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Frank Schaeffer

Frank Schaeffer

Posted: November 5, 2008 11:44 AM

President Obama: Bad News For the New Atheists and Other Fundamentalists


The Obama presidency is great news for almost everyone. It's bad news for some odd ideological bedfellows: the Religious Right and the so-called New Atheists.

Into the all or nothing culture wars, and the all or nothing wars between the so-called New Atheists and religion the election of President elect Obama reintroduces nuance. President elect Obama's ability to believe in Jesus, yet question, is going to rescue American religion in general and Christianity in particular, from the extremes.

There is no way to understand President elect Obama's victory as anything less than the start of not just a monumental political change but a spiritual revolution as well.

Full disclosure: I was raised by American missionaries -- Francis and Edith Schaeffer -- who became leaders within the American Evangelical subculture. When I was in my twenties I was their sidekick. We Schaeffers had a lot to do with the formation of the Religious Right. (Sorry!) In the mid 1980s I escaped my tribe's literal-minded religion and currently go to a Greek Orthodox Church. I've also been one of President elect Obama's most vocal and prolific -- judging by the amount I've written -- supporters.

The pro and anti God industry churns. I know. I've worked this turf for years. But there is a new sheriff on the religion beat. He's smart! President elect Obama is a knowledgeable fan of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, has lectured seriously on his faith and the relationship of church and state, and is not a nominal Christian for political purposes, but someone who actually prays, believes and lives his faith.

To the New Atheists who think that with the resounding defeat of the Religious Right, we are entering a secular age, think again. Obama will block your path. He'll do it for the same reason he'll make the Religious Right's paranoid fantasies about him soon seem shamefully ridiculous. That's because President elect Obama is that rarest of all rare people: a thoughtful, compassionate and likable statesman who also is a thoughtful, compassionate and likable religious believer.

In the last few years there has been a spate of best selling books published that are for or against religion. All of them are by literalists who speak in fundamentalist tones. On the pro-religion side we find A Purpose Driven Life and the Left Behind series extolling a Jesus-solves-everything one note evangelical born-again message. On the flip side are the equally evangelistic one note New Atheist books including Sam Harris's The End of Faith, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great.

The New Atheists' books provided a context for Bill Maher's movie Religulous, the most blunt instrument imaginable. Maher's documentary expands what Harris started in his book The End of Faith. Harris begins his book with a scene of a young Islamic terrorist in Jerusalem smiling as he commits suicide while blowing up a bus full of innocent people. In Religulous, Maher gleefully includes many more images of look-how-crazy-God-makes-everyone, religion-inspired violence. The Harris/Maher message is as clear: the world would be better off without religion.

There is another message in the Maher/New Atheist oeuvre: everyone must think in categories stripped of allegory. Forget the idea that perhaps one may hold two contradictory ideas at the same time, say that none of the stories in the Bible happened as written, but that they are true in more subtle ways than mere historicity, or that we're nothing but jumped up chimps, but are also connecting to a deeper reality when we say, "the Lord is my shepherd" and hope that he is.

The New Atheists don't seem to "get" grown up allegory any more than the fundamentalists of the Religious Right do, let alone literary imagination. And both the Religious right and the New Atheists also seems oblivious to serious religious thinkers from Confucius to the Sufi poets, from Reinhold Niebur to one of Reinhold Niebuhr's biggest fans; President elect Obama.

Maher's world contains no Pastor Deitrick Bonhoffer (martyred for trying to assassinate Hitler, and who defined the intellectual and theological terms for resistance to state tyranny based on Christian ethics), or the intellectual man of letters and convert from atheism to the Roman Catholic Church, Malcolm Muggeridge, let alone an awareness of the prayers written by the "atheist" W.E.B. Du Bois for his students, a poignant demonstration that faith is not so easily abandoned.

But President elect Obama has spoken of the need to meld religious ethics with the philosophical underpinnings of statecraft, when for instance he says that the Democrats have been mistaken in not understanding that the abortion issue is first and foremost a moral issue.

On June 28, 2006, Senator Obama spoke at the Call to Renewal Conference sponsored by Sojourners. President elect Obama said:

"For some time now, there has been plenty of talk among pundits and pollsters that the political divide in this country has fallen sharply along religious lines... Conservative leaders have been all too happy to exploit this gap... Democrats, for the most part, have taken the bait... At worst, there are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word 'Christian' describes one's political opponents, not people of faith...

"I think it's time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.

"And if we're going to do that then we first need to understand that Americans are a religious people... This religious tendency is not simply the result of successful marketing by skilled preachers... I speak with some experience on this matter.

"You need to come to church in the first place precisely because you are first of this world, not apart from it. You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away -- because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey.

"It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.

"That's a path that has been shared by millions upon millions of Americans -- evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims alike; some since birth, others at certain turning points in their lives. It is not something they set apart from the rest of their beliefs and values. In fact, it is often what drives their beliefs and their values."

Pre the Religious Right take over the traditional focus of the Republican Party had been on foreign policy issues, the economy, military preparedness and a generally libertarian laissez-faire view of the world-things William F. Buckley, and Barry Goldwater would have recognized. This was replaced by the "religious ethics" of what I imagine as the Saturday Night Live Church Lady's older, stricter, uglier, dumber and terminally self-righteous big sister. This humorless desiccated hag remade the Republican image as the anti-everything party. And in doing so this hag also took down all religious people through guilt by association. And that is the context in which the evangelistic New Atheists emerged.

Okay, so a lot of religious people are nuts, or worse, intolerant. That still doesn't address the baby swirling down the Maher/New Atheist anti-religion drain along with the right wing bathwater they're flushing.

President-elect Obama brings another perspective to faith . It goes something like this:

How do cultures define themselves if not through ritual? In the "big moments" of life; birth, marriage, sickness, death "who" -- in the inimitable words of Ghost Busters -- "you gonna call?" As President elect Obama has said, and I paraphrase: Strip the human race of our spiritual language and what do we tell each other about hope?

As President elect Obama has pointed out, a world of all math but no poetry is not fit for human habitation. If everything feels flat and dull, stripped of mystery and meaning who will bother to do the science? Why bother, if all we're doing is serving those selfish genes for another round of meaningless propagation?

So does this faith always make "sense?" No. Because our perspective is from the inside, something like paint contemplating the painting of which it's a part. We're all in the same boat, all stuck on the same "canvas."

So let's admit we all share the problem that was best articulated by Darwin in his dairy: "Can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?"

As our new president recognizes, self-awareness and mortality are already such a mutually exclusive (and terrifying) contradiction that accepting a few more contradictions is par for the course! And President elect Obama has a generous enough spirit and a large enough intellect so that he can do with his spiritual life, what the Religious Right and the New Atheists have not done: understand that there is no shame in embracing paradox.

President Obama is about to make reasoned faith fashionable again. It's about time.


Frank Schaeffer is the author of CRAZY FOR GOD-How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back. Now in paperback.

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