The President's View of Rights

by Matthew Raley The last couple of weeks have seen a change of tone among Democrats about President Obama's requirement that religious institutions be forced to provide "contraception" in their health plans, and about his "compromise" that the institutions themselves don't have to pay for it but that insurers still have to provide it.

Democrats think this is a brilliant move -- and they may be right.

There are outright lies in the president's formulation of this policy, in addition to the standard tactical truth-benders.

It is a lie that this policy only concerns contraception. The president's rule covers the abortion pill. Abortion is not contraception. His first policy was that religious institutions must provide abortion coverage. Now his "compromise" is that everyone must pay for it in their insurance premiums.

The president's tactical gambit is that, if people swallow the lie that the issue is contraception, then they will also believe that the only people in America who oppose his rule are Catholic bishops. The president is hoping that evangelicals like me will assume that the only problem here is Rome's opposition to preventing conception.

This is not a Roman Catholic issue, as if "only a bishop" could possibly oppose this rule. When asked not about "contraception" but specifically about the abortion pill requirement, Americans oppose the rule, and it's not close.

Well, let's be blindly generous. Let's pretend that the word "contraception" is not a cover-up, that the president is not pandering to anti-Catholic bigotry, and that Americans do support free abortion by prescription. There's still this little issue of rights.

Here's Nicholas Kristof on religious liberty in a recent column: "The basic principle of American life is that we try to respect religious beliefs, and accommodate them where we can. But we ban polygamy, for example, even for the pious. Your freedom to believe does not always give you a freedom to act."

Again, let's adopt the spirit of blind generosity.

We're going to accept the equating of belief in polygamy with opposition to abortion as if it were completely natural. We're going to ignore the fact that this controversy is not over a "freedom to act" but over a freedom not to act -- that is, my right not to pay for abortion pills. We're even going to ignore this interesting assertion: American life is founded on the principle that "we" will "try" to "respect" religious beliefs. This is a brief counter-factual exercise. We're just going to focus on the words, "Your freedom to believe [a religious teaching] does not always give you a freedom to act."

That formulation might be acceptable to those who do not value religious liberty. But let's see if it still works when applied to other freedoms.

"Your freedom to believe does not always give you a freedom to speak."

"Your freedom to believe does not always give you a freedom to vote."

"Your freedom to buy property does not always give you a freedom to keep it."

"Your freedom to invest does not always give you a freedom to keep the profits."

"Your mere existence in utero does not always give you a freedom to be born."

The president and Mr. Kristof are free to believe that rights owe their existence to governmental fiat. They have the right to reject the real "basic principle" of the United States, that liberties come from God. But in our country -- and it still actually belongs to us -- they do not have the right to subvert the Constitution by administrative law.

The president may get away with this. His tactic may be as brilliant as many Democrats claim. Life will go on and future battles over religious liberties will be fought on very different ground. But let's not pretend this is politics as usual.

The Path To Genuine National Renewal

by Matthew Raley With election day less than a week hence, I confess that I think the campaign is a crashing bore.

If there were a prospect that the nation's course might change, I suppose the elections might be interesting. But I am struck by the continuity of federal policy over the last three decades. It's incoherent but stable: Low taxes (compared with 1933-1980), deficits, free trade, low interest rates, growing government, and willful blindness to the coming bankruptcy of entitlements have been hallmarks of the period since the last significant political U-turn, Ronald Reagan's signature on Kemp-Roth in 1981.

President Obama, the biggest potential change agent since Reagan, has followed most of the policies of his predecessor -- the standout exceptions being health care and Supreme Court appointees. His stimulus measures have been magnitudes larger than George W. Bush's, but not different in principle.

A Republican Congress will not do anything beyond limiting President Obama's options. It might pass Paul Ryan's budgets as written, and they still won't become law. No one is projecting veto-proof Republican majorities.

So voter fury in this campaign feels like the protests of impotence. Populist exploitation of their fury is straight out of old playbooks. Boring.

Only one thing interests me now: will American evangelicals take a long look at themselves and recover the Gospel?

Americans are deep in the cluelessness of hypocrisy. We can rage against Washington all we want. But there's no federal law mandating that household debt should reach 129% of household income, as it did in 2007. The average guy raised his debt burden statistically higher than Greece's all by himself, with money and assets over which he was entirely sovereign. Power to the people, anyone?

We can rage against Wall Street's greed and dishonesty. But the ethics that allowed people to sign for adjustable rate mortgages and balloon payments, and that fudged the details of their credit-worthiness were Main Street ethics that took advantage of the distance of corporate banks from decision-making to fund larger and larger house purchases. Well before the peak of the real estate frenzy, I withdrew a mortgage application after discovering that my broker had lied point-blank to secure approval. Wall Street greed? Get real.

Evangelicals are ranting that if power were returned to the average guy his sterling character would renew the nation. It's time to dig up the planted axiom.

None of this excuses Washington for its various lunacies. But it does raise the question of whether our nation is still great -- great in the sense that its citizenry still has the moral strength to govern itself.

If, as I suspect, it does not have that strength, then national renewal would look something like this:

Americans who claim to believe the Bible would study the book of Proverbs, especially noting the principle that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (1.7). They would note in detail and without excuses their own folly, and accept the rebukes of wisdom. Then they would grieve how deeply they have offended God, not having cultivated the fear of him they owe. In the midst of this grief, they would recall that God forgives, and that his Son Jesus Christ has paid for their offenses.

And, ceasing their proud striving with others, they would seek reconciliation with God on that basis. Martin Lloyd-Jones put it this way in 1959: "You must realise that you are confronted by something that is too deep for your methods to get rid of . . . , and you need something that can go down beneath that evil power, and shatter it, and there is only one thing that can do that, and that is the power of God." (Revival, Crossway Books, 1987, p 19)

If evangelicals led the nation from a Gospel-driven humility, a dependency on Christ's grace and power, something would indeed change. Evangelicals would change. And that would be fascinating.

An Imam and His Abstract Comparisons

by Matthew Raley The generalization that all religions teach the same basic truths retains a powerful hold on the liberal imagination. It feeds the hope that the world can find peace through understanding, that if religions could realize how much ground they share, then people from different cultures could come together.

But this hope for a corporate final salvation leaves the individual human heart in despair.

Last Friday, On Faith in the Washington Post published comments by Feisal Abdul Rauf about President Barack Obama's upcoming trip to Turkey. He provides a specimen of how a hope for common ground devolves into an impersonal set of ethics.

Imam Rauf's examples of common ground between Islam and America are pretty abstract. Both cultures, it seems believe in law.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that the Creator endowed man with these unalienable rights. The framers of the Constitution wrote that they were establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility, promoting the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty.

In the same way, Islamic law believes that God has ordained political justice, economic justice, help for the weak and impoverished. These are very Islamic concepts. Many Muslims believe that what Americans receive from their government is in fact the very substance of what an Islamic state should provide. American beliefs in individual liberty and the dignity of the individual are Islamic principles as well.

These comparisons are shockingly facile. Concepts of justice do not become anything more than slogans until they are instantiated by real cultural transactions. It is precisely the cultural specifics that drive the Muslim and American worlds apart.

The Imam becomes more specific when citing President Obama.

Obama sent a shockwave through the Muslim World when at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 5 he quoted a hadith -- "None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." The president equated that tenet of Islam with Jesus' "Love thy neighbor as thyself," and the Jewish Torah commandment, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow."

There is indeed a broad and sometimes precise agreement about ethics among the world's religions and cultures. There is also agreement that the dynamics of right and wrong are built into the universe just as securely as its physical dynamics. C. S. Lewis, to name only the most prominent thinker, documented this agreement in his series of lectures, The Abolition of Man, in which he argued for the existence of a Tao, a moral law that is universal.

Imam Rauf and President Obama are correct when they find the golden rule articulated across cultural boundaries.

But their purpose goes beyond the diplomatic to embrace the liberal's final hope.

Christian liberals have long sought to reenergize ethics in the here-and-now, and deemphasize the "last things" of human history and eternal salvation. Or more precisely, they have adopted a new doctrine of the last things.

Here is the ultimate End, articulated by the Imam. President Obama

can emphasize the commonality of Western and Islamic values. He can say that if the United States lives up to the values in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and if Muslims can live up to the principles of Islamic law, then we will find we have fewer points of conflict and more common ground.

Once this commonality can be established, Muslims no longer will fear Western domination and the West no longer will fear Islamic expansion. Then, the phony "Clash of Civilizations" can be put to rest.

The liberal imagination, whether Christian or Muslim, sees world peace as the End of History, the ultimate goal of religion. Their path is to spotlight common ground and ease sharp differences into the shadows.

Where does this leave biblical Christianity?

The Jesus of the Gospel of John speaks to individual despair, the death and darkness of sin in each human soul. His cure for this despair is not an abstract system of ethics, which serves only to mark sin and not to redeem the sinner. His cure for darkness and death is his own historical death and resurrection.

The world will be reunified in Christ's household of the redeemed.

This is the preeminent difference Christianity has with other religions. To follow the vision of liberalism, we must silence Jesus' claims about individual redemption while keeping his ethics. The Imam can easily live with that. President Obama can easily live with it.

But the human soul, taunted by an abstract law it has never kept nor can keep, will remain dead.

The 44th President

President Barack Obama's inaugural address expressed something not heard in Washington for many decades: liberalism without a guilty conscience. That the new president is liberal in his political philosophy was clear. His narrative for American history is one of expanding equality. His sketch of the economic crisis had the lines of the classic liberal model, that the prosperous few must not be coddled. His foreign policy overview stressed that we hated no one, and would strive for humility in our use of power.

While many of these values are shared across party lines, they are the specific priorities are modern liberalism.

But from the guts of this address I heard none of the cringing irony about patriotism, none of the apologetic nods to other societies, none of the moral weakness that drained liberalism of its power in the last decades of the twentieth century.

The president's speech was filled with our history, saturated with it. He presented us with an American legacy that was strong, not hypocritical. And he made an unequivocal claim that this legacy requires our loyalty:

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.

There were fighting words grounded in cultural confidence:

We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

What I heard in this speech was the tone of the old liberalism of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy, the liberalism that forged the victorious cold war strategy. It is not a philosophy I can agree with, especially not in its view of the state's role in society. But it is a liberalism I can respect.

Books: Obama and Richard Reeves' Kennedy

scan00021President Kennedy: Profile of Power, by Richard Reeves, Simon & Schuster, 1993. by Matthew Raley

Recently, anticipating an Obama administration, I reread Richard Reeves' narrative of John Kennedy's presidency, and was engrossed.

Barack Obama's ascent provided the excuse I'd been wanting to return to this book because Kennedy is the nearest analogy to the man who will be the 44th president. Just for starters, Kennedy was a barrier-breaker, as the first Catholic to occupy the White House, and he was young.

But there are more significant parallels. JFK had no executive experience, and was the last sitting U.S. senator to win the presidency. He also represented generational change, and a break with ideological passions in favor of a sophisticated pragmatism. Indeed, JFK was the last president to have the sheen of academic and writerly intellectual seriousness.

Does the Kennedy administration, I wonder, suggest anything to watch as Obama takes over?

First, a few outstanding features of Reeves' book, Obama aside.

Reeves is the master of the taut, high-impact vignette. Kennedy was pondering what to do about renewed Soviet atmospheric nuclear testing. Should the U.S. resume atmospheric testing too? He asked his science adviser, Jerome Wiesner, how radioactive fallout gets to the earth (p 227).

"The clouds are washed out by rain," answered Wiesner.

Kennedy looked out through the French doors into the garden. It was a rainy day and he asked: "You mean it's in the rain out there?"

"Yes," Wiesner said. He stood, awkwardly, waiting. Kennedy did not speak for a long time.

Reeves also conveys the private impact on national leaders of events like the Cuban missile crisis. His understated portrayal gains power from the right details at the right moments. Mike Mansfield, the Senate Majority Leader, left the White House after learning that millions could be dead within hours in a nuclear exchange (p 393). The senator

called his wife, asking her to meet him at National Airport. Mansfield wanted to go home to Montana, and he told his wife there was something he wanted to tell her involving Kennedy. When the Mansfields landed at Billings later that day, there were soldiers patrolling the runways and the terminal -- as there were at other airports all across the country.

The Kennedy assassination (which I hope never becomes a parallel between the 35th and 44th presidents) gains drama and tension as Reeves' narrative rolls on. The dates at the beginning of each chapter prompt the reader to ask, "What if JFK knew he only had this much time?"

And there are chilling moments close to the end.

On November 2, 1963, JFK sat down to a meeting to manage the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem, the South Vietnamese president. An aide walked into the meeting with a cable reporting that Diem had been killed in the coup (p 649). "[The aide] handed it to the President, who looked at it, stood up, and rushed from the room without a word, looking pale and shaken."

In Fort Worth on November 22nd, surveying the setting of a political rally he would attend before flying to Dallas, Kennedy said to an aide (p 661), "Look at that platform. With all these buildings around it, the Secret Service couldn't stop someone who really wanted to get you."

My reading raised one issue that I will be watching closely in the Obama administration.

JFK's view of military power and foreign policy was primarily political. How would the United States be perceived around the world, and how would JFK be perceived at home?

During the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy refused to send American air support to save the ex-patriot invasion force. He wanted to preserve plausible deniability of American involvement.

Reeves writes (p 157) that Kennedy, meeting Nikita Khruschev in Vienna in 1961, wanted to "talk to him politician-to-politician about the dangers of military miscalculation in a nuclear world. The political systems that produced the two leaders were different, but they were in the same business and Kennedy had no doubt they would understand each other."

But Kennedy was unprepared for the ideological strength of the Soviet leader. When asked by James Reston how the summit had gone, Kennedy replied (p 172), "Worst thing in my life. He savaged me."

The pattern Reeves shows in Kennedy's decision-making is one of trying to preserve his room for maneuver and his deniability until the last possible moment. This was his downfall in the Bay of Pigs, it persisted during the Cuban missile crisis, and remain characteristic during the coup against Diem in the last month of Kennedy's life.

Of the impending coup, JFK cabled Henry Cabot Lodge, the ambassador to South Vietnam, "We are particularly concerned about hazard that an unsuccessful coup, however carefully we avoid direct entanglement, will be laid at our door by public opinion almost everywhere."

Barack Obama is not an ideological, but a political creature. He balances, he soothes, he preserves options.

This is good in the sense that Obama will probably not turn out to be the radical leftist some fear. But in foreign policy, where uses of military power have to be concerned less with appearances than with targets and results, and where power needs to be used without a guilty conscience, Obama's penchant for equivocation could be his undoing.

After the Bay of Pigs humiliation, Dwight Eisenhower visited Kennedy at Camp David, and gave him the dressing-down of his life (pp 102-103). "How could you possibly have kept from the world any knowledge that the United States had been involved?" Ike said. "I believe there is only one thing to do when you go into this kind of thing, it must be a success."

But we don't have the equivalent of a former president Eisenhower anymore.

Obama Culture and Bob the Logger

Sermon audio (11-2-08): Simple and Stubborn On Sunday evenings at our church, I lead a Q & A session about the morning's sermon. Last Sunday, with Barack Obama haunting the auditorium, we discussed the man born blind in John 9, and the challenge of bearing witness to Christ now. A key point in the sermon (audio above) had been that the beggar was a great model: when under pressure, just repeat what you have directly seen Christ do in your life.

One question responded to that point, and got close to the heart of why I did this series on individuality in Christ.

Bob the logger noted his charismatic upbringing, from which he learned not to take people's testimonies about Jesus seriously. He said that, because of the sensationalism he saw among pentecostals, he has not talked much about his personal relationship with Christ, using objective arguments that apply beyond subjective experiences instead.

Was I saying that he should reverse course? Should he talk about his personal experiences without worrying about universals, logic, or principles? Isn't that a surrender to postmodern thinking? (Our loggers are well-read, in case you're wondering.)

Three observations:

1. The death of reason has been greatly exaggerated. Reasoning has merely changed focus.

Many fear that the postmodern person uses experience as a substitute for logic, that the only thing she respects is emotion. I haven't found this to be the case. Rather, I find that the postmodern person is rightly suspicious of extravagant claims, having once believed too many scientific studies that were biased, too many news reports that served an agenda, and too many experts who were paid to bluff the uninitiated.

Postmodern people will listen carefully to any argument that splices together from many points of view a picture in 3-D. They know that reality is complex, and that we are too easily faked out by our narrow perceptions. And they are right to raise the bar on claims to objectivity.

2. Younger Christians' apologetical shift from propositional arguments to personal experience reflects postmodern suspicion. But their reflection is inarticulate and potentially dangerous.

It's one thing to accept the postmodern challenge to show the truth of Christ from many points of view. This acceptance deals with our culture as it actually is, without compromising the Bible's radical claims. But it's quite another thing to abandon the truth of Christ, saying instead that all points of view are equally valid. While this approach certainly deals with our culture as it is, the approach does so only through capitulation.

I believe Christians can shift the focus of their reasoning without compromise, but only with careful thought about what they are doing and why. To wit . . .

3. In John's Gospel, the argument for the truth of Christ is not being made by believers but by the Lord.

The logic of the Gospel of John is founded on the testimony of individual witnesses, and the book is written with the density of a legal narrative. Each witness gives distinct and specific testimony, establishing distinct and specific facts. No single witness proves the entire case, but all of them taken together do prove it. The person who deploys all the witnesses to make his argument is Christ himself.

For example, John the Baptist comes as a witness to the light (1.6-8). His testimony is that he saw the Spirit descend on Jesus at his baptism, just as God had told him (1.31-34). "And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God." Jesus later cites John the Baptist's testimony (5.31-35). "You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth." John the Baptist was part of Jesus' larger argument. John delivered one authentic point of view.

The beggar in chapter 9 is another example. Jesus says (9.3) that the man was born blind "that the works of God might be displayed in him." The healing of the man's sight was only the warm-up for that display; the main event consisted of the beggar telling the same story about Jesus repeatedly, and insisting (9.25), "One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." From his unique point of view, the beggar was able to conclude, "If this man [Jesus] were not from God, he could do nothing."

With the ascendancy of Obama and the diverse, postmodern culture he represents, many Christians will look more frantically for killer arguments. They will want to prove the morality of the Bible and the claims of Christ within the terms of philosophy, science, and especially social science. But they will fail to find these arguments -- fail in the sense that they will not persuade the unbeliever, no matter how incisive their arguments may be.

What you can do now is just what Bob the logger suggested with his question. Reverse course. Instead of using a lingo of proof that rightly arouses people's suspicions, you can speak from within your own point of view, describing what Christ has done for you. You can put your testimony in the context of what God says in the Bible. And you can do this without fear of compromising the truth.

God will make his own case, deploying your testimony just as he deployed the beggar's. We are God's witnesses, giving testimony under pressure, as the Holy Spirit persuades the world of the Gospel (15.26-16.11).

In other words, in the culture we now face, it has never been more important for you to reflect the light of Jesus Christ as an individual.

Being Christians in the Age of Obama

Sermon audio (10-19-08): Opposition to Christ in You Yeah, I know: it ain't over til the fat lady sings. Obama isn't elected yet. McCain could still pull an upset.

But nothing changes the fact that our country is headed for an acrimonious reckoning. The name Obama itself reflects the depth of the nation's divisions. About half the country is convinced he'll redeem America, and about half thinks he'll turn us into France. Americans are in the habit of getting pretty worked up over presidential candidates, but this year is special.

Consider a few flash-points.

Many Republicans are angry over the media's investigations of Joe the plumber. At National Review Online on Monday, Byron York reported from a McCain rally where the spectators were holding up signs like "Phil the Bricklayer" and "Rose the Teacher." The encounters between such people and reporters quickly escalated. One man said to reporters, "I support McCain, but I’ve come to face you guys because I’m disgusted with you guys." Many see themselves as persecuted.

On his Monday radio show, Sean Hannity interviewed a girl who was called a racist for wearing a McCain T-shirt to school. Her parents complained that the teachers and administrators had done nothing. More persecution.

Sarah Palin continues to divide not only the country in general but conservatives in particular. George Will, David Brooks, and Peggy Noonan have earned the ire of the grassroots right for their rejection of her populism. The ire is expressed along class lines, that these are fake conservatives because they are intellectuals, members of the media elite who look down their noses at common folk. Persecution from turncoats.

In California, the portents of an Obama victory combined with a victory for gay marriage against Proposition 8 are giving many evangelicals nightmares about totalitarian judges taking away their religious freedom. Persecution from government bureaucrats.

This election is defined less along the lines of economics, philosophy, or even race than those of class and culture. From the grassroots conservative point of view, it's Walmart against Wall Street, blue collar against white, Western Pennsylvania against San Francisco. It's Obama against Palin.

Evangelicals have spent decades confusing political causes with the cause of Christ. I have written at length about their populism and resentment, characteristics that mix a particular American identity -- predominantly rural and suburban, middle class, and conservative -- with godliness and truth. This year, many evangelicals fervently hope that populist anger will carry McCain to victory.

I think evangelicals are at a watershed.

If they invest their passion into being Sam's Club Republicans, into retaining the consumer culture that "made America great," and if they continue to link their faith in Christ and their political views, then they will be deluded about this year's reckoning.

They will interpret a McCain victory as some divine approval of their way of life, and will ignore the role their own immorality has played in the nation's decline. Conversely, they will interpret an Obama victory as the beginning of the persecution of the common American, stoking the fires of their resentment even hotter.

Neither response will advance the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, but merely intensify the acrimony.

But if evangelicals invest their passion into being Jesus' followers, into showing his grace and truth in their relationships, then they will see this year's election for what it is -- an opportunity. This is our chance to demonstrate that we care more about displaying Christ's glory than about displaying America's.

Many of the evangelicals I know are determined to make Christ the issue in their lives. They are taking steps to glorify him in their marriages, in the nurturing of their children, in their personal devotion to the scriptures and prayer, and in simple integrity. These believers understand how the sins of God's people are more significant causes of America's spiritual death than the sins of non-Christians. They also understand that their process of repentance will be full of suffering.

But they voice their sense of peace that Christ will turn them into unique expressions of his love, and that their individuality in him will become a clear, strong message of the gospel. They know that any opposition they get for displaying Christ is not opposition to their social status, or their political views, or their economic aspirations, but is the same opposition that Christ himself got when he was on earth. And they know that Christ can overcome that opposition.

To advance Christ's Kingdom, evangelicals must take one course or the other, the political or the spiritual. And the political course has demonstrably failed.

I am convinced that devotion to Jesus will help us avoid putting hope in a McCain administration, and that such devotion is the only way to face our more likely future, the age of Obama, without acrimony.

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.