Monday, January 19, 2009

Os Guiness on Barack Obama

In this op-ed piece in, of all places, USA Today, Os Guiness calls on President Obama to use his bully pulpit and his exceptional speaking and leadership skills to address the culture wars being waged in America as a result of two very different and entrenched views of religion in the public square. Guiness describes the views as a vision of a sacred public square, in which one religion or another is privileged, though not established and a naked public square, in which all religions and religious symbols are excluded from public life.

Faith and inauguration

The controversy over Warren’s inaugural invocation shows how far this country still must travel to escape the culture wars. In the months ahead, President Obama should lead this nation’s discussion toward a new ‘true remedy’ to quell the battles over faith in public life.
By Os Guinness
A terrible question stalks our land, even at this moment of promise and hope: Is there any principle left by which the United States can transcend the present bitterness and divisions over religion in public life and live up to the promise of the American experiment? Race was the older and, many thought, deeper of America's problems, but today's celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as well as Barack Obama's election shows how far we have come. Religion in public life is the next challenge.
James Madison called America's original settlement of this contentious issue the "true remedy," and for a long time it was certainly the most nearly perfect solution the world has seen.
Today, however, controversies over religion in public life have become the holy war front of the wider culture wars, and the American settlement is going awry. Whether it's the posting of the Ten Commandments in public places, faith-draped monuments to our war dead or even a government-church partnership — as with the faith-based initiatives — controversy invariably rears its head at the intersection of religion and public life.
Indeed, the mere mention of faith — including the
current legal challenges to the solemn and time-honored oath "So help me, God" in Tuesday's inauguration — can merit a lawsuit. Yet as promised during the campaign, President-elect Obama has chosen inclusion and asked two faith leaders to play key roles in this historic day: The Rev. Rick Warren, the megachurch pastor and best-selling author, will give the inaugural invocation, while the Rev. Joseph Lowery, an African-American pastor who was a veteran of this country's civil rights battles, will deliver the closing prayer.
The president-elect's civility and generosity, sadly, has also become a point of controversy because this group or that group might not agree with these faith leaders on any variety of cultural issues.
Obama himself demonstrates civility in action: the ability to respect and listen to people of profound differences, and to work with them on issues of importance for the common good. Uniquely, perhaps, he would be capable of delivering the Gettysburg Address of the American culture wars. Tuesday's inaugural address is not the occasion, but what our nation requires is a statesman's address by the "President of all Americans" to Americans of all faiths and no faith. In short, what is needed is a challenge to the entire nation — activists, pundits and bloggers included — to live up to the promise of the American experiment in light of the culture wars at home and the sectarian strife around the world. What we need is a rebirth of a tough-minded civility that is a genuine habit of the heart, and valued as a necessity in a democracy as well as a virtue in a republic.
Setting the ground rules
The main themes of such an address are plain:
First, the core challenge is not simply an American problem but a global challenge: How do we live with our deepest differences, especially when those differences are religious and ideological? More abstract sounding than terrorism, HIV-AIDS and climate change, this is a titanic problem to which no nation is immune, and certainly not "a nation of nations" such as the USA. Globalization aggravates the problem because "everyone is now everywhere." And clearly, the deep differences at stake are not simply private beliefs but entire worldviews, as well as clashing views within the same society.
Second, the American settlement of religion and public life shows signs of strain, and needs its first principles renegotiated in light of contemporary social challenges. Though the most successful of the modern Western settlements, vital changes have taken place since the passing of the First Amendment in 1791 — in particular, two factors that are behind the culture wars: an exploding pluralism, reinforced by conflicting views of constitutional interpretation that has skewed the Founders' brilliant understanding of the separation of church and state.
Third, the culture wars have thrown up two broad extremes over the past generation. Both are embodied in movements that are well-funded, nationally led, and receive passionate, though limited, popular support. On one side is a vision of a sacred public square, in which one religion or another is privileged, though not established — associated for better or worse with the religious right. On the other side is a vision of a naked public square, in which all religions and religious symbols are excluded from public life. It is now evident that neither of these extremes lives up to the promise of the Founders' provisions, and neither is just and workable for all Americans. The courts have said as much. To continue the present course of the culture wars is to invite controversies and lawsuits without end, and to undermine America's greatest achievement and one of America's great lessons for the world: the way in which e pluribus unum (Out of many, one) has become a reality and not just a motto.
Fourth, the answer to these extremes and to the culture wars at large lies in the restoration of a civil and cosmopolitan public square. This includes an understanding of public life in which citizens of all faiths — and none — are free to enter and engage public life on the basis of their faith, but within a framework of what is agreed to be just and free for people of all other faiths, too. Such a view of civility is not a matter of niceness, political correctness or squeamishness about giving offense. Nor is it a search for an interfaith dialogue or lowest common denominator unity that glosses over serious and important differences. Rather, it is a framework in which differences are taken seriously, conflicts are debated robustly and policy are decided civilly — something that is a republican virtue and a democratic necessity.
A costly stand
Americans are born free, but every generation in turn has to show itself equal to freedom. Once set out, agreed and taught from generation to generation, this vision of a civil public square would be a vital part of America's liberal education, or the cultivation of the habits of the heart that alone sustain freedom.
Can we expect such an address? Obama is capable of it, as we know from his Philadelphia speech on race during the heat of the campaign. It would, however, take some of the brilliance of Jefferson, the courage of Lincoln and the fearlessness of FDR. The political cost of such a stand might be high, and thus the odds against such leadership are daunting.
One possible outcome of the present angry impasse would be denial, as the issue that has been lanced open is covered up again and we muddle along until the next controversy erupts. Another outcome would be scapegoating, as Americans assuage their pain and shame by turning on the messenger who reminds them of the problem.
My own desired outcome would be for all Americans to face up to the rteality of our culture warring impasse, dig deep in our spiritual and historical resources, and work together with the president for a painful reconciliation and the possibility of a "new, new birth of freedom." A city on a hill, as Jesus of Nazareth said long before John Winthrop and Ronald Reagan, "cannot be hidden." The world watches and waits to see whether what our Founders called the "new order of the ages" can still live up to its promise in this stirring new day.
Os Guinness is senior fellow of the EastWest Institute in New York. His latest book is The Case for Civility — And Why Our Future Depends On It.

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