Culture At Large

What Church for the Obamas?

Steven Koster

To what church should the Obamas belong when they move to Washington?

Such a simple question illuminates all sorts of religious, personal, political, and civic issues in America.

Sally Quinn of the Washington Post airs her opinion simply: the Obamas should choose the National Cathedral. Why? Simply because, while it's nominally Episcopal, it really includes all faiths and even no particular faith at all, if that's your thing. It's a pluralistic church, and that's the religion of pluralistic America--a faith in faith itself, absent of all content. And Barack, as believer-in-chief, should represent our common faith.

But over at the Center for Public Justice, Jim Skillen helpfully illustrates her mistaken assumptions.

First is pluralism as a religion. Pluralism in this sense is not so much co-existence of faiths, but a merging all faiths. By forcing all religions into one, all that is critical to each religion must be vacated and emptied. Nothing is left but vagaries about the divine. (And the even deeper irony is that demanding an all-inclusive belief is itself exclusive. "Rigorous all-inclusiveness must exclude someone, namely those who do not agree with the terms of all-inclusiveness," as Skillen puts it.)

Second is confusing our political community with our religious diversity.

The United States is a very pluralistic political community, a community of citizens that is not qualified by a single faith. One’s faith is not a qualification for membership in the political community.

But Quinn does not think of America as a political community alone. She presents it as a civil-religious community whose diversity needs to be held together (even trumped) by an overarching unity. That unity is characterized, in part, by a common faith that transcends all parochial and sectarian communities of faith.

This is pluralism as a national faith, one that excludes orthodoxy to particular faiths.

Quinn’s confusion comes from having ignored the most important basis of pluralism that the United States offers. Precisely by distinguishing the political community from many faith communities, the US Constitution opens the public arena to diverse faith communities, all of which are free to be exclusive in their membership while being included on equal terms in American society.

We are one political nation of many faiths. It is a mistake, then, to insist that America is a faith-centered nation. Our people are certainly people of faith. We should not be a secular nation in the sense that we insist religion be private, excluding faith from public dialogue. Americans should exercise their religion freely and in the public square. Faith should inform our opinions and polity. We should resist attempts to reduce faith to merely a private matter of no consequence. But we are not a nation of one faith. America is pluralist, and we should resist the call to shed the core definitions of our faiths in hopes of a vague Deist unity.

(And by the same token, it's a mistake to insist that America is a Christ-centered nation in her political structures, but I'll leave that for another post.)

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, News & Politics, North America