Monday, September 15, 2008

Democracy demands...

Further to my post on believers and unbelievers last week, I just read this passage from a speech by Barack Obama, which I find profound, wise and absolutely right:
Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.

4 comments:

Martin Meenagh said...

What an excellent speech. I'm impressed by the subtlety of Obama's mind, though I genuinely can't reconcile myself to his abortion position, particularly on late-term and partial birth procedures.

I know that there is precious little that he can do about it, but I'm grateful for this great blog just directing me to the Senator's record and words. They seem subtle and reasoned. Thanks Bob.

Daniel Stark said...

I've read portions of this before, but it was good to read the it the full way through. It really begs the question, how should a politician lead?

In this, Obama states he is religiously against abortion, though because of our (i.e. in the United States) multi-religious nation, he will not "force" his position on them (i.e. those who don't share his faith).

In the democratic system we have, one is elected with the most votes (depending on the region, there might be run-offs, not a clear absolute majority, etc.). For who do you govern and/or lead, everyone, or those who voted for you? If those who voted for you did so so that you'll vote in their way, who are you leaving out? If you don't vote in their way, are you not turning a blind eye to their concerns? Are you not representing them?

When you're elected, what is the basis of your decision making, the people who voted for you, you're own wisdom (and with it, your religious convictions), the entire populace you represent, or a combination of all?

It's an interesting conundrum, definitely in respect to issues like abortion or those that involve religion.

Overall it's an interesting piece and I agree with some of Obama's points. Too bad I disagree with too many of his other positions to vote for him. Ha.

Daniel Stark said...

Almost, sorry for the spelling mistakes and grammar problems, I'm sick. Back to bed (I'm feeling dizzy).

bob said...

I think that Obama is pointing to in this part of this speech is that "democracy", if it is meaningful, is at best only partly about the (quantitative) process of voting and the idea of the majority. "Democracy" in a deeper and more meaningful sense is (also) about the qualitative: the debate, the deliberation, persuasion.

That is, democracy should not be about the democracy imposing their will on the minority, but about a process of deliberation where the different interest groups come together and argue it out, and persuade each other of the wisdom and justice of their positions. This was the democracy framed by America's Founders.

In reality, democracy in this sense only happens in some limited times and spaces, and perhaps more often at local levels than national levels. The national political system a country such as the US are so dominated by party machines, with entrenched interest groups and lobbies, by movements that have no interest in actually listening and debating, that this ideal is rarely realised.

Of course, Obama cannot make it happen. But it is good that he has some sense of this sort of democracy.

There was a time, earlier in the campaign, when it looked like he signified a type of politics that was more like this: people not making decisions as encamped factions ("liberal", "conservative", etc) but as a democratic polity in dialogue with itself. Unfortunately, in the last month or so, that moment seems to have passed. The end of the internal debate within the Democratic Party and the Republican choice of Palin, as opposed to, say, Lieberman, has killed it, and American politics has once again been reduced to the sterile liberal/conservative war, which in the end will come down to who can heft the most numbers.