(cross-posted at Deny My Freedom and Daily Kos)

All of us in the blogosphere should remember July 27, 2004. Since I wasn’t active in Internet politics outside of lurking at one blog, I didn’t really know too much about Barack Obama aside from the fact that his Republican opponent for the Senate, Jack Ryan, had dropped out of race and that Obama was going to easily win the seat of retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-IL). Network TV wasn’t going to cover Tuesday night of the DNC, so I decided to turn the old TV to PBS and watch the night’s events. To say the least, Obama was electrifying; the speech got a rousing ovation at the convention, and publicity on the convention tended to ignore Teresa Heinz Kerry’s remarks in favor of our new ‘rising star’. Obama had shown a charisma that we hadn’t seen in some Democratic politicians since Bill Clinton, and this part of his keynote address will forever be burned into my memory.

Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us — the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of “anything goes.” Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.

The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an “awesome God” in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

In the end — In the end — In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?

Indeed, the speech was hailed widely, and people began speaking of Obama as a future presidential candidate. He may have been the product of a grassroots campaign that pushed him through a crowded Democratic primary, but it was clear that he was headed for bigger and better things. But 18 months into his first term, the grassroots has been largely disappointed in Obama, and as someone who got to see in Philadelphia just how powerful an off-the-cuff speech he could give, I’ve been disappointed as well.

Obama has had a fairly undistinguished voting record in the Senate, and the perceived lack of his using his star power to highlight issues for Democrats can either be attributed to his deference for being the 99th-most senior senator or to the fact that he doesn’t want to ruffle any feathers within the institution. While his vote today for the Oman Free Trade Pact is the most egregious mark against him at this point (as well as his vote for Condoleeza Rice’s nomination to Secretary of State), like Joe Lieberman, it’s his words that do the most damage. It’s not often you hear Obama getting into a verbal tussle with Republicans (his only real scuffle was with John McCain). The words that stand out is Obama’s words on the state of the Democratic Party. Consider this bit from his recent remarks at the Call To Renewal conference:

Democrats, for the most part, have taken the bait. At best, we may try to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that – regardless of our personal beliefs – constitutional principles tie our hands. At worst, some liberals 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.


We first need to understand that Americans are a religious people. 90 percent of us believe in God, 70 percent affiliate themselves with an organized religion, 38 percent call themselves committed Christians, and substantially more people believe in angels than do those who believe in evolution.

Why is Obama feeding the standard traditional media’s line about supposed Democratic discomfort about religion? The reason that our party is loathe to talk about religion is because of what the Founding Fathers stated when they wrote the Constitution – there is the whole idea of separation of church and state. Inherently, religion and politics are not supposed to mix. That’s why America is a secular state, Senator Obama, not a religious state, as you claim. Additionally, if a candidate chooses to talk about religion as how it relates to how it shapes their worldview, that’s fine. But it should not have to be a requirement for Democrats to keep their mouths shut about religion unless they are running against an Alan Keyes type, as Obama suggests.

To be fair, Obama does suggest that it’s not authentic for everyone to employ religion:

I am not suggesting that every progressive suddenly latch on to religious terminology. Nothing is more transparent than inauthentic expressions of faith – the politician who shows up at a black church around election time and claps – off rhythm – to the gospel choir.

But what I am suggesting is this – secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. To say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity; our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I don’t ever recall the so-called ‘secularists’ (who the hell are these people, anyways? I didn’t know they were a powerful interest group), and the Democratic Party in particular, saying that you had to leave religion out of your political life. All we ask is that you don’t take political action in the name of religion.

When one reviews Obama’s comments, though, such as MyDD did back in March, one begins to see a consistent pattern of undermining the Democratic position on various issues, whether it be his ignorance on Feingold’s censure motion or on discussing the use of filibusters. In the end, this is what harms our party the most – by publicly undercutting the party in the frames that the GOP has established, it is setting back progress that we have made. Obama’s proclivities for being a public voice of dissent within the Democratic Party on various issues holds a lot of water given his stature, and it does nothing to improve our standing – except his own, perhaps.

While he’s nowhere near the level that Joe Lieberman is when it comes to cutting our legs out from beneath us, one must remember that Joe only became a vocal critic of Democratic positions in fairly recent times. Their voting records may differ, but the fact is that they both affirm the ‘problems’ that others believe our party has when they speak. If Obama wants to keep the respect of the movement that helped push him on the path towards stardom, he might do well to remember to speak out in support of progressive Democratic positions instead of repeating tired old talking points denigrating the Democratic party.

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