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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Barack Obama discussed the role of religion in public life in a keynote address at a call for renewal conference on June 28.

"James Dobson criticized Sen. Barack Obama, accusing him of "deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit ... his own confused theology," of having a "fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution" and of appealing to the "lowest common denominator of morality.""

Peter Wehner criticized James Dobson in the Washington Post in a column which I have actually read (unlike the speech and Dobson's criticism which I have no intention of reading).

I am going to write a post about Wehner's column which is probably not worth reading.
Of course I totally disagree with Dobson as quoted by Wehner (although on one key point the disagreement depends on one key word). I don't disagree with any of the snippets of Obama's speech as quoted by Wehner. I disagree with much of what Wehner wrote. I will try to focus. First on the main point of Dobson's criticism as summarized by Wehner

The passage of the speech that prompted Dobson's "fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution" and "lowest common denominator of morality" comments was this: "Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. What do I mean by this? It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, to take one example, 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."

Dobson paraphrased this as "unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe in."

Like Wehner I agree that Dobson's paraphrase is nonsense. My complaint is simple. To get where Dobson ended up one has to replace the word "accessible" with the word "convincing" then go on to abbreviate. The word "accessible" was carefully chosen.

Oddly, I think I am closer to Dobson on this point than Wehner is. I'm not so thrilled with Obama's use of the phrase "universal values" as I don't think people agree that much on basic principles of right and wrong. I hope what Obama means is statements of value that everyone understands and recognize have some importance even if, for example, we differ deeply in our views of the relative importance of justice and mercy.

The effort to reach practical agreement with people with whom one disagrees on important matters which are not settled by evidence and logic is not finished if religious people translate religious teachings to statements about ethics. I, for example, do not consider retribution a legitimate justification for the punishment of crimes. Thus I disagree on a fundamental moral point with, for example, Barack Obama. I think we could manage to reach agreement on most issues of criminal justice all the same (discussing in private -- like many people I assume that Obama agrees with me more than he lets on in public, because he can't be frank and elected President).

Dobson is also, quite frankly, outraged that Barack Obama describes what was written respectively in plain Hebrew and plain Greek in the bible. I think Dobson considers it an outrage against people of faith to claim that Leviticus Chapter 25 verses 44 through 46 read, in the King James translation

44 And as for your male and female slave whom you may have -- from the nations that are around you, from them you may buy male and female slaves.

45 Moreover yuo may buy the children of th strangers who sojurn among you, and their families who are with you, which they beget in your land and they shall become your property.

46 And you make take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them as a possession; they shall be your permanent slaves. But regarding your brethren, the children of Israel, you shall not rule over one another with rigour.

To claim that the bible contains such a passage is an intollerant assault on people of faith, even those people of faith who like to appeal to Leviticus chapter 18 vs 22

22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination

Can one argue that Christianity condemns both homosexuality and slavery ? Not as far as I can see.

In the USA there has been a deal in which no one criticizes the Bible and, in turn, the people who claim to follow it don't say what is written in it. Dobson et al have broken this deal, insisting on following the letter of the Bible (including the Old Testament. However, if someone quotes the part about slavery (or see below) it is an outrage.

I don't think that Obama can get along with many of his fellow Christian Americans, exactly because he has read the Bible and remembers it. It is un acceptable to say that the Old Testament sanctions slavery, even though it could not be more explicit.

Once I started quoting chapter and verse I had some trouble stopping. The Old Testament is really quite clear on what is important and what isn't. The main thing to do is to kill the enemies of Israel.

Religious right leaders in the US, such as Dobson, tend to glide over much of this (for one thing I strongly suspect that Dr Dobson MD knows much less about what is written in The Book than Barack Obama does). The Israeli religious right is much more honest, at least the extreme right wing of the Israeli religious right. They know what's in The Book and they advocate obeying the instructions.

Still even Kahane chose overlook some things (this is definitely true, I think, only of my first example).

Oh and how about Judges 11 verses 30, 31, 34, 39 and 40

30 And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said "If you will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands,

31 then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord's and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.


34 When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, there was his daughter, coming out to meet him with timbrels and dancing; and she was his only child. Besides her he had neither son nor daughter.


39 And it was so at the end of two months that she returned to her father and he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed. She knew no man. And it became a custom in Israel

40 that the daughters of Israel went four dayes each year to lament the daughter of Jephtah the Gileadite.

Sure sounds like human sacrifice to me and there is no hint that the LORD disapproved of Jephtah's act or would have been willing to release him from his vow.

How about 1 Samuel chapter 15 verses 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, 10, 11, 26, 27, 28 and 29.

XV Samuel also said to Saul, "The LORD sent me to anoint you king over his people, over Israel. Now therefore, heed the voice of the words of the LORD.

2 "Thus said the LORD of hosts: ' I will punish what Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him on the way when he came up from Egypt.

3. 'Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'"


7 And Saul attacked the Amalekites for Havilah all the way to Shur which is east of Egypt.

8 He also took Agag kinf of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all of the people with the edge of the sword.

9 But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs and all that was good and were unwilling to destroy them. But everything despised and worthless, that they destroyed.

Saul Rejected as King

10 Now the word of the Lord came to Samuel, saying,

11 I greatly regre that I have set up Saul as king, for he has turned bck from following me, and has not performed my commandments." And it grieved Samuel


26 But Samuel said to Saul, "I will not return with you, for you have rejected the word of the Lord and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel."

27 And as Samuel turned around to go away, Saul seized the edge of his robe, and it tore.

28 So Samuel said to him, "The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.

29 and also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent, For he is not a man that he should relent."

This is a rather important passage as said neighbor is David who is presented as a model of what a man should be ("except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite"). Saul did well killing infants and nursing children, but he is not acceptable because he neglected to kill King Agag and some sheep.

David by the way in 1 Samuel chapter 27 verse 9

9 Whenever David attacked the land, he left neither man nor woman alive, but took away the sheep, the oxen, the donkeys, the camels and the apparel, and returned and came to Achish

and 11

11 David would save neither man nor woman alive, to bring news to Gath, saying, "Lest they should inform on us, saying 'Thus David did''" And so was his behavior all the time he dwelt in the country of the Philistines.

(note David is doing all of this on behalf of a Philistine king).

According to the old testament from Joshua through 2nd Kings genocide is quite all right (and sometimes obligatory). The two intolerable sins are religious toleration and miscegenation. Actually from exodus through Ezra at least Chapter 9 verses 1, 2 and 3

... the people of Israel and the priests and the levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, ...

2 "For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, so the holy seed is intermingled with the peoples of those lands. Indeed, the hand of the leaders and the rulers has been foremost in this trespass."

3 So when I heard this thing, I tore my garment and my robe, and plucked out some of the hair of my head and beard and sat down appalled.

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