Sam Tanenhaus on Obama’s Faith

Sam Tanenhaus tries to sort out Barack Obama’s Christian faith:

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.

One thought on “Sam Tanenhaus on Obama’s Faith

  1. Once again, John, we meet at our ever-re-entwining crossroads. This all still hits me as a conflict of worldviews.

    So too, the “rich” of Jesus' metaphor re the camel and the eye of
    the needle is not necessarily a condemnation of economic liberty and
    entrepreneurship. In fact, Jesus' Parable of the Talents [Matthew 25:14-30 and
    in Luke 19:12-27] argues in favor of the “be fruitful and multiply” dynamic, and
    against fear [one servant simply buries the master's money, lest he lose it].

    Jesus nowhere condemns the rich, and the Parable of the Vineyard
    [Matthew 20:1-16], where all workers are paid the same agreed denarius-a-day at
    5 o'clock whether they worked all day or for the last hour, is surely true on
    the earthly level as well. It teaches against envy of the next man's deal with
    the universe, because it does not affect one's own deal.

    And afterall, normative Christianity—except for unengageable fideism—argues
    via Thomas' natural law that whatever is true a priori is proven true a
    posteriori
    . Surely philosophy or theology must hold themselves to the same standard. The rubber must meet the road.

    For the “extra mile” that Christian thought claims to go beyond philosophy,
    Jesus' parables must hold true both in this world and the next or there is no
    point to them.

    I wrote in 2008 that if Barack Obama ever spoke meaningfully of “liberty,” I would vote for him.

    He did not, I did not, and he still has not. I still believe that the Judeo-Christian ethic—and the American one, following—is to “be fruitful and multiply,” and trust in God's abundance more than man's justice.

    I do believe that “Christian charity” is superior to all other schemes, be it the pagan virtue of “magnanimity” or the modern politics of “social justice,” both of which are generous to the poor.

    For one thing, it has “Christ” in the term, and we cannot love ourselves [magnaminity] or our neighbor [social justice] unless we first love God. I admit that I meself am not all that lovable, and frankly you, my neighbor, aren't either.

    And if you call me brother now,
    Forgive me if I inquire,
    Just according to whose plan?

    When it all comes down to dust
    I will kill you if I must,
    I will help you if I can.
    When it all comes down to dust
    I will help you if I must,
    I will kill you if I can.

    Have mercy on our uniforms,
    Man of peace or man of war,
    The peacock spreads his fan.

    That's man. God help us.

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