OPEN UNIVERSITY DECEMBER 3, 2006
by Cass Sunstein
For those wondering about the future of the Democratic Party, it's worth paying careful attention to Barack Obama's speech at the evangelical AIDS conference sponsored by Saddleback Church, available here. I am pointing not to the fact of the speech, which has already gotten considerable attention, but to its content.
Obama's speech is noteworthy for at least four reasons. First, he spoke openly and unambiguously about his own religious convictions. ("My faith reminds me that we all are sinners. ... Living His example is the hardest kind of faith--but it is surely the most rewarding. It is a way of life that can not only light our way as people of faith, but guide us to a new and better politics as Americans.") Second, he invoked his own Christianity on behalf of private and public assistance to those who most need it. ("My faith also tells me that--as Pastor Rick has said--it is not a sin to be sick. My Bible tells me that when God sent his only Son to Earth, it was to heal the sick and comfort the weary; to feed the hungry and clothe the naked; to befriend the outcast and redeem those who strayed from righteousness.") Third, he spoke quite candidly about his substantive disagreements with some members of his audience; he didn't evade or pander. ("I also believe that we cannot ignore that abstinence and fidelity may too often be the ideal and not the reality ... and that if condoms and potentially microbicides can prevent millions of deaths, they should be made more widely available. I know that there are those who, out of sincere religious conviction, oppose such measures. And with these folks, I must respectfully but unequivocally disagree. I do not accept the notion that those who make mistakes in their lives should be given an effective death sentence.") Fourth, he explicitly invoked the republican aspects of the American tradition. ("For in the end, we must realize that the AIDS orphan in Africa presents us with the same challenge as the gang member in South Central, or the Katrina victim in New Orleans, or the uninsured mother in North Dakota. We can turn away from these Americans, and blame their problems on themselves, and embrace a politics that's punitive and petty, divisive and small. Or we can embrace another tradition of politics--a tradition that has stretched from the days of our founding to the glory of the civil rights movement, a tradition based on the simple idea that we have a stake in one another....")
It's worthwhile to compare Obama's speech to one of President Clinton's defining moments, his criticism of Sister Souljah in 1992. In criticizing Sister Souljah, President Clinton was widely taken to have established that he was not an extremist--that he would not pander to the left and that he could be characterized as a centrist. By comparison, Obama's speech seems far more substantive and meaningful. Among Republicans, the idea of compassionate conservatism has linked religious convictions with support for the most disadvantaged members of society; Obama is one of the few prominent Democrats to make that link in recent decades. Some Democrats have spoken of their own religious beliefs, but with palpable awkwardness; Obama shows no awkwardness at all. Some Democrats have appeared to believe (and many academics have argued) that religious convictions should be excised from the public sphere as sectarian and exclusionary. Obama evidently has a very different view.