For all the media chatter about how far we’ve come since the Democratic Convention in Chicago,1968, or the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr‘s. “I Have A Dream Speech,” if you were expecting that the words of the prophets had moved from the subway walls and tenement halls into the mainstream of the Democratic Party you’d be sadly disappointed.
I thought I might find that voice at the Dem’s Faith Caucus on Tuesday,Aug. 26. I was wrong. One minister I spoke to at the Dems’ Faith Caucus meeting on Tuesday (Aug.26) put it this way: “Don’t expect anything here to upset the Democrats apple cart-this is about winning, not about speaking truth to power.”
Unless the power is elsewhere-in the Republican Party or in the Bush Administration. There was no lack of attacks on the perceived political enemy. And no room for Jesus’ admonition to stop criticizing the blindness of the other until one dealt with one’s own blindness.
Speakers at the faith caucus were some of the smartest, most principled , and in my view, most admirable voices in the religious world of the U.S. (whoops, not including Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. who were in short supply in this caucus). They were articulate and powerful in their critiques of Bush and of McCain. And they were positively ecstatic when it came to praising the Democrats for even having a faith caucus for the first time in its history.
There are two possible directions for a faith caucus. A faith caucus can be, and at the moment it fully is, a cheerleading squad for the Democrats, bringing to the churches, synagogues, mosques and ashrams “the good news” that the Democrats policies miraculously happen to coincide with the message of our holy scriptures, and on top of that, that they intend to expand funding of local religious communities as long as the specific programs funded operate within the bounds of separation of church and state.
The other direction is to be a prophetic voice within the political party, bringing to the attention of the leaders the voices of the most downtrodden, demanding that the party live up to its own principles and that it move beyond the rhetoric of peace and justice to really embody that. A prophetic voice would have asked the following questions:
*Why did the Democrats promise to end the war in Iraq in 2006, then go on to fund it in 2007 and 2008? How many dead and wounded Americans and Iraqis should be on the conscience of the party that controlled both the House and the Senate and yet voted hundreds of billions of dolloars to continue the war that they promised to end? If cutting off funds would have caused a split in the party, why should that be more feared than a split from God’s command to pursue peace and justice?
*Why did the Democrats promise to restrain President Bush, then refuse to consider impeachment, but instead vote to extend his powers to violate the Constitution by increasing surveillance on American citizens?
*Why did the Democrats fail to challenge the tens of billions of dollars of windfall profits made by the oil companies, rather than passing legislation to appropriate much of those profits to be used to help poor people pay for the heating oil to survive the winter heat and the gas to enable them to get to work?
*Why did the Democrats not challenge the underlying assumptions of the War on Terror-that security comes through domination and “power over” others, and instead embrace the Strategy of Generosity that underlies the Network of Spiritual Progressives‘ proposed “Global Marshall Plan” now articulated in HRes. 1078 as proposed by Congressman Keith Ellison and backed by 19 other Congresspeople?
*Why did Senator Obama embrace the death penalty for childhood rape-do we really believe that as people of faith we should keep quiet when our candidate talks of extending rather than contracting who our society puts to death?
Of course, the FaithCaucus might have done both of these things, but it did not. There was not a single speaker addressing our disappointments with the Democrats in Congress (though nationwide Congress’ current approval rate under the leadership of Nancy Pelosi stands at 1/3 the level of approval of George Bush-it’s now at 9%).
Meanwhile, in the halls many delegates whispered to each other about the fall in Obama’s polling since his campaign started moving to the “center,” abandoning its own ideals, and in the process losing its most important asset: the excitement of young people around the U.S. who had allowed themselves this past Winter and Spring to abandon their cynicism and believe that this would not be “politics as usual” with the liberal candidate talking peace, justice, an end to militarism and poverty and then qualifying those to death in the actual policies they would back.
Of course, Obama’s lofty rhetoric Thursday night may reinvigorate the hopefulness that won him the nomination in the first place. Yet people of faith really failed him and the Democrats when they spent so much time praising and so little time asking Obama and the Democrats to realize that in the 21st century taking spiritual values seriously in politics requires looking at the spec in one’s own eyes– and it is that kind of help that makes the absence of prophetic critique in the Faith Caucus not only ethically disappointing but substantively a betrayal of the best interests of the Democrats and of the Obama candidacy.
But don’t speak too soon-the wheel’s still in spin, and Obama might yet transcend all his advisors and his cheerleaders and return to his most visionary self.