Friday, February 18, 2011

Obama's Faith: Always In Question



I think he's a centrist the way he is a Christian -- not really.
Bill Maher

I think he's deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology.
James Dobson

The presidency has a funny way of making a person feel the need to pray.
Barack Obama

60 years ago, Dwight Eisenhower reportedly told Billy Graham, "I don't believe the American people are going to follow anybody who's not a member of a church." Perhaps this is the kind of strange Christian America dynamic that Bill Maher had in mind when last week when he flippantly raised the thoroughly political question about whether Barack Obama is really a "Christian." Maher is a strange source of this kind of conspiracy since, over the past two years, I've only heard Obama's real faith questioned from those on the far right who do not resonate with Obama's political views and who have a strong agenda to spread misinformation. After all, a President who supports abortion rights for women and freedoms for gays/lesbians cannot possibly be a Christian...can he? The Pew survey from 6 months ago revealed that only 34% of Americans believe Obama is a Christian while 20% actually think he is a Muslim.

Maher reasons that Obama conveniently embraces the "Christian" label for his own political leverage. Although Obama claims that he had a real conversion experience 20 years and that he prays daily, he is actually a secular humanist like his mother. Cornel West adamantly refuted Maher's logic and asked for some sort of proof from Maher. He didn't receive any.

We find this a pertinent issue because it simply raises the question of why Obama's religion even matters. It is one aspect of the Constantinian hangover, political leaders using Christian language for their own power agendas. John Howard Yoder, in the midst of the Reagan years, wrote that Christian communities embedded in democracies but also dedicated to radical discipleship should place their eggs in two baskets: (1) dedicate themselves to the ripple effect (influencing society by actually living Jesus' way) and (2) using the political leader's "benefactor" rhetoric against him. Yoder was known for prioritizing faithfulness to ethical living over being effective (in terms of influencing/converting large numbers of people) so he wrote consistently about the church's call to live radically regardless of the consequences (thus placing far more emphasis on the ripple effect).

When Yoder evaluated the role of democracy for the Christian in The Priestly Kingdom (1984), he scripted Luke 22:25-27:

‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

From this passage, Yoder illuminated 3 different levels of power that most Christians since Constantine have been taught, unfortunately, to merge into a counterfeit Christian power agenda: (1) the fact of dominion (the kings of the nations lord it over them); (2) leaders using moral language to legitimate their power (benefactors) and (3) the alternative way of Jesus' disciples who take their cue from "somewhere else" (But not so with you). Too many leaders drunk on power desperately need to legitimate their own morality by bearing the "Christian" name.

Yoder challenged Christian communities to live that alternative way, first and foremost, and then to hold leadership to account for their own "benefactor" language. If Obama calls himself a "Christian" (and uses language like "helping a neighbor in need" or "looking out for the least of these"), it should be our strategy to take him at his word and keep him accountable to this vocation. If he truly pledges allegiance to this alternative way, then how can he legitimate decisions that continue to destroy life and increase economic injustice in our nation and in the world. Obama's Christianity should be evaluated on the basis of his personal piety and love for his wife and children, but also on the basis of public policy issues like those that Rabbi Michael Lerner (it takes a Jew to really understand the prophetically Jewish Jesus) recently proposed would more thoroughly reflect a biblical ethic:

(1a) Unequivocally call for an immediate end to the presence of U.S. troops, advisers and private U.S.-based security firms in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan;
(1b) Replace the "war on terror" with a Global Marshall Plan that roots homeland security in a strategy of generosity and concern for the well-being of everyone on the planet;
(2) Call for a massive jobs program;
(3) A freeze on mortgage foreclosures;
(4) A national bank that would offer interest-free loans to those seeking to create or expand small businesses;
(5) Immediate implementation of the parts of the Obama health-care plan that would benefit ordinary citizens and build support for a health plan for all citizens;
(6) Dramatically lower prices for drugs that treat critical diseases such as AIDS and cancer;
(7) A strong tax on carbon emissions;
(8) The immediate prosecution of those government employees involved in torture or cover-ups to justify the invasion of Iraq.
(9) A push for the media to provide free and equal time to all major candidates for national office as well as for constitutional amendments requiring only public financing in elections;
(10) For corporations to prove every five years to a jury of ordinary citizens that they have a satisfactory history of environmental responsibility;


And last but not least:
(11) A willingness to talk unequivocally about the spiritual and ethical need for a new bottom line - one of love, kindness and generosity.

The Jesus of the Gospels taught and lived a way that subversively confronted the powerful political, economic and religious forces that dehumanized & demonized a vast majority of 1st century Palestine. His words and deeds led to his violent death. Jesus predicted at the end of his Sermon on the Mount that many will call themselves "Christians" ("Lord, Lord!"), but will simply fail to do God's will (Matthew 5:21-23). Yoder hopefully offered compelling models of American Christian political leadership: Roger Williams, William Penn, William Lloyd Garrison, Alexander Campbell, William Jennings Bryan, Norman Thomas, Harold Stassen, James E. Horton and Martin Luther King. These men, Yoder claimed, were "the agents of creative cultural change on a national scale precisely because they did not conceive of national power as their goal, but kept their eyes on the higher loyalty of Kingdom citizenship." They were adamantly, prophetically "Christian" and their platforms backed it.

One aspect of faithful Christian witness is pressing Obama to courageously embrace a more "Christian" platform that reflects his own claim to "love neighbor" and privilege "the least of these." In a culture where "Christian" means less and less every day, we resonate with how Obama has verbally defined it. There's no doubt that Obama is a Christian. Sure, his mother was a secular humanist, but Obama "changed his mind on the God question" more than 20 years ago. However, to be Christian in this American moment calls us to live out the vision of that 1st century Palestinian Jew named Jesus and to challenge our political leaders who claim to be Christians to do the same...in both piety and policy.

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