Gary Scott Smith: Faith and Obama
President Obamaâ€™s recent statement on gay marriage has again thrust his religious views onto the front pages. In defending his position, Obama stressed that he and his wife were â€œpracticing Christiansâ€ and that his stance was supported by Christâ€™s teaching of the Golden Rule.
Since his quest to win the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 2004, Barack Obamaâ€™s faith has provoked controversy. In that campaign, his Republican rival Alan Keyes â€” a black Catholic â€” accused Obama of stressing his faith only â€œwhen itâ€™s convenient to get votes.â€ When faith must be followed, explained, and serve as a basis for policies, Keyes protested, Obama pled the â€œseparation of church and stateâ€ â€” a concept that was neither constitutional nor scriptural. â€œChrist would not vote for Barack Obama,â€ Keyes asserted, because his behavior was so contrary to that of Christâ€™s.
These charges prompted Obama to reassess how his faith related to his approach to politics. He concluded that his typical responses to Keyesâ€™ criticisms â€” that â€œwe live in a pluralistic societyâ€ and â€œI canâ€™t impose my own religious viewsâ€ on others â€” had been inadequate.
By 2006, Obama had decisively changed his tactics. At the Sojourners/Call to Renewal conference, he chided Democrats for refusing to talk about religious values out of fear of offending people or belief that religion had no role to play in the public arena. Ignoring â€œthe power of faithâ€ in the lives of Americans was â€œa mistake.â€ Obama urged Democrats to discuss â€œhow to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.â€
Obama called the contention that people â€œshould not inject their â€˜personal moralityâ€™ into public policy debatesâ€ a â€œpractical absurdity.â€ American law, he argued â€œis by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.â€ â€œSecularists are wrong,â€ Obama asserted, â€œwhen they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.â€
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama strove to win the votes of religiously-devout Americans by providing a biblical basis for his policies on poverty, healthcare, immigration, and other issues. He urged citizens to â€œheed the biblical call to care for â€˜the least of theseâ€™â€ â€” Americaâ€™s poor â€” by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, increasing the minimum wage, and supplying universal health insurance.
During the campaign, Obamaâ€™s relationship with Jeremiah Wright (who pastored the United Church of Christ congregation Obama had attended in Chicago for 20 years), the widespread misperception that Obama was a Muslim, and his stances on abortion and homosexual rights called attention to his religious beliefs and created controversy.
As president, Obama has frequently testified to his Christian faith, most notably at four National Prayer Breakfasts, and linked many of his policies to biblical teachings. Contrary to the wishes of many of his supporters, he has also continued George W. Bushâ€™s Faith-based Initiatives.
Obamaâ€™s rhetoric and actions have led to conflicting claims about his presidency. John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College, recently labeled Obama perhaps the â€œmost explicitly Christian president in American historyâ€ because of his extensive citation of the Bible and copious references to Christian faith. Fea stressed that Obama regularly read the Bible and prayed, was being mentored by evangelical pastors (most notably Joel Hunter, Kirbyjon Caldwell, and T.D. Jakes), accentuated both faith and works, urged Americans to follow Godâ€™s command to love our neighbors as ourselves, and strove to build the kingdom of God on earth. [More]