Resetting the American Faith Dialogue

Not so long ago there was an evangelical President who said that Jesus was his favorite philosopher. Many were concerned about the beginnings of a theocracy. Now, we have a President who talks about Jesus a lot more than his predecessor, but who also seems to have a broader understanding of what it means to be Christian in a pluralistic context. Some conservatives, who seem unable to allow for more than one way of being Christian, seem to believe that the current occupant of the White House is being less than honest about his faith. So, what do we make of President Obama's religious tone? Martin Davis comments on this today in a Sighting's post. I welcome your thoughts on this. I personally believe that Obama is a person of deep faith, but also a person who believes that one must live this faith humbly, without assuming that one is the only possessor of truth or a relationship with God. I find this refreshing, but that's me. Take a read and then offer your thoughts.


Sightings 6/25/09

Resetting the American Faith Dialogue
Martin Davis

After eight years of teeth-gnashing by journalists over President George W. Bush’s evangelical leanings and fears that he’ll bring his faith into play when making policy decisions, a new evangelist has appeared up the street from Capitol Hill: President Barack Obama.

First, he “threw open the doors” of the White House faith-based office to a wide array of spiritual voices and has encouraged them to bring their faith to bear on his administration. As Jim Wallis, publisher of Sojourners, noted of a meeting at the White House with him and other spiritual leaders: Obama “said you should feel free to disagree with me when you do, even publicly, because one thing that we can’t lose is your prophetic integrity.”

Now, journalist Eamon Javers at Politico informs us that our new president invokes the name of Jesus more often than our most recently term-limited president. “He’s done it while talking about abortion and the Middle East, even the economy. The references serve at once as an affirmation of his faith and a rebuke against a rumor that persists for some to this day.”

Evangelicals aren’t quite sure what to make of this. To them, he sounds like Bush, which makes them suspect his motives are less than sincere. Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Family Research Council, says “I applaud [the references to Jesus]. It gives people a sense of comfort. But I think it’s a veneer, a facade that covers over a lot of policies that are anti-Christian.” The same sentiment is apparent in the writings of former Christianity Today editor Stan Guthrie in his analysis of Obama’s Cairo speech.

But if they’re correct, then where’s the outcry from the left? The closest one comes is from the mouth of Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, who understands Obama and Bush to be evoking the same Jesus. “I don’t need to hear politicians tell me how religious they are,” Lynn said. “Obama in a very overt way does what Bush tended to do in a more covert way.”

But does he? Javers doesn’t seem to think so. “For Obama, Christian rhetoric offers an opportunity to connect with a broader base of supporters in a nation in which 83 percent of Americans believe in God.” Just how broad is this base of non-evangelical people of faith that Javers refers to? Potentially huge. As many as eighty percent of people in America who profess to believe in God don’t identify as evangelicals, if the numbers at the Pew Forum are to be believed.

What Lynn fails to understand, and what evangelicals largely miss, is that Obama’s Jesus is not a more politically correct, dressed-up version of Bush’s. On the level of theology, they are one hundred and eighty degrees apart. Behind Bush’s faith lay a particular dogma that many feared, rightly or wrongly, was driving administration policies on everything from the War in Iraq to policies over disaster relief and education. Under Bush, to be on the side of faith in any of these discussions wasn’t enough. One had to be on the side of Bush’s understanding of faith. Any other opinion leaves one on the outside looking in. It’s a hallmark of conservative evangelical thought.

Christianity for Obama is more “civil,” in that it invokes Robert Bellah’s notion of religion as, at its best, a unifying force that contributes to society’s well-being. Obama is less concerned, one may assume, with what one believes than with respecting all beliefs and leveraging them for all the good they can produce. It’s a study in maximizing the power of faith that Reinhold Niebuhr, Obama’s self-professed favored theologian, would doubtless have appreciated.

In short, Obama is resetting the scales of religious discourse in America. He’s making it alright to be a person of faith—or not of faith—and not be evangelical. He understands that religion lies at the heart of what this country is and how it sees itself, and that religion is a significant player on the world stage. Success in his grand political agenda requires successfully expanding our understanding of faith and our ability to talk about it.

Whether he’s savvy politician or sincere advocate for this more open faith tradition remains to be seen. But this much is sure: Faith didn’t leave Washington when Bush moved back to Crawford. It moved into the White House with Obama, and may prove a more powerful player for good on the American scene than it has is some time.

Read Stan Guthrie’s comments on Obama’s Cairo speech at

Read Eamon Javers’ comments on Obama’s references to Jesus at

Martin Davis is an independent journalist and founder of Davis Communications working out of Washington, D.C. He operates the blog Faith and Fumbles.

In this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum essay, anthropologist and legal scholar Mateo Taussig-Rubbo examines “how the destruction of property and life seems to [generate] a new form of value,” a value frequently identified as that of the “sacred.” Focusing on the wreckage from and sites of the September 11 attacks, Taussig-Rubbo considers issues of property law and conceptions of sacrifice in an attempt to understand how this concept of sacrality comes to be, and what meanings it holds within American culture. Invited responses will follow from Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Kathryn Lofton, Jeremy Biles, and Kristen Tobey.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


"and may prove a more powerful player for good on the American scene than it has is some time."

I have to disagree. I think his views on abortion and elevating the homosexual agenda are not going to be a force for good. Also removing personal responsibility from the individuals that has made this country great and replacing them with his socialistic leanings are unfortunately going to be felt for generations to come.
Anonymous said…
I do have to laugh.. in essence you seem to be saying.. Bush talked less about Jesus, but it drove his political platform. Obama loves to talk Jesus, but it doesn't impact his policy.

Since I might be called an "evangelical" I often scratch my head on these discussions. In today's society its perfectly normal to talk about kids, jobs, even politics b/c they impact you and make you who you are. But once it comes to faith.. its an item we put in a box and put away. You only do it locked away in a closet where no one can see you. Its sort of odd..
Jude said…
There are several reasons why obama is not a real Christian. I could write a book. But I'll just give this one reason: he's very popular with the Left. Although most leftists have no clue how someone becomes a Christian, nor would they accept the answer to that question if it were given, they still think they know one when they think they see one. If he were a real believer, the Left would hate him. Their love for obama proves that the Left does not think he is really a believer. The Left is right about very little, but they are right about that.
It amazes me sometimes what people will say on a blog.

First we have Buddy telling us that because Obama wants to help people get out of a jam placed on them by a system they can't control, he's a socialist -- and thus his agenda somehow is less than Christian. Now, I of course I'm a pro-gay pastor and like Obama want to reduce abortions by reducing the context that more often than not produces them -- which has to do with the first point.

Then we have "anonymous" that mis represented what I said -- Bush talked about Jesus and yet had policies that in my mind ran contrary to the teachings of Jesus, including the embrace of torture. Jesus didn't drive his policies, a very conservative version of Christianity that owes more to Adam Smith than to Jesus drove his policies.

Then we have Jude who says that since liberals like Obama he can't be a Christian.

Thus, what I hear is that unless one is an extremely right-wing person, one can't be a Christian. I disagree, but that's your right!
Anonymous said…
I don't think Obama would call on Jesus to smite his enemies for him as Bush & Co did in written Pentagon briefings to the troops (disgusting). I feel he invokes Jesus as a wise historical figure he can describe and assume most of us are familiar with, just as he does with Mohamed.

Anyway, I'm a liberal, lefty Christian. So much for that theory.

I am concerned about separation of church and state and think Obama should have closed the faith based initiative department. So, I disagree, but don’t hate him.

David Mc
John said…
What amazes me about the Christian right is their complete lack of perspective. All issues are black and white, everyone is either with them or against them, and, in asserting their position, they demonize the opposition point of view (if they ever talk about it) and they demonize their opponent.

In asserting their Infallible positions, they have no sense of humility and no sense of embarrassment.

On another note, they would claim to be the most ardent supporters of the "American Way" yet all who disagree with them are not only taking the "wrong" side of the issue, but they are evil and worthy of divine retribution - if not vigilante execution. They do not acknowledge the possibility that there can be such a thing as healthy opposition - any opposition is non-Christian if not outright Satanic.

I just wish we could remove the word "Christian" from their label, because they do so much damage to the Body of Christ.

Jude said…
What amazes me about liberals who think they are Christians is that they are blind to their own judgementalism. They criticize the "Christian right" for being dogmatic and unwilling to consider that there might be more than one correct stance to take on any issue, but when you examine their(the liberals) beliefs about anything, you find they are just as dogmatic for their point of view as they accuse their opponents of being!
John said…

You obviously don't know the range of liberal Christians that I know.

Sure there is plenty of political dogmatism to go around. The difference is that the Christian Right has made conformity with their political agenda a prerequisite for personal salvation. I always thought that salvation, yours and mine included, was a matter of Grace, not conformity.

Anonymous said…
I'm not judging any further than the constitution dictates- it agrees with Matthew 22:21 so I'm safe.

“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”

I don't want my tax money spent in His name, I'd like direct deposit. Obama needs to learn this too.

I’m just really, really tired of the freedom haters. Here is a place where left and right can come together to talk about faith. It's right to be limited in the secular world. People shouldn't be intimidated or coerced in public or their place of employment. These things are very simple. Iran proves they are wise. Liberal or not.

David Mc

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