This morning I read Senator Barack Obama’s 2006 keynote address to Call to Renewal, a conference sponsored by evangelical activist Jim Wallis and Sojourners. You can read the entire speech here, but I found this section of the speech compelling:
So the question is, how do we build on these still-tentative partnerships between religious and secular people of good will? It’s going to take more work, a lot more work than we’ve done so far. The tensions and the suspicions on each side of the religious divide will have to be squarely addressed. And each side will need to accept some ground rules for collaboration.
While I’ve already laid out some of the work that progressive leaders need to do, I want to talk a little bit about what conservative leaders need to do — some truths they need to acknowledge.
For one, they need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn’t the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn’t want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.
Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America’s population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.
And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson’s, or Al Sharpton’s? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let’s read our bibles. Folks haven’t been reading their bibles.
This brings me to my second point. Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.
Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what’s possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It’s the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing. And if you doubt that, let me give you an example.
We all know the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his only son, and without argument, he takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded.
Of course, in the end God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute, and Abraham passes God’s test of devotion.
But it’s fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason.
Finally, any reconciliation between faith and democratic pluralism requires some sense of proportion.
This goes for both sides.
Even those who claim the Bible’s inerrancy make distinctions between Scriptural edicts, sensing that some passages – the Ten Commandments, say, or a belief in Christ’s divinity – are central to Christian faith, while others are more culturally specific and may be modified to accommodate modern life.
The American people intuitively understand this, which is why the majority of Catholics practice birth control and some of those opposed to gay marriage nevertheless are opposed to a Constitutional amendment to ban it. Religious leadership need not accept such wisdom in counseling their flocks, but they should recognize this wisdom in their politics.
But a sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation – context matters. It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase “under God.” I didn’t. Having voluntary student prayer groups use school property to meet should not be a threat, any more than its use by the High School Republicans should threaten Democrats. And one can envision certain faith-based programs – targeting ex-offenders or substance abusers – that offer a uniquely powerful way of solving problems.
So we all have some work to do here. But I am hopeful that we can bridge the gaps that exist and overcome the prejudices each of us bring to this debate. And I have faith that millions of believing Americans want that to happen. No matter how religious they may or may not be, people are tired of seeing faith used as a tool of attack. They don’t want faith used to belittle or to divide. They’re tired of hearing folks deliver more screed than sermon. Because in the end, that’s not how they think about faith in their own lives.
So let me end with just one other interaction I had during my campaign. A few days after I won the Democratic nomination in my U.S. Senate race, I received an email from a doctor at the University of Chicago Medical School that said the following:
“Congratulations on your overwhelming and inspiring primary win. I was happy to vote for you, and I will tell you that I am seriously considering voting for you in the general election. I write to express my concerns that may, in the end, prevent me from supporting you.”
The doctor described himself as a Christian who understood his commitments to be “totalizing.” His faith led him to a strong opposition to abortion and gay marriage, although he said that his faith also led him to question the idolatry of the free market and quick resort to militarism that seemed to characterize much of the Republican agenda.
But the reason the doctor was considering not voting for me was not simply my position on abortion. Rather, he had read an entry that my campaign had posted on my website, which suggested that I would fight “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.” The doctor went on to write:
“I sense that you have a strong sense of justice…and I also sense that you are a fair minded person with a high regard for reason…Whatever your convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering on women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded….You know that we enter times that are fraught with possibilities for good and for harm, times when we are struggling to make sense of a common polity in the context of plurality, when we are unsure of what grounds we have for making any claims that involve others…I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.”
So I looked at my website and found the offending words. In fairness to them, my staff had written them using standard Democratic boilerplate language to summarize my pro-choice position during the Democratic primary, at a time when some of my opponents were questioning my commitment to protect Roe v. Wade.
Re-reading the doctor’s letter, though, I felt a pang of shame. It is people like him who are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country. They may not change their positions, but they are willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in fair-minded words. Those who know of the central and awesome place that God holds in the lives of so many, and who refuse to treat faith as simply another political issue with which to score points.
So I wrote back to the doctor, and I thanked him for his advice. The next day, I circulated the email to my staff and changed the language on my website to state in clear but simple terms my pro-choice position. And that night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own – a prayer that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me.
And that night, before I went to bed I said a prayer of my own. It’s a prayer I think I share with a lot of Americans. A hope that we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all. It’s a prayer worth praying, and a conversation worth having in this country in the months and years to come.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, James Dobson of Focus on the Family was appalled by this speech. I think he realized Obama was no slouch when it came to thinking biblically and historically. This made Obama a threat and probably scared Dobson to death.
I am also struck by the fact that Dobson and Obama have a lot in common. Both argue for the role of Christian faith in American democratic life. Obama is not entirely secular here.
Of course we can also debate whether Obama’s presidential administration, as it developed between 2009 and 2017, reflected the ideas set forth in this speech.
I’ve always been a Jimmy Carter fan, so I was eager to watch Mary Wharton‘s documentary “Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President” last Sunday night. On one level, it did not disappoint. I knew very little about Carter’s relationship with Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, the Allman Brothers, Johnny Cash, and Jimmy Buffett. For example, the part of the documentary that covered the 1976 Democratic primary was fascinating. The Allmans, Cash, Nelson, and Buffett backed Carter. The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt backed California governor Jerry Brown. It was no contest. Carter and his southern rockers crushed Brown and helped the Georgia peanut farmer win the presidency against Gerald Ford in November.
As you see above, the documentary includes interviews with some heavy hitters, including Carter and his son Chip. The former president tells some hilarious stories about his relationship with some of these artists, including one about Chip smoking pot on the roof of the White House with Willie Nelson.
This is a great documentary, but I wish Wharton would have said more about how Carter thought about the connections between his love of popular music and his evangelical faith. Wharton includes footage of Carter teaching Sunday School. She occasionally shows the interior and exterior of Carter’s church in Plains, Georgia. She includes a clip of Carter talking about how he explained his Christian faith to Bob Dylan when the folk hero visited the Georgia governor’s mansion. Carter also seems to have had an influence on the faith-based music and activism of Bono. But the faith angle is too peripheral to the story Wharton tells. For example, what did Carter and Dylan talk about? Did Carter have a theology of popular culture that allowed him to reconcile rock music with his Christian faith? How did he respond to his evangelical critics, the kind of critics who would eventually rally against him to form the Christian Right and boost Ronald Reagan’s victory over Carter in the 1980 election? Christianity shaped Carter’s moral core, but Wharton doesn’t seem interested in how his Christianity informed his love of Dylan, Nelson, Cash, etc. This was a missed opportunity.
Obama may be the most explicitly Christian president in American history. If we analyze his language in the same way that historians examine the religious language of the Founding Fathers or even George W. Bush, we will find that Obama’s piety, use of the Bible, and references to Christian faith and theology put most other American presidents to shame on this front. I think there may be good reasons why some people will not vote for Obama in November, but his commitment to Christianity is not one of them.
President-elect Joe Biden marked his Electoral College win with a religious flair, citing Scripture and the Prayer of St. Francis during his victory speech.
Members of the Electoral College voted in all 50 states and the District of Columbia on Monday (Dec. 15), formalizing Biden’s 306-232 win over incumbent Donald Trump.
The president-elect marked the moment with a speech in Delaware, where he declared “the rule of law, our Constitution and the will of the people prevailed” over multiple efforts by Trump and his allies to challenge the results of the election.
Biden’s rhetoric took a turn for the spiritual near the close of his speech, when he made reference to the biblical passage of Matthew 16:18.
“As we start the hard work to be done, may this moment give us the strength to rebuild this house of ours upon a rock that can never be washed away,” he said.
Biden, a Catholic, then invoked the Prayer of St. Francis by name, saying, “for where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith, where there is darkness, light.”
Our Father, Lord of all creation, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: We pray today with a sense of special urgency and responsibility. We come before you to pray for our new President, Barack Obama, and for all those in this new administration who now assume roles of such high responsibility.
We know that you and you alone are sovereign; that you rule over all, and that you alone are able to keep and defend us. We know that our times are in your hands, and that “the king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord” [Proverbs 21:1]. Our confidence is in you and in you alone. We come before you as a people who acknowledge our constant need for your provision, wisdom, and protection.
Father, we pray today for Barack Obama as he takes office as President of the United States. We pray that you will show the glory of your name in our times and in these days, confounding the wisdom of the wise, thwarting the plans of the arrogant, and vindicating those who do justice and practice righteousness.
Father, we pray with thanksgiving for the gift of government and the grace of civic order. Thank you for giving us rulers and for knowing our need for laws and and ordered life together. Thank you for this nation and the blessings we know as its citizens. Thank you for freedoms unprecedented in human history. We understand that these freedoms come with unprecedented opportunities.
Lord, we pray with thanksgiving for the joy and celebration reflected on millions of faces who never expected to look to the President of the United States and see a person who looks like themselves. Father, thank you for preserving this nation to the moment when an African-American citizen will take the oath of office and become our President. Thank you for the hope this has given to so many, the pride emerging in hearts that had known no such hope, and the pride that comes to a people who have experienced such pain at the hands of fellow citizens, simply because of the color of their skin. Father, we rejoice in every elderly face that reflects such long-sought satisfaction and in every young face that expresses such unrestrained joy. May this become an open door for a vision of race and human dignity that reflects your glory in our differences, and not our corruption of your gift.
Father, protect this president, we pray. We pray that you will surround this president and his family, along with all our leaders, with your protection and sustenance. May he be protected from evil acts and evil intentions, and may his family be protected from all evil and harm.
We pray that the Obama family will be drawn together as they move into the White House, and that they will know great joy in their family life. We are thankful for the example Barack and Michelle Obama have set as parents. Father, protect those precious girls in every way — including the protection of their hearts as they see their father often criticized and as he is away from them on business of state. May their years in the White House bring them all even closer together.
Read the entire text here. It’s a great prayer. I hope Mohler would pray the same prayer in 2016.
Donald Trump is finding religion. Or at least, religion is finding its way into his remarks and his campaign’s rhetoric to an unprecedented extent.
On Thursday, the president celebrated the National Day of Prayer at the White House, and he said the Almighty had helped him persevere through the ordeal of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
“People say, ‘How do you get through that whole stuff? How do you get through those witch hunts and everything else?’” Trump said, turning to Vice President Pence. “And you know what we do, Mike? We just do it, right? And we think about God.”
In a variation on his claims about a “war on Christmas,” Trump also claimed that Americans are referring to the Divine more frequently.
“One of the things that Mike and I were discussing just a little while ago—people are so proud to be using that beautiful word, God, and they’re using the word God again, and they’re not hiding from it,” he said. “They’re not being told to take it down, and they’re not saying we can’t honor God. In God we trust. So important.”
A few quick thoughts on this piece and Thursday’s National Day of Prayer in general
Trump is talking about God because he is required to do so at the National Prayer Breakfast. This is a day to keep his conservative evangelical base in line.
I disagree with Graham about the “unprecedented extent” in which Trump is now talking about God. He’s been doing this since the campaign. There is little about what he said on Thursday that is new. He has been throwing bones to the court evangelicals and their followers since 2015. This, of course, is all chronicled in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.
Actually, if you compare what Trump said about God on Thursday with what Barack Obama said at national prayer breakfasts during his administration you will find that Obama’s remarks are deeper, more profound, and more seriously Christian than Trump’s. It is true that Obama did not always give the National Day of Prayer the kind of attention that Trump gives it, but Obama did offer statements about prayer and religious freedom that, at least to me, seem more fitting for a president of the United States.
Yesterday I posted about David Brody’s forthcoming “spiritual biography” of Donald Trump. The post led to some hilarious and contentious conversation on social media centered around the question of whether or not there is enough material to write such a book.
During one of those discussions, Jay Blossom called my attention to a January 2017 interview with David L. Holmes, retired religion professor at the College of William & Mary and author of The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. Holmes reflects on the religious background of our current president. This kind of scholarly and thoughtful analysis of Trump’s connection to Christianity is welcomed. It is very different, I imagine, from the approach that David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network is going to take.
Here is a taste of Meghan Murphy-Gill’s interview with Holmes:
What do we know about Trump’s religious upbringing?
Like most of us, Trump was influenced by the faith of his parents. Three‑quarters of the presidents we’ve had since World War II ended up in the very same interpretation of Christianity in which they were raised. That seems to be a pretty good national statistic. Trump is no exception.
Trump’s heritage is Protestant and European. His father came from Lutheran stock in Germany. We don’t know how religious his father’s family was, but the father attended church faithfully throughout his life. Trump’s mother came from a highly religious area of Scotland, where a branch of Presbyterianism, called the “Wee Frees” (the nickname for the small Free Church of Scotland), is still strong today.
Maryanne Macleod, Trump’s mother, immigrated to the United States as a strict Presbyterian. She seems to have become broader in religion in later years, but she ensured that all of her children were raised Presbyterian.
CBN’s David Brody
Trump identifies himself as a mainline Protestant. But if we want to understand him, we would be better off to pay attention to his social, economic, and cultural upbringing, and not to his experience in church. Trump’s father, Fred, was a developer, a field which he quit school to enter. The Trumps lived in Jamaica, Queens, in an area where Fred built many of the houses, often in the Tudor revival style. The home he built for his family was huge: 23 rooms. They had live‑in help, a chauffeur and a maid. They had two Cadillac limousines.
Fred Trump was an interesting guy. I wish we had more history on him. He did things like wear a hat and a tie when the family went to the beach. He may have had a formal side. He was all business. Religiously, he was Lutheran in background, but the crossover to Presbyterianism is hardly a step. He also displayed some anti-Semitism.
In case you missed it, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently interviewed Jimmy Carter about his Christian faith. Here is a taste of the interview:
Christians celebrate Easter on Sunday. But wait — do we really think Jesus literally rose from the dead?
I asked questions like that in a Christmas Day column, interviewing the Rev. Tim Keller, a prominent evangelical pastor. In this, the second of an occasional series, I decided to quiz former President Jimmy Carter. He’s a longtime Sunday school teacher and born-again evangelical but of a more liberal bent than Keller. Here’s our email conversation, edited for clarity.
ME How literally do you take the Bible, including miracles like the Resurrection?
PRESIDENT CARTER Having a scientific background, I do not believe in a six-day creation of the world that occurred in 4004 B.C., stars falling on the earth, that kind of thing. I accept the overall message of the Bible as true, and also accept miracles described in the New Testament, including the virgin birth and the Resurrection.
With Easter approaching, let me push you on the Resurrection. If you heard a report today from the Middle East of a man brought back to life after an execution, I doubt you’d believe it even if there were eyewitnesses. So why believe ancient accounts written years after the events?
I would be skeptical of a report like you describe. My belief in the resurrection of Jesus comes from my Christian faith, and not from any need for scientific proof. I derive a great personal benefit from the totality of this belief, which comes naturally to me.
What about someone like me whose faith is in the Sermon on the Mount, who aspires to follow Jesus’ teachings, but is skeptical that he was born of a virgin, walked on water, multiplied loaves and fishes or had a physical resurrection? Am I a Christian, President Carter?
I do not judge whether someone else is a Christian. Jesus said, “Judge not, …” I try to apply the teachings of Jesus in my own life, often without success.
How can I reconcile my admiration for the message of Jesus, all about inclusion, with a church history that is often about exclusion?
As St. Paul said to the Galatians in 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” In His day, Jesus broke down walls of separation and superiority among people. Those (mostly men) who practice superiority and exclusion contradict my interpretations of the life and teachings of Jesus, which exemplified peace, love, compassion, humility, forgiveness and sacrificial love.
I don’t think we put enough stress on the necessity of implanting in the child’s mind the moral code under which we live. The fundamental basis of this Nation’s law was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teachings which we get from Exodus and St. Matthew, from Isaiah and St. Paul. I don’t think we emphasize that enough these days. If we don’t have the proper fundamental moral background, we will finally wind up with a totalitarian government which does not believe in rights for anybody except the state.
“R&P: How did you decide to write Reading Obama, a project analyzing the president’s own writings and speeches and archives?
JK: I was in England teaching at the University of Cambridge as the Pitt Professor of American History. Part of holding that professorship is accepting invitations to visit universities to give talks. I was working on a big history of democratic theory in Europe and America. I had a couple of talks in place that I would propose to people, then I would say, “Well I know there’s a lot of interest in the new president. Would you like a papaer on eighteenth-century democratic theory, or would you like me to talk about Obama?” And almost everybody asked me to talk about Obama. When I was coming back to the U.S. for a symposium on the presidential election, knowing I would be giving talks on Obama, I reread Dreams from My Father on the way here and read The Audacity of Hope on the way back. I was impressed by how good those books were, so I began looking around to find what analyses had been done of his writings. I found almost nothing. The assumption was that Dreams from My Father was just something you would do if you had been elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, which is what they call the editor of the review, and that The Audacity of Hope was a campaign book of the sort that every politician writes. I’ve read a fair number of those campaign books. The Audacity of Hope is very different. The depth of analysis, the self-awareness that was present, the understanding of the issues of American history—in the way that academic historians understand American history—all of that struck me as extraordinary. I began looking more into Obama’s intellectual formation, and by the time I got back to the U.S. at the end of my year in Cambridge, I was committed to doing something more than just a version of the talk I had given a number of times. At that point I began interviewing the people who had taught Obama, the people who had worked with him, the people who had known him at different stages in his life, and this picture of him as this deeply thoughtful moderate who saw all sides of all issues began to fall into place. I kept hearing the same thing from people who had known him in many different situations and many different stages of his life. At that point, I thought, I’ve got something to say that I haven’t seen in anything else that’s been written about him.”
For many of Barack Obama’s opponents, the mere suggestion that he is a Christian or that he draws on the Bible and prayer for strength is unfathomable. Here at The Way of Improvement Leads Homewe have always taken Obama at his word when he talks about his abiding Christian faith. At times such a stance has resulted in harsh criticism from those on the Right. We can debate how Obama’s policies have or have not been consistent with the teachings of the Scriptures, but I am not willing to judge the quality of his personal faith nor am I willing to say that when he talks openly about spiritual convictions he is engaging in some kind of political ploy to win support from the American people. I thus continue to be drawn to articles like this one which appeared recently at The Huffington Post via the Associated Press. Here is a taste:
President Barack Obama is not an overtly religious man. He and his family rarely attend church, and he almost never elaborates in public about his own relationship to his Christian faith.
But far away from the public eye, his longtime advisers say, the president has carefully nurtured a sense of spirituality that has served as a grounding mechanism during turbulent times, when the obstacles to governing a deeply divided nation seem nearly insurmountable.
Every year on Aug. 4, the president’s birthday, Obama convenes a group of pastors by phone to receive their prayers for him for the year to come. During the most challenging of times, prayer circles are organized with prominent religious figures such as megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, Bishop Vashti McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a civil rights activist.
And each morning for the past five years, before most of his aides even arrive at the White House, Obama has read a devotional written for him and sent to his BlackBerry, weaving together biblical scripture with reflections from literary figures like Maya Angelou and C.S. Lewis.
“I’ve certainly seen the president’s faith grow in his time in office,” said Joshua DuBois, an informal spiritual adviser to Obama who writes the devotionals and ran Obama’s faith-based office until earlier this year. “When you cultivate your faith, it grows.”