The Magazine

The Sermon on the Mall

God and man in the Obama White House.

Feb 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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Barack Obama is the most religious Democratic president since Jimmy Carter. In announcing his campaign two years ago in Springfield, Illinois, he explicitly declared his Christian faith, and on the stump he regularly described himself as "a devout Christian." He made "religious outreach" a key part of his campaign, hiring aides to act as political missionaries to Catholics and evangelical Protestants. He addressed the proper role of religion in public life and made plain that his own faith affects every area of his life, including his politics and policies.

So just how will considerations of religion, including his own beliefs, affect his presidency? How will they influence policy and politics? How will they bear on his execution of office? Because it constitutes the formal introduction to his presidency, Obama's inaugural speech is worth reading with these questions in mind.

The text for Obama's speech was taken from I Corinthians. "In the words of Scripture," he said, "the time has come to set aside childish things." For Obama, it's our indulgence of "childish things" that largely explains the present crisis. While his list of childish things included what from a pulpit would be called sin--he noted that the badly weakened economy is in part "a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some"--it consisted mostly of items that "have strangled our politics," rendering us unable to "make hard choices and prepare the nation" for the future. Repeating what he said often during the campaign, Obama referred to "conflict and discord" in our politics, "petty grievances and false promises," "stale political arguments," "recriminations and worn out dogmas."

Obama wants us to rise above all of that--and be adults. And from the perspective of his inaugural speech, that's how he regards his election--as America's choosing to set aside childish things and assume the responsibilities of adulthood in which he will lead in carrying them out.

For Obama, acting like adults is the first step toward a politics that reaffirms, as he put it in his speech, "the greatness of our nation." Yes, Obama is a national greatness type. He is also, not incidentally, an earthly Kingdom of God advocate: He told a congregation in South Carolina before that state's primary last year that he was confident "we can create a Kingdom [of God] right here on earth." Obama said that greatness "must be earned." And so we must work, a lot: "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America. For everywhere we look there is work to be done."

Obama provided a nonexhaustive list of this work, from creating new jobs to building roads and bridges, electric grids, and digital lines, to "restoring science to its rightful place," to raising the quality while lowering the cost of health care, to harnessing the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories, to transforming our schools and colleges and universities. And that was just the work inside our borders.

There would seem little doubt that faith undergirds Obama's call to the nation. The first president not to have grown up in a Christian household, Obama became a Christian when he found a church--Trinity United--that shared his belief in social change. At the time he was engaged as a community organizer trying to remake a small patch of America (on the south side of Chicago). His belief in social change was secular, while the church's was religious. And in time he came to accept the latter view.

As Obama wrote in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, "I was able to see faith was more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death; rather, it was an active palpable agent in the world." Deeds--active and palpable actions of faith--are essential in this understanding of Christianity, more than creeds or confessions, which Obama seldom talks about.

At the close of his inaugural, Obama undertook to explain why we could be confident that we can remake America. Obama said "our confidence" lies in "the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny." Here Obama was attempting to preach civil religion; such religion draws on biblical terms and imagery to interpret the American experience, and Obama has professed to be a student of it. But this assurance of our confidence was not so assuring. Not everyone has the knowledge he described. And it's not exactly inspiring to portray God as one who calls on us to do work that takes us we know not where. Presumably God is not around after making that call. He's not there guiding and helping us to shape our destiny. We are alone.