Dobson vs. Obama At the Pear Tree Inn

I sit in a suburban St. Louis hotel room trying to understand my own reaction to the dust-up between James Dobson and Barack Obama. Admittedly, I'm in the haze that results from a day of conference meetings. I'm also irritable because travel destroys the daily rituals on which I depend for well-being, and because travel to a denominational conference is particularly charmless. More importantly, I am worried about my dad, who had stoke-like symptoms on Tuesday. I freely admit, I may not be thinking clearly.

Nevertheless, in my hotel room -- which has that twenty-year menthol smell, yet has been declared "non-smoking" -- I slog through several articles about the controversy.

It appears that, in order blunt Obama's outreach to evangelicals, Dobson attacked him for misusing the Bible. The AP, which received an advance copy of Dobson's broadcast remarks, reported, "Dobson took aim at examples Obama cited in asking which Biblical passages should guide public policy — chapters like Leviticus, which Obama said suggests slavery is OK and eating shellfish is an abomination, or Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, 'a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application.'"

Dobson said, "I think [Obama is] deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology."

While I listen to the guy shouting into his cell while he gets ice in the hallway, I wonder if the AP might alert its writers that Leviticus is a book.

Next, I gather that Obama attacked Dobson for attacking him. The speech Dobson had cited, Obama argued, was saying that people of faith should ''try to translate some of our concerns in a universal language so that we can have an open and vigorous debate rather than having religion divide us.''

Obama said, ''I think you'll see that [Dobson] was just making stuff up, maybe for his own purposes.''

Then lots of religious spokespeople started attacking Dobson and Obama.

After I find all this on the Internet, I realize that I could've just listened to the TV in the next hotel room, which has been bellowing about the fight with perfect clarity.

What is my reaction to Dobson vs. Obama? I regard it as an imposition, a bother, another of the 24-hour news cycle's pestilential contretemps that I would ignore if it weren't for the politicians' blundering into the pastoral zone.

So, while vainly striving to ignore various aspects of my fellow guests' lives -- their children, their dogs, their gastro-intestinal dramas -- I try to understand my lack of partisan fervor. Don't I care when the Bible is abused by public figures? Don't I have an opinion about whether Obama's Christianity is legitimate? Shouldn't I offer some guidance for my flock as to which man is right? Or am I just resigned to the ultimate equivalence of all political and doctrinal positions?

Partly, I am reacting to Dobson's salvo as a pressure tactic, as a way of forcing every evangelical pastor to line up with him against Obama. We have created a culture of complaining, in which the loudest and most abrasive player drives others from the field. I feel this culture is degrading, no matter what message is being pushed, and I am not going to participate in the game.

Further, I am less than inspired by the wording of Dobson's attack. He says that Obama is "distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible." I'm not sure what Dobson means. The traditional understanding? Does he mean that Obama is using a straw man instead of dealing with real evangelical positions? Or does he mean that Obama is distorting the Bible itself? He doesn't quite say either. And what does he mean by saying that Obama makes these distortions to fit "his own confused theology"? And that Obama is doing it all deliberately?

I fear that Dobson has fallen into the populist habit of stringing words together for their connotations rather than crafting them for meaning. The tactic makes insinuation sound direct. In this case, it certainly communicates Dobson's feelings to evangelical insiders, but it draws no blood. Obama's theological problems are other than Dobson insinuates.

Even further, I am dismayed by the strategic imbecility of making Leviticus an issue in a political campaign. The people at Focus just didn't think this one through. Are we really going to win a public argument with Obama about hermeneutics, the relation of the Old and New Testaments, and which portions of the Bible "apply today?"

Obama's rhetorical questions about which Bible passages should determine public policy were sophomoric, just what we have come to expect from politicians trying to sound highbrow. But no matter how you choose to answer such things, it's not safe to take the tone lower. A little irony goes a long way.

Finally, I'm not convinced that Barack Obama's theology is, as Dobson charged, "confused." Obama's theology is banal, the sort of spiritual generalizing one hears on NPR, as if "translating our concerns in a universal language" is a self-explanatory aspiration, as if having "an open and vigorous debate" is not by definition living with ideas that "divide us."

I will continue to fight such clichés disguised as profundities from my pulpit. I'll do so because doctrines are not ultimately equivalent: Obama's Christian zen is just a repackaged modernist liberalism. I'll try to fight with better weapons than Dobson wants to hand me.

But for now, I put in my earplugs and go to sleep.