Barack Obama and the Evangelicals

I am fascinated with Michael Wear’s piece at Christianity Today on the relationship between President Barack Obama and American evangelicals. Drawing on his new book Reclaiming Faith: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America, Wear tries to answer the question of why evangelicals hated Obama so much, but love Donald Trump.

obama-faith-outreach-na02-wide-horizontal3I’ll admit, this question has been central in my mind since Trump burst onto the political main-stage three years ago. The deep hatred and disdain evangelicals have for Obama baffles me. There is no doubt in my mind that President Obama governed in a Christian manner like few others before him have. I don’t mean he participated in the cheap, public displays of devotion that a George W. Bush or Ted Cruz engage in. Rather, Obama was always thoughtful, humble, and driven by deep convictions of morality and regard for human dignity. He never stood on a stage and declared himself “born again,” but he did showcase a deep knowledge and regard of the Christian faith, and clearly let himself be driven by it. He was committed to his family, and to American families as a goal of American policy. When speaking of faith, he spoke with great knowledge and reverence for God and Scripture.

As a Christian with a background in politics and policy, I can’t see many areas where I would have made choices much different that Obama with regards to faith (drone strikes overseas and other foreign policy choices are the chief areas that come to mind.) The public expression of faith exhibited by Barack Obama is something I would hope to emulate if I were again pursuing a career in public service.

Beyond personality, Obama’s Administration was much more faith friendly that it gets credit for, something Wear points out:

President Obama came into Office with plans to deliver on the promise of his campaign outreach to people of faith, including evangelicals. He kept and expanded the White House faith-based initiative, creating an advisory council (which, unlike the current president’s council, was official, established by executive order for the purpose of providing recommendations to the president and the federal government) that included robust evangelical participation. Four months into his Administration, he delivered a passionate case to heal national divides around abortion by seeking to ‘reduce the number of women seeking abortions’ while maintaining his commitment to Roe v. Wade. This speech was followed-up by years of staff work, overseen by the president, to pursue this common ground. Evangelicals were central to many of President Obama’s signature achievements: the Affordable Care Act, New START, the Paris Agreement, the expansion of America’s effort to combat human trafficking, and the rejection of deep social safety net cuts proposed by the Republican Congress.

Yet none of this is taken into account in the narrative that prevails about Obama and faith. And with good reason. The Religious Right made the decision early on, mirroring Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party, to blindly oppose everything the President did. Wear goes on:

In addition to discussing these partnerships, my recent book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in Americaalso describes why the president’s olive branch withered. On the right, political Religious Right groups made it their mission to sow distrust of and animosity toward the president. This went far beyond opposing specific policies or values of the Obama Administration. They did this through spreading half-truths, tolerating or promoting conspiracy theories, and insisting that Obama was an existential threat to their faith and the nation, among other things. There were notable exceptions to this fearmongering, but they were, sadly, in the minority and suffered under accusations of being closet liberals by their fellow evangelicals.

Evangelicals doubled down on abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious freedom issues, elevating these three areas over everything else. Where Obama looked for areas of cooperation and shared values, evangelicals made the decision to focus only on differences.

Wear points out that this attitude, driven by fear and loathing of someone they only saw as an “other,” led directly to President Donald Trump:

Fear was the primary basis of Donald Trump’s appeals to evangelicals. He did not pretend he was one of them. He told them they were alone, that Democrats were out to get them, that ISIS was ‘drowning Christians in steel cages,’ and only he could protect them. He offered himself as a bully. Yes, he had flaws. Yes, his pagan approach to sex, money and power was evident and unseemly, inconveniently brought to the surface repeatedly during his campaign. But he would be their bully.

Evangelicals, driven by eight years of hate, began to believe their own propaganda, that the various disagreements they held with Barack Obama not only outweighed their numerous agreements, but in fact signaled a coming apocalypse for American Christianity. Minor disagreements could not be tolerated, because they indicated, to them at least, the cracks showing deep seated liberal hatred for all things Christian. So they took a bet on a strongman to save them from a non-existent boogeyman. In return for his “protection,” they get to carry his baggage forward for decades to come, tarnishing their own reputations and making themselves culturally irrelevant.

Wear eloquently discusses the consequences of this choice:

Evangelicals may find such attention as they received from Barack Obama more hard to come by after the Trump era takes its full toll. In years to come, I believe evangelicals will view Barack Obama’s disappointment toward them in a different light. They will see that it reflected much higher esteem than either Hillary Clinton’s cold disregard or Donald Trump’s toxic embrace. As they acclimate to the cultural changes that drove them to Trump, and understand just what their support of Trump cost them and our country, they will look back and see that Obama’s disappointment was a compliment.

President Obama was indeed a liberal, and a supporter of women’s choice, equal rights for LGBTQ+ people, and an expansive view of the separation of church and state that makes room for all faiths and non-faiths. He also was passionate about reinvigorating American families, combating poverty and declining standards of living, pursuing broader economic equality, and presenting a more humble, more humane, and more compassionate America to the world. American evangelicals let their own fear and hate deprive them of a great opportunity, one they may not get again in the future.

H/T to John Fea for bringing this article to my attention.

Advertisements

“Whoring After Other Gods”

Members of the clergy lay hands and pray over Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights
Members of the clergy lay hands and pray over Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, on September 21, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The Rev. William Barber took to NBC News earlier this week to lend his powerful moral voice to the condemnation of Donald Trump’s news making infidelities. The infidelity Barber wrote of, however, was not Trump’s affair with porn star Stormy Daniel:

The infidelity that we must concern ourselves with is called “whoring after other gods” in the Bible (see Hosea 9:1 or Amos 7:17). Whenever a nation chooses to hurt the poor, oppress the stranger, mistreat the weak and corrupt the courts in the Bible, prophets accuse political leaders of public infidelity. Unlike in a marriage, such adultery is not a private matter; it must be challenged and called out in the public square.

Today, too many preachers are willing to overlook personal moral failings in exchange for access to power. Jerry Falwell, Jr., responding to critics, claimed Jesus’ teachings are about private morality, not public policy: “Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves but never told Caesar how to run Rome,” he wrote on Twitter.

Though this is a common distinction among white evangelicals in the U.S., it is not a distinction the Bible makes. Jesus himself says that, at the final judgment, “all the nations” will be gathered before him to give an account for how they treated the most vulnerable among us. The prophet Isaiah, whom Jesus quotes often, condemns “those who legislate evil” and exhorts the faithful to “loose the bands of injustice”— a political act in any society. It’s hard to imagine someone who proclaimed the “kingdom of God” in the first century not having a vision for the transformation of society.

Taking care of the poor and the vulnerable is not a left wing political agenda, or a specifically SJW concern. It is the very work of Christ himself, and by our identification with Him, it is our work to. If we want to claim to be the Christian nation that people like Falwell and Perkins claim we are, we must do better. Trump’s policies towards the vulnerable of the world are as anti-Christian as one can imagine. The court evangelicals and the millions of American Christians who continue to support him need to wake up and realize this, and hold him to a Christian standard.

“We are all worthy, we are all equal, and we all count”

kennedyiiiPowerful words from Rep. Joe Kennedy III Tuesday night:

This administration isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us — they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection.

For them, dignity isn’t something you’re born with but something you measure.

By your net worth, your celebrity, your headlines, your crowd size.

Not to mention, the gender of your spouse. The country of your birth. The color of your skin. The God of your prayers.

Their record is a rebuke of our highest American ideal: the belief that we are all worthy, we are all equal and we all count. In the eyes of our law and our leaders, our God and our government.

That is the American promise.

America certainly hasn’t always lived up to this promise, especially towards women and minorities and LGBTQ+ people. But these words are the vision we should strive for, not because it is uniquely American, but because this is the vision of the Kingdom of God: a world where all people are respected and loved because of their inherent dignity as children of God.