What, exactly, is his brand of Christianity? If it is not hard to recognize, neither is it easily defined, to judge at least by his various discussions of the subject. There is, for instance, the “Call to Renewal” speechhe gave in Washington in 2006, in which he urged believers, whatever their faith, to question the morality of “a trillion dollars being taken out of social programs to go to a handful of folks who don’t need and weren’t even asking for it.”
This is not liberation theology, with its assertion that God favors the oppressed, but it does echo the Social Gospel, the movement that a century ago called for Christianity to “add its moral force to the social and economic forces making for a nobler organization of society” with churches actively ameliorating “the burden of poverty,” in the words of the movement’s leader, Walter Rauschenbusch.
And yet Mr. Obama is also an admirer of Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian who rejected what he considered the naïve moralism of the Social Gospel. From Niebuhr, Mr. Obama has said, he got the message “that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things.”
The tension between these two religious ideas — one wedded to progress, the other mindful of the limits of worldly activism — reflects the broader tension in Mr. Obama’s liberalism, itself divided between an enthusiasm for bold policy initiatives and a pragmatic understanding that some things can’t be fixed or even much changed through politics.
Tanenhaus is correct when he suggests that Obama is not a liberation theologian. First of all, he is not that sophisticated of a religious thinker to be called a “theologian” of any sort (although he is certainly more theologically minded than his predecessor). Second of all, when he does speak with a religious voice, which has been rare in the last year or so, he sounds more like a social gospeler than a liberation theologian.
Progress and limits. This seems to sum it up very well. Holding these two commitments in tension is not easy, especially if you are the President of the United States.