This past Tuesday morning President Obama delivered a short address at the Easter Prayer Breakfast.
In attendance were various Christian leaders such as Bishop T.D. Jakes, Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, among others.
Obama’s speech will be of interest to those who study religion and politics in America for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is the way it demonstrates (yet again) how far we have fallen from a lofty mid-century standard in which presidents made restrained, muted, and infrequent reference to God.
No such restraint was on display yesterday. For the president not only made reference to God, but offered us a veritable Christology to boot. Could George W. Bush—whose favorite philosopher, as you will recall, was Christ—have topped this?:
During this season we are reminded that there’s something about the resurrection of our savior Jesus Christ that puts everything else in perspective . . . we are reminded that in that moment he [Jesus Christ] took on the sins of the world, past, present, and future and he extended to us that unfathomable gift of grace and salvation through his death and resurrection.
Obama’s homily may rankle secularists such as myself, but as often occurs with well-designed Faith and Values strategies it can be devastatingly effective. With that in mind, let me explain why it works, and why it rankles.
It works because it neutralizes one of the GOP’s most lethal criticisms of the Democratic party. Namely, that it is the party of godlessness, the party of elites who share no values with fellow Americans. It is, by the way, a patently false criticism. But as John Kerry, a committed Catholic, could tell you, true and false have swiftboatingly little to do with American politics.
It rankles because it demonstrates a clear preference for certain religious groups over others: Now it is true that the President hosted a passover seder at the White House this past Monday night. Prior to that he hosted an Iftar, or a breaking of the fast during Ramadan.
All well and good, but ours is a country with a truly jaw-dropping degree of religious diversity. Ought not the president, in the name of not showing preference to any one religious tradition, engage with more than a handful of religious groups?
Of course, if he did so, how would he have any time to do his day job and attend to the business of state—a dilemma that recommends disentanglement from religion, no?
It works because the President does high quality God Talk: Unlike, let’s say, John Kerry, Obama is quite fluid in “theology mode.” These issues clearly interest him. He thinks about them intelligently. His staff preps him well (ever notice how few faith-based meltdowns Obama has endured since the days of Jeremiah Wright?). He’s good with religious audiences. As it says in Scripture: If you got it, flaunt it.
It rankles because it completely shuts out nonbelieving Americans. Most nonbelievers don’t pray, don’t hold ceremonies, and don’t congregate in one (non-cyber) space. Short of having the president desecrate religious icons on National Blasphemy Day there are few formal ways for him to honor the nonbelieving “community,” assuming he were inclined to do so.*
Obama did—and I always felt nonbelievers were a bit naively ebullient about this—give them a shout out during his inaugural address. Still, he does that very infrequently. The truth remains that any administration which lauds religion as much as this one does is marginalizing atheists and agnostics.
It works because Obama’s religious worldview appeals to a far wider degree of religious Americans than any GOP opponent he is likely to face. This is crucial. Republican candidates are built to court, first and foremost, the white conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists who make rain in primary states like Iowa and South Carolina.
As I stressed throughout the 2008 election: Obama will never win that constituency. He can, however, stanch the bleeding (which compared to Kerry of 2004 he did by clipping off a few crucial percentage points of evangelical support for McCain).
With Obama turning the White House into an ecumenical wreck room, he has successfully built electoral inroads into a wide variety of religious constituencies. The networks are in place. Come Election Day, this will pay dividends in the aforementioned swing states.
It rankles because it excludes: Obama gets the whole “ecumenical” thing—except of course when he doesn’t and starts speaking in specifically Christian terms (like when he inexplicably referred to Republican Senator Tom Coburn as a “brother in Christ” at the National Prayer Breakfast).
For while Christ may indeed have extended grace and salvation through his death and resurrection, the truth is that many Americans have willfully rejected that grace and salvation.
What is to be done with them? And how to counter their perception that by being unsaved in the eyes of the president they are somehow lesser Americans?
* I’m being facetious here. National Blasphemy Day is not “celebrated” by most nonbelievers.