Resetting the American faith dialogue?

By Martin Davis
8 Jul 2009

After eight years of teeth-gnashing by journalists over President George W. Bush’s evangelical Christian leanings and fears that he would bring his faith into play when making policy decisions, a new ‘evangelist’ has appeared up the street from Capitol Hill: President Barack Obama.

First, he 'threw open the doors' of the White House faith-based office to a wide array of spiritual voices and has encouraged them to bring their faith to bear on his administration. As Jim Wallis, publisher of Sojourners, noted of a meeting at the White House with him and other spiritual leaders: Obama said "you should feel free to disagree with me (when you do), even publicly, because one thing that we can’t lose is your prophetic integrity.”

Now, journalist Eamon Javers at Politico informs us that the new US president invokes the name of Jesus more often than our most recently term-limited president. “He’s done it while talking about abortion and the Middle East, even the economy. The references serve at once as an affirmation of his faith and a rebuke against a rumour that persists for some to this day.”

Evangelicals are not quite sure what to make of this. To them, he sounds like Bush, which makes them suspect his motives are less than sincere. Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Family Research Council, says: “I applaud [the references to Jesus]. It gives people a sense of comfort. But I think it’s a veneer, a facade that covers over a lot of policies that are anti-Christian.” The same sentiment is apparent in the writings of former Christianity Today editor Stan Guthrie in his analysis of Obama’s Cairo speech.

But if they are correct, then where is the outcry from the other side? The closest one comes is from the mouth of Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, who understands Obama and Bush to be evoking the same Jesus. “I don’t need to hear politicians tell me how religious they are,” Lynn said. “Obama in a very overt way does what Bush tended to do in a more covert way.”

But does he? Javers doesn’t seem to think so. “For Obama, Christian rhetoric offers an opportunity to connect with a broader base of supporters in a nation in which 83 percent of Americans believe in God.” Just how broad is this base of non-evangelical people of faith that Javers refers to? Potentially huge. As many as 80 per cent of people in America who profess to believe in God don’t identify as evangelicals, if the numbers at the Pew Forum are to be believed.

What Lynn fails to understand, and what evangelicals largely miss, is that Obama’s Jesus is not a more politically correct, dressed-up version of Bush’s. On the level of theology, they are one hundred and eighty degrees apart. Behind Bush’s faith lay a particular dogma that many feared, rightly or wrongly, was driving administration policies on everything from the War in Iraq to policies over disaster relief and education. Under Bush, to be on the side of faith in any of these discussions wasn’t enough. One had to be on the side of Bush’s understanding of faith. Any other opinion leaves one on the outside looking in. It’s a hallmark of (a certain kind of) conservative evangelical thought.

Christianity for Obama is more 'civil', in that it invokes Robert Bellah’s notion of religion as, at its best, a unifying force which contributes to society’s well-being. Obama is less concerned, one may assume, with what one believes than with respecting all beliefs and leveraging them for all the good they can produce. It’s a study in maximizing the power of faith that Reinhold Niebuhr, Obama’s self-professed favoured theologian, would doubtless have appreciated.

In short, Obama is resetting the scales of religious discourse in America. He’s making it all right to be a person of faith — or not of faith — and not to be a narrow type of evangelical. He believes that religion lies at the heart of what the country is and how it sees itself and that religion is a significant player on the world stage. Success in his grand political agenda requires successfully expanding America’s understanding of faith and its ability to talk about it.

Whether he is a savvy politician or a sincere advocate for this more open faith tradition remains to be seen. But this much is sure: Faith didn’t leave Washington when Bush moved back to Crawford. It moved into the White House with Obama, and may prove a more powerful player for good on the American scene than it has in some time.

References:

Read Stan Guthrie’s comments on Obama’s Cairo speech at http://www.stanguthrie.com/2009/06/obamas-cairo-speech.html#comments

Read Eamon Javers’ comments on Obama’s references to Jesus at http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0609/23510.html

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© Martin Davis is an independent journalist and founder of Davis Communications working out of Washington DC, USA. He operates the blog Faith and Fumbles - http://faithandfumbleswriter.typepad.com/

**With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.**

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