On June 23, 2007, speaking before a convention of the United Church of Christ in Hartford, Connecticut, presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama talked about his Christian faith and the political conclusions he draws from it.
It’s hard to know what any politician might do once in office unless you have some means of looking inside, of judging their core beliefs about the biggest questions of life — “Are human beings genetic accidents or the creative offspring of a relational God?” “Does my life have a purpose?” “Do I have any moral responsibility towards my neighbors?”
Because of the power of the religious right, candidates on the left feel pressured to articulate their deepest (and sometimes very private) beliefs about matters of faith and morality. This is new ground for many on the left. There is a sizable majority of liberal voters who are indifferent about faith, and quite a few who are openly hostile towards religion. These secularists tend to see “organized religion” as a threat to liberal, post-modern ideas about human autonomy.
Barack Obama probably seems to many in his own party as the seed of some cloning project gone horribly wrong. He is an intelligent and articulate black man who professes an ancient and very un-hip biblical faith. He is a Harvard educated lawyer and law professor who claims to have found truth in church.
As a Christian and a Democrat, I think Obama’s faith story makes him both an interesting man and political candidate. His recent speech gives us an opportunity to consider what makes him tick, and what he might do if he were elected to fill the most powerful office in the world.
Obama began his speech before the UCC with his observation that Americans are searching — “they’re hungry for something new.” Hungry for new political solutions to old problems, yes, but also hungry for something “deeper… a hunger that goes beyond any single cause or issue.” He was talking about a spiritual hunger.
They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They’re looking to relieve a chronic loneliness. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them — that they are not just destined to travel down that long road toward nothingness.
Obama goes on to talk about his own search for that “narrative arc.” His father, “nominally a Muslim,” abandoned the family when Obama was two. His mother, “one of the most spiritual souls I ever knew… lived by the Golden Rule.” Church was not a big part of their lives, but the Obama house was sweetened by that Christian cultural fragrance that permeates American society, and especially, black American society.
As a young activist working on civil rights issues with black churches, Obama was challenged by the pastors he was working with to better connect with the people by attending church.
So one Sunday, I put on one of the few clean jackets I had, and went over to Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. And I heard Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright deliver a sermon called “The Audacity of Hope.” And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.
It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church, as folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. The skeptical bent of my mind didn’t suddenly vanish. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works.
This is a statement most conservative Christians would feel right at home with. Obama speaks of being drawn to the person of Jesus Christ, of his “sins” being “redeemed,” of putting his “trust” in Christ, and of faith as “active, palpable” in his life.
He even confesses doubt, the sort of doubt that has been faith-ending for many other post-modern intellectuals. But Obama set his doubts aside and “submitted [himself] to His will, … to discovering His truth and carrying out His works.”
His speech then moves in the direction of earthly kingdoms by recalling the many ways that “the Lord’s work” has changed America for the better. He refers to prison reform, the anti-slavery movement and civil rights, and could have added the role of Christians in building hospitals for the sick, pursuing justice and equal opportunity for the poor, and in charitable humanitarian assistance of every kind both here and overseas.
[D]oing the Lord’s work is a thread that’s run through our politics since the very beginning. And it puts the lie to the notion that the separation of church and state in America means faith should have no role in public life.
That’s an amazing statement for a liberal Democrat to make, given the paranoia on the left about a coming “Christian theocracy.” It’s a gutsy thing to say before a hard-left audience like the UCC. But Obama has both his history and theology right — there is no dualism in Christianity. Our lives are not inwardly or outwardly divided between “faith” and “realpolitik.” Rather, faith gives legitimacy to life and keeps realpolitik honest, from becoming shampolitik.
Christians on the left and right often draw opposite conclusions on the political implications of the gospel of Christ. Obama talks about universal health care and the Earned Income Tax Credit as “moral commitment[s],” but fails to talk about meaningful ways to end the national stain of abortion.
But if Obama believes that faith in Jesus Christ is transformational, that it shifts our focus from self-obsession to “carrying out His works,” he shares an important point of agreement with creedal Christians of other political persuasions.
All of us are guilty of trying to bend God to our own purposes. We like to think God is on our side when really, God is like a blacksmith working hot iron, He intends to hammer and shape us to His liking. As Paul says:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. — Romans 12:2, ESV
A great challenge for the political Christian is to realize that God is neither Republican nor Democrat nor Green nor Libertarian. Politics is a necessary mechanism for constructing a just and peaceful human society, but its compromises almost always fail to reflect the true nature of God.
God cares deeply for the poor and the hurting. God is passionate about justice. God loves children, even unborn children, with all of his being.
But the Earned Income Tax Credit? Even God may be on the fence about that one.
Photo credit: Photo by Annie Leibovitz for Men’s Vogue (www.mensvogue.com)