Ode to Rick

For some time now, I had been waiting for a major Catholic politician to publically denounce John F. Kennedy’s 1960 address on religion and politics in America. That it was Santorum who did so, from the gut, invoking bile, was a bit unfortunate and made it that much easier for liberals and conservatives alike to frame the national conversation we’re having on religion in the public sphere right now as another battle in the culture wars. And that’s too bad, because Santorum had a good point to make about Kennedy’s speech, about his “absolute wall of separation” and the burdens he seemed to place on religious individuals to bury their social and moral activism in private, individual, personal piety (we’ll leave out, for now, the history our soon-to-be first Catholic president was up against at the moment).

This reevaluation of the role of religion in the democratic public sphere, which Santorum essentially advocated, does not have to be the wedge knocking out a republican-democrat, secular-religious divide in America today. The recent attention to the work of public intellectuals like Cornel West, Robert Bellah, Charles Taylor, Jurgen Habermas, Robert Putnam and David Campbell speaks to a much wider concern among contemporary thinkers of many philosophical stripes to recover public religious reflection in the right light, and appreciate the need for it in America’s national discourse.

This concern seemed to be shared by President Obama as well, whose discourse on religion in 2006 could also be read as an effective attack on the privatization-of-religion-thesis which Kennedy appeared to embrace (again, against an important, anti-papist backdrop). As Obama said then,

But what I am suggesting is this – secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Now, Obama is much less intestinal than Santorum here, but the both of them (and Habermas, Taylor, Putnam and West) recognize that the idea of secularism in America as a scissors to any cords tying religion and politics together gets something wrong and that there’s got to be a better way of letting religions’ higher intuitions and moral verve shape policies and political visions. The culture wars framework and the accusations of “Santorum’s fatwa” or “Mullah Rick,” (other than indicating the problems the left still has when it comes to Islam and politics), miss the point that these guys aren’t trying to throw us back to the 1950s, whatever that means. It is not a reversion to a religious-based society that Santorum and Obama are talking about, but a recalibration of public religion’s role in a religiously-plural, politically-secular democracy.

And in an open democratic public sphere, we get to put Santorum’s political theology (and Obama’s and the bishops’, too) to a critical conversation.

So, to that end, I want to make a public appeal to Santorum’s greater visions here, in which, I believe, he looks out unto churches around America today, and he sees young men and women hearing a gospel calling them to reform themselves, to take the straight and narrow path and to be good to neighbors and the weak and the old and not just to yourself, and he sees cauldrons of civic activism in that call (and probably a lot of boy scouts, too), and he wants to pour it all out so badly.

True that Rick.

But can we work on our language a little more? And if you feel like vomiting on Kennedy’s absolute wall of separation, can you at least not puke on the eloquence and power with which he contests religious divisiveness? And which made him so loved for so long by so many Catholics and put his grin over all our little heads in every Catholic classroom in America for at least four decades? Kennedy, in the same speech:

Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end, where all men and all churches are treated as equals, where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice, where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind, and where Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, at both the lay and the pastoral levels, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

That is the kind of America in which I believe.

Kennedy, at least, knew how awful religious polarization and discrimination in America looked like. If you don’t want something like that again, Rick, and if it’s the fundamentals of brotherhood and sisterhood you’re trying to shore up, then you’re going to have to learn to find words that allow you to lock arms and grab shovels with your brethren across the way, who also love their neighbors and the old and the weak (and the girl scouts, probably, too) because the waters are still rising in America today.

And one last thing. This isn’t the first time Obama’s been accused of phony theology. Some of the best parts about religion from his 2006 address, and echoed again in his 2009 Notre Dame commencement speech, were written as elegant reflections on implorations against the religious bigotry of some of his previous political language, when it came to the issue of abortion. And now, Barack, you’ve been accused of the same, including by fairminded voices much closer to home. Please, don’t sit out this conversation, Mr. President, nor the obligations of your former words.

Ground Zero Mosque Reactions in the Middle East

For this month’s post, I thought it could be interesting to troll through some of the reactions of the Arabic world media to Obama’s iftar speech and the Ground Zero Mosque controversy.

What is most remarkable about such a troll is the lack of much of a reaction to the controversy. National papers in places like Egypt and Algeria have hardly reported on the debate and Arabic news giants like Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and Asharq Alawsat have either largely ignored the controversy or downplayed its significance for the Islamic world, as Abdul Rahman al-Rashid has pointed out here.

So why hasn’t the Ground Zero Mosque caught the attention of the Islamic world?

The lack of reaction might just be circumstantial, so far. As Jytte Klausen points out in her excellent study of the Danish Cartoons crisis, reactions in the Islamic world to the cartoons took months to develop and required the presence of both activists who promoted such reactions and leaders who missed opportunities to diffuse them.

That said, the lack of reaction also exposes a certain ambivalence in the Arab media about the controversy and towards America itself. On the one hand, the Islamophobia which the reactions to the proposal have revealed confirms rather than challenges many popular characterizations of US society in the Islamic world. On the other hand, that same Islamophobia has not emerged as the dominant actor in this story (yet). Leaders and intellectuals beyond Bloomberg and Obama have defended the proposal on the basis of democratic principles of separation of religion and state and, with their help, the mosque may still be built.

So while the controversy has brought fears about “Muslim” designs towards the US out into the open, it has also revealed a US public struggling to overcome that phobia. Depending on the how that struggle ends, this means that the Ground Zero Mosque might yet prove to help Obama in his attempt to reach out to the Islamic world. Alternatively, it could make such an attempt an even more ephemeral task.

2 reasons to watch Hafiz Hussain

Earlier last month Obama announced the appointment of Rashad Hussain as a new special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). This is Obama’s second special envoy directed towards the “Muslim world” and part of his strategic “New Beginning” program he initiated in his speech in Cairo last June. His first special envoy, Farah Pandith, was designated as “Special Representative to Muslim Communities,” and, partly because of the nature of such a global charge, has done little concrete since then. There are at least two reasons to believe that Hussain might be able to do something more substantive.

First, Hussain enjoys a specific charge to the institution of the OIC. One of the most important transnational networks of sovereign states, the OIC has struck up an increasingly vocal note in its ambition to shape the contours of international discourse and policy, especially in the areas of Human Rights and the Middle East Peace Process. As Obama’s man-in-the-OIC, Hussain has the opportunity to make a concrete case for the existence of nodes of policy cooperation between the U.S. and the Middle East/Muslim World, and to lobby to make that cooperation happen.

Second, Hussain is Hafiz, meaning he has memorized the Qur’an in whole, and, what is more, he has played an active part in the American Muslim community, especially as a student involved in the Muslim Students Association. When questioned about what she had to say to the Muslim world, Pandith has responded with vague statements about lessons she learned meeting Turkish Muslim immigrants working for the state department in Europe (interview here). But when Hussain goes to make a case before the OIC, he can speak as the voice of one who’s been a protagonist for his own religious community in the U.S. and, Obama-Cairo-style, try to diffuse the facile anti-American stereotypes floating near his interlocutors by telling the story of his own American religious flourishing.

Hussain’s job is not going to be easy, and his profile also includes several disadvantages: He is exceptionally young (31 years); he is an Indian-American like Pandith (and, thus, like Pandith, is already stoking charges that the U.S. is not serious about taking the Middle East seriously); and his Islamic religiosity scares folks in the U.S. (see, for example, here ). But I would not count him out and hope his American story can help him along to substantive and fruitful bargaining at the OIC.

Church and Health Care Reform

In the heat up of the last month over health care reform in the United States, it was curious to see how little morally charged the discussion grew to be. For a debate so often cast  in the “culture wars” mold (where religion is often the battle-banner of choice) religion has mostly remained out of this. It is not that big moral issues are not at stake here, but many religious leaders and institutions are having a hard time figuring out a coherent public role in the age of Obama. The Catholic Church’s recent reactions are instructive.  In the early days of the debate, many Bishops (the same who lined up against Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame) came out  strongly against the reform, saying that no health care was better than a poorly reformed health care. But this ran counter to many Catholic social imperatives in the US, reflected in the traditional, massive presence of Catholic institutions in the world of health, from hospices to nursing homes to hospitals, and did not sit well with huge numbers of the Catholic electorate either.  The US Conference of Bishops recently put up a website which recognizes all this but then flutters in its attempts to claim a voice or direction in the national debate. Following Obama’s speech, which seemed to lay to rest the rumors that the reform would finance abortions, the Bishops’ statements have seemed to largely agree with those of the President.  The scramble to find a united voice, however, is keeping the Bishops timid, and far from the mobilization potential they flexed in the last few years on immigration and abortion legislation. Religion, for now, is all quiet on the culture war front.

Benedict and Obama II

In his exclusive interviews with the Italian Catholic press, Obama highlighted the peace process in the Middle East and dialogue between faith traditions as the two areas which he thought the pope and himself could most fruitfully work together on.  And as others have noted, while the pope gifted Obama with a copy of Dignitatis Personae, Obama seemed to continue to warm the respect of the vatican diplomatic corps towards him. How? By framing his positions on bioethics in a policy of social justice which, he says, has both the intention of reducing abortions and sits as a coherent part of his vision of dialogue with the non-Western world and his proposals for global poverty reduction. The echos this encounter had to Obama’s recent speeches at Notre Dame and Cairo, as well as its syntony with the pope’s new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, have produced the sort of accolades for Obama by Cardinal Cottier pointed out by Cathleen Kaveny in the Nytimes, diffused some of the tension over bioethics, and given the two a full plate of issues to work on together over the next four years. Let’s hope they’re hungry.

Benedict and Obama

I hope you are still thinking about the multitudinous of this speech:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-at-Cairo-University-6-04-09/

Obama is meeting with Pope Benedict in Rome this week following the G8, and most of the news has highlighted possible cooperation on reducing global poverty as well as possible conflict over bio-ethics.  Following Obama’s speech in Cairo and Benedict’s own awkward, piece-meal attempts at addressing the Islamic world, I would be disappointed if these two giants of softpower did not save half of their alloted time to talk about inter-religious friendship. There might be  just as much that they can do together to improve relationships between the “(north)West” and “Islam” as they can hammer out to win the war on poverty.