Barack Obama on Faith in the Public Square

For the first time in many years, a radio station other than NPR has managed—sometimes—to win my listenership during my daily commute. It’s 92.9 FM, aka Christian Talk 660. I have to admit I usually can’t stand the brash talk programs (the one exception is local pastor Kevin Boling’s more humble and theologically minded program “Knowing the Truth”). I tend to listen for the preachers. The talk programs have too much politico-religious fulminating even for my fundamentalist ears.

Exhibit A: I flipped to 92.9 yesterday on my way home, and the first thing I heard was the fulmination of a young man who could not believe that Barack Obama, at the recent National Prayer Breakfast, actually claimed the sanction of Jesus on his efforts to help the poor. The talk host was doing his best “shocked, shocked.”

I was disgusted by his disrespectful tone, so I immediately hit the NPR preset. Their perspective is, of course, quite different. But NPR was equally shocked, shocked. They were just fulminating—in their own, much more restrained way—against something different. Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Komen, it seems, decided to stop sending money to  Planned Parenthood because they provide abortions. (Komen, of course, reversed their decision; shame on them for giving money to an organization that is interested in saving the lives of only some women and throwing away the lives of others.)

It just so happens that for the last two days I have been doing some extensive editing and re-writing of a new chapter in the BJU Press American Government textbook. The content was excellent; my job was to add some concrete illustrations. So at one point I turned to the President’s recent speech, the one 92.9 FM was fulminating against. Here’s what the President said that was relevant:

We can’t leave our values at the door. If we leave our values at the door, we abandon much of the moral glue that has held our nation together for centuries, and allowed us to become somewhat more perfect a union. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Abraham Heschel—the majority of great reformers in American history did their work not just because it was sound policy, or they had done good analysis, or understood how to exercise good politics, but because their faith and their values dictated it, and called for bold action—sometimes in the face of indifference, sometimes in the face of resistance.

The president said a lot of other interesting things about his own personal faith. Frankly, he sounded little different from George W. Bush. And he paid explicit and lengthy homage to the same evangelical patron saint Bush cites, Billy Graham. (C.S. Lewis, Joel Hunter, and T.D. Jakes were the other religious figures who got a shout-out. He even praised the Passion Conference, where Piper often speaks.)

The 92.9 FM host seems to think Obama is an out-an-out liar, pretending to obey Jesus’ commands about the poor when all he’s really doing is justifying socialistic wealth redistribution. But I think this is as disrespectful (think Romans 13:7 and 1 Peter 2:17) as it is wrong. I think the president fully believes what he’s saying, and that he’s no dummy. His comments weren’t just politically canny, a cynical attempt to undermine Republicans’ hitherto exclusive claim to the values vote. He knows and believes that religious conviction is usually the only force that can generate the deep moral feeling required to change deep-seated injustices. And he believes that he is a man of religious conviction.

Both President Bush and President Obama see things this way—interestingly, Obama says in his speech that he expanded faith-based initiatives, something for which Bush received a great deal of Democratic criticism, as I recall.

But both presidents, with all due respect, seem to me to be willfully blind to an inconvenient truth: value systems sometimes clash. The same president who (rightly) praised civil rights leaders for their moral courage in the face of injustice just clarified that his administration intends to force Catholic hospitals to provide insurance coverage for contraception. The hypocrisy of a Catholic church in which, I’m told, 98% of women use contraceptives despite Vatican opposition is not fully beside the point. But still, why is Martin Luther King Jr. good and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops bad? Both of them have taken bold action, sometimes in the face of resistance, to do what their faith and values dictate. Why do President Obama’s values win and St. Francis Hospital’s values lose?

The truth is that both President Obama and former President Bush need to have their apparently religious comments run through the CRF—the Civil Religion Filter. This filter, for only $19.95 (PayPal to mlward AT gmail), will reveal which of a politician’s comments represent the Christian religion and which represent its much-shriveled shadow puppet, American civil religion. I ran the President’s comments through, and very little fell out the bottom, I’m afraid.

All that came through was his appeal to a few somewhat more obscure verses, verses you’d have to be some sort of Christian to know, verses that I’ve never heard used by a politician before (Rom. 8:26; Prov. 31:8 in the NIV). And his personal experiences. I don’t want to get into denying that he does his devotions every day when he says he does. I’ll leave that kind of overt disrespect to the conservative talk-show hosts.

But note that civil religion is itself a value system that both clashes and overlaps with the Christian religion. Civility—“Can’t we all just get along?”—is the value which trumps other values. Let other people do what they want as long as it doesn’t directly affect you. Telling people they are depraved and condemned, that the only way they can be saved is repentance and faith in the blood of Christ—this is not civil.

American presidents have a vested interest, one that comes out in Obama’s speech, in keeping major value systems on the same plane. Several times the president referenced Jewish and Islamic teachings as equivalent to certain Christian ones. He wants religious toleration to keep us together as it seems to have in the past. He wants to believe that all people hold the same values:

Now, we can earnestly seek to see these values lived out in our politics and our policies, and we can earnestly disagree on the best way to achieve these values.

But there is no reference at all in the speech to people who hold clashing values. Instead, the way major American politicians classify those whose values clash with prevailing American ones is to imply that the clashers are not “people of goodwill.”

Our goal should not be to declare our policies as biblical. It is God who is infallible, not us. Michelle reminds me of this often. (Laughter.) So instead, it is our hope that people of goodwill can pursue their values and common ground and the common good as best they know how, with respect for each other. And I have to say that sometimes we talk about respect, but we don’t act with respect towards each other during the course of these debates.

In other words, if we all stay humble and nobody pushes too hard for their values, we can all just get along.

There are deep clashes between other value systems, but the Christian religion creates the one irreconcilable difference that American Civil Religion has never been able to acknowledge, the doctrine of original sin. There are, ultimately, no people of goodwill unless God changes us. We’ve all been bent by sin. And any efforts at consensus will, ultimately, take a society in the wrong direction unless God mercifully intervenes. Society is on the broad road, and Civil Religion has covered up the entrance to the narrow way.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

1 thought on “Barack Obama on Faith in the Public Square”

  1. I finding it *shocking* that anyone could claim that Jesus would be against helping the poor. I always find it confusing that the same people who seem to have such a negative attitude of the poor also claim to be Christians.

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