What’s Up, Doc? Why Is Jim Dobson Pretending Not To Understand Barack Obama?

Dr. Jim Dobson is a likeable man of wit and intelligence whom I have long admired for his support for the family.

Recently, however, he—and his national political director, Tom Minnery—undertook on Dobson’s nationally syndicated radio program to engage in a hypercritical distortion of an influential and powerful presentation on faith (a “Call to Renewal”) by Sen. Obama in 2006.

The radio criticism of Obama has a number of facets to it: Dr. Dobson apparently believes the United States is a Christian nation rather than a nation of many faiths. Historically and today, there are indeed more Christians in America than believers from other faith traditions, but what follows from this? Sen. Obama would suggest respect and appreciation for the influence of Christianity while also appreciating that there are people of other faiths, and of no faith, who are not to be treated as second-class citizens. Surely Dr. Dobson agrees, right? So what’s the point?

Sen. Obama also quoted a number of Old and New Testament passages, including some dietary laws that governed the Israelites (like not eating shellfish) to make the obvious point that even if one strictly followed this dietary restriction as a matter of faith in one’s own life, it could not simply be codified to bind people of other faith traditions—at least not without majority approval and a lot of angry shellfish eaters.

Dr. Dobson thinks this mocks the Bible, but it is merely underscoring that we have an obligation in the public square to speak in universal or accessible terms.

Obama also said Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is “a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application.” OK, I guess we could ask whether or not Jesus would think the purveyors of preemptive war to be “peacemakers,” but again Dr. Dobson’s point is more than a little obscure. And to assert that Obama “is dragging biblical understanding through the gutter,” more than a little absurd.

Dr. Dobson also attacks Obama for his support for abortion rights. Like Dobson, I disagree with Sen. Obama here as well. But Dobson has mischaracterized the senator’s view. Obama believes the woman herself must decide the abortion question. The senator acknowledges the decision to be a “profoundly moral one” and one he would advise a mother to make in favor of life and only after talking with her clergyman. In a meeting with me and other faith leaders a week or so ago, the senator reiterated that he is not “pro-abortion,” and that he wants to “discourage” the practice by encouraging personal responsibility as well as enhancing adoption and comprehensive education that would reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.

Could the senator do more? Sure, and he is open to reasoned argument. Dr. Dobson should make one. The senator’s point: All of us as we speak across religious lines need arguments beyond what we accept as doctrinal teaching in our particular faith tradition. How Dr. Dobson misinterprets this to suggest that either Dobson or my religious view would be excluded from the public debate or that “we have no right to fight for what we believe” is a mystery.

There is nothing in Sen. Obama’s speech to suggest any denigration of faith generally, Christianity specifically, or Dr. Dobson personally. Far from it. Indeed, the tone, content, and purpose of the speech were all quite the opposite and obviously so.

In Sen. Obama’s speeches, it’s not surprising to hear references to Lincoln and Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass. Sen. Obama regularly touches my Catholic soul as well by showing a genuine knowledge of the work of Dorothy Day. In this, Obama tells his audiences that it is an “absurdity” to insist that morality be kept separate from public policy.

Don’t misunderstand. Sen. Obama is not the equivalent of a televangelist, nor should he be. Having urged his liberal colleagues to see how much of American life is grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Sen. Obama makes a request of conservatives like myself—namely, try to fully understand the liberal perspective on the separation of church and state. Not the infamous “wall of separation” that bizarrely mandates affirmative secularity disguised as neutrality, but the perspective, according to Obama, that separation more readily protects church from state than the opposite.

This sentiment, unlike the exclusionary view invented by the late Justice Hugo Black in the late 1940s, is as old and wise as Alexis de Tocqueville, who cautioned churches against aligning too closely with the state for fear of sacrificing “the future for the present.” “By gaining a power to which it has no claim,” Tocqueville observed, “[the church] risks its legitimate authority.”

Sen. Obama’s approach to faith is strong, but it is not exclusionary. He genuinely seeks to have his efforts bridge the religious and ideological divides on issues ranging from abortion to the importance of the American family to health care that respects the objections of conscientious religious believers to AIDS, climate change, and human rights.

Like all Americans, Dr. Dobson has every right to advocate public policy informed by his abiding Christian faith. I will be counting on him to continue to do so, but he will improve his chances of success by not pretending to lack the most basic understanding of democracy, which we all know he has, or by misreading and mischaracterizing the views of one of the country’s most eloquent defenders of the importance of faith—maybe since George Washington opined that it was indispensable to the prosperity of the nation.