The Sermon on the Mall
God and man in the Obama White House.
Feb 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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.
This is a good example of Obama the Doubter. Doubt is a big part of his faith. "Faith doesn't mean you don't have doubts," he wrote in Audacity, and Obama's doubts are apparently such that he is unwilling to posit, as have so many of his predecessors, a providential God whose ways we can trust, who helps in time of need. In his doubt, by the way, Obama is George W. Bush's opposite. Bush was accused of having a "theology of certainty" on account of his saying such things as, from his first inaugural: "I know this [a nation of justice and opportunity] is in our reach because we are guided by a power larger than ourselves who creates us equal in His image."
In the speech's very last sentence, Obama again mentioned God:
Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
The sentence is about us, and how we are to be perceived generations hence, but it points a finger to heaven to indicate that we have God's favor as we do our work. Here Obama, notwithstanding his own doubting faith, may have felt the need to buck up an audience that just minutes earlier was told it was making a lonely journey of indeterminate outcome. The passage doesn't explain why God favors us, but it would seem to be because we are doing God's work here on earth, a standard trope in our civil religion.
The surprise of Obama's speech was the lack of any explicit reference to the Golden Rule, which is found in the Bible and is essentially a way of restating the Second Great Commandment, which is, of course, to love your neighbor as yourself. The Golden Rule is the essence of Obama's social ethic. He believes that it should influence policy and politics. It has parallels in other religious traditions and thus is not exclusive to any one. It has secular parallels, too.
During the campaign Obama talked about the ethic in a variety of ways (often using "I am my brother's keeper," from Genesis 4, and the need to "help the least of these," from Matthew 25). Obama employed it to discuss what he called the nation's "empathy gap" and "empathy -deficit." Maybe Obama didn't talk about the ethic in his inaugural because it was also Bush's ethic--recall in his first inaugural how Bush pledged the nation to a goal: "When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side." But neighbor-love is so central to Obama's politics that it's safe to predict we'll hear about it soon enough.
Obama quoted Scripture about setting aside childish things in order to mark the nation's transition to "a new era of responsibility." In this era, he said, the question we must ask
is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works--whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.
Here Obama cast himself as the post-ideological pragmatist. But the fact remains that Obama understands his faith in ways that frankly call for more government. In a speech he gave to the Sojourners Forum in 2007, Obama said that each of us has responsibilities and obligations to others, and that these responsibilities and obligations "have to express themselves not just through our churches, and our synagogues, and our mosques, and our temples, not only in our own families, but they have to express themselves through our government."
And remember that empathy deficit. How will it be closed? In a campaign speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Obama said that it's not enough
to bemoan the plight of poor children in this country and remain unwilling to push our elected officials to provide the resources to fix our schools. It is not enough to decry the disparities of health care and yet allow the insurance companies and the drug companies to block much-needed reforms.
To judge by sentiments like these, expect the Obama administration to propose more and more government as his term passes. Expect, too, that unless we Americans succumb to the charms of Obama and completely lose our minds, those old but necessary debates about the nature and purpose of government will revive.
Terry Eastland is the publisher of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.