Thoughts on Obama’s Prayer Breakfast Speech

On Thursday morning Barack Obama delivered his last National Prayer Breakfast speech as President of the United States.

He spoke out of his own deep religious convictions and connected the Bible and prayer to American values.

His speech (or should we call it a sermon?) came from 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”

It is hard not to acknowledge Obama’s debt in this speech to writer Marilynne Robinson and her September 2015 New York Review of Books piece on fear.  Robinson is one of Obama’s favorite authors. The President even spent some time last year interviewing her in Des Moines, Iowa.

I appreciate Obama’s use of history in this speech.  Americans have been through difficult times before.  When we see things with a longer view we realize that Americans have been reacting to change, tragedy, and an assortment of difficult situations for a long time.  In some small way we might be comforted by our connections with the human beings–the Americans–who have gone before us.

Obama used 2 Timothy 1:7 to rehash a common interpretation of the Christian Right and political conservatism generally.  It goes something like this: in times of rapid change people respond in extreme ways that are motivated by fear.

There is truth in this interpretation.  If American history is any indication, nativism, racism, and other forms of discrimination have emerged when people respond in fear to the winds of change.

Future American religious historians will not miss the irony of it all.  When they study this generation they will find people living in fear who embrace a Christian faith that teaches them that they have nothing to fear. As Obama alluded to in his speech, Christ triumphed over death through the resurrection.  Because of this, Christians believe, they too will one day triumph over death. It is a fitting message as we approach the season of Lent.

Obama was very specific about the changes taking place in American society that might elicit fear.  He mentioned terrorism, homelessness, incoming refugees, and eroding shorelines.  When Obama says that Jesus is “pointing us towards what matters,” he means that Christians should not only be unafraid of these developments, but should faithfully work to do something about these problems.

Of course abortion, same-sex marriage, and other conservative moral concerns are apparently not things that “matter.”  These issues are the leftover remnants of a now- antiquated Christian tradition–the kind of tradition that progress, by its very definition, must overcome.

When conservatives in the United States talk about Christianity’s role in public life, they often look backward in order to move forward.  Theirs is an approach to Christianity rooted in historic doctrines and time-honored theological and moral truths.  Obama’s forward-looking faith represents a progressive brand of Christianity centered more on activism and social change than on theology or confessions of faith.

My intention here is not to endorse one approach to Christianity over the other.  That would not make any sense because they are two sides of the same coin.  I will, however, suggest that these differences might be yet another way in which the Christian faith in America has been politicized.

If we learned anything from the visit of Pope Francis last Fall, it is that Christianity does not fit well with any American political party or ideology.  Yet we just can’t help placing it in the Republican or Democratic, liberal or conservative boxes that we have constructed for ourselves.