rhetoric and religion as a “justification for public policy,” was Obama’s inaugural address that different from George W. Bush’s in 2001?

Here are the faith-based passages from Bush’s address:

And this is my solemn pledge: I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity.

I know this is in our reach because we are guided by a power larger than ourselves who creates us equal in His image.

And later, in speaking of “our nation’s grand story of courage and its simple dream of dignity”:

We are not this story’s author, who fills time and eternity with his purpose. Yet his purpose is achieved in our duty, and our duty is fulfilled in service to one another.

Obama, meanwhile, spoke of “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”   He also said this:

This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

And:

Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

I would say that Bush’s religious rhetoric was a bit more flowery, but in terms of actual religious content and mentions of God as the source of inspiration of political ideals, the two inaugural addresses are roughly equal.

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Filed under Barack Obama, religion

When atheists attack: The "War on Christmas" redux

Okay, I hate to admit it when Bill O’Reilly has a point in his latest “War on Christmas” crusade (see here, here and here on its previous installments), but this time, he does.

At issue is an atheist billboard displayed in the Washington State Capitol in Olympia, Wa. along with a “Holiday tree” and a nativity scene. (Apparently, there is no menorah this year.)

The placard, installed by local members of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, reads:

At this season of the Winter Solstice may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

More on the story here.

According to Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, and State Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, it is the state’s policy to allow any group to sponsor a holiday display “regardless of that individual’s or group’s views.”

Here’s the problem. The atheist display doesn’t simply express the beliefs of atheists or secularists; it attacks the beliefs of the religious. Its message, except for the first line, is entirely negative, and the last line is actively insulting to believers, implying that they are hard-hearted and weak-minded.

A Christmas display on public property, paid for by the taxpayer, that explicitly attacked non-believers would be inappropriate. So is this.

Perhaps Gregoire and McKenna are right as a matter of publc policy. (Though, if all viewpoints may be represented in holiday displays in the State Capitol, where do you draw the line? Would a placard urging Jews to convert to Christianity be appropriate? How about a “God Hates Fags” placard from the abominable Fred Phelps?) However, those fine folks from the Freedom from Religion Foundation are wrong as a matter of respect, civility, and common sense. They have chosen to express their views in a manner almost calculated to cause irritation. They are also perpetuating the stereotype — which underlies much of the hostility to atheists in America — that an atheist is not just a non-believer but someone who actively attacks and denigrates religion.

If they truly wanted to get into the holiday spirit, how about a placard saying something like, “At this season of the Winter Solstice, those of us who do not believe in a deity celebrate the beauty of the natural world and join believers in wishing for peace on Earth and goodwill toward men.” A positive message that, among other things, would have countered the widespread notion that atheists “believe in nothing.”

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Filed under Bill O'Reilly, Christmas, freedom of speech, religion, religious freedom