The right has successfully convinced much of the country that the Democratic Party is hostile to people of faith, and speeches that work to counter that myth are valuable. Unfortunately, Obama's rhetoric ends up reinforcing Republic myths about liberal Godlessness instead of challenging them.
She debunks several of the Right's myths about the Pledge and the "war" on Christmas, and says this about the school prayer issue:
...when schools have stopped kids from engaging in religious speech -- say, in handing out religious tracts at lunch -- the ACLU has stepped in to defend them, and they've been correct to do so. Liberalism, at its best, stands for free speech, even when that speech is annoying.
The argument is not whether religion can do good things in people's lives. It's whether the government should fund religion. [...] The relevant debate is about government-financed religious discrimination. The rest is just a smokescreen to make it seem like defenders of the First Amendment are the ones on the offensive.
Of course, that rhetorical misdirection is the whole point of the "persecuted Christian" myth: to cast the aggressive majority as being under siege from a fanciful "secular humanist elite." As an atheist--but far from a member of any elite--I found little to complain about in Obama's speech. He notes the "gap" in party affiliation based on regular church attendance, and observes that
Conservative leaders have been all too happy to exploit this gap, consistently reminding evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design.
Democrats, for the most part, have taken the bait.
Letting the Right frame the debate is as losing a proposition for church/state issues as it in every other area of concern. As an atheist, I nonetheless agree with Obama that "as progressives, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse:"
Because when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations towards one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome - others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.
In other words, if we don't reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, then the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Alan Keyeses will continue to hold sway.
Obama sidesteps the "moral values" minefield and notes that it is not only progressives who need to modify their political rhetoric. He notes three truths that conservative leaders need to acknowledge:
For one, they need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. [...]
Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. [...]
Finally, any reconciliation between faith and democratic pluralism requires some sense of proportion. [...] Even those who claim the Bible's inerrancy make distinctions between Scriptural edicts, sensing that some passages - the Ten Commandments, say, or a belief in Christ's divinity - are central to Christian faith, while others are more culturally specific and may be modified to accommodate modern life.
He closed his speech with an anecdote about altering the phrasing of his pro-choice position due to a religious constituent's request for "fair-minded words" when discussing abortion rights. As an atheist, I agree with that as well. It may be personally satisfying to tweak the Christianists' tender sensibilities--a satisfaction I have succumbed to on occasion--but we need not offend fair-minded religious moderates in the process.