Saturday, February 4, 2012

Barrack Obama, Presidential Theologian

I just finished reading the President’s address at the annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast, February 2, 2012 at the Washington Hilton. I have not made it a practice to read those addresses over the years. I wish I had done so. If they are still available it might be instructive to go back and read them.

In a book, recently released by Christianity Today, Faith and the American Presidency, edited by Mark Galli, three past presidents were cited as being very theological in their understanding of their role and mission in office, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. Others are cited as being religiously motivated in some of their decisions but those three thought of themselves (came to think of himself, in Lincoln’case) as participants in a plan devised by God. Mark Noll, in his book, America’s God, argues that Lincoln was able to articulate a theology of the Civil War in his Second Inaugural Address, that the Christian theologians of his time – co-opted as they were by their allegiance to the political parties of that day – were unable to understand or declare.

There has been no shortage of religious talk surrounding our politics in recent years or in the current year for that matter. But most of it is an attempt to claim God’s approval for a particular party, candidate, or policy option. In other words, it is an attempt to position God on “our side.”

President Obama’s speech broke with that theological approach and articulated what I believe is a valuable understanding, not just of the responsibility of the President, but of all Christians living in a pluralistic society who wish to faithfully fulfill the obligations of their faith. His approach asks us to position ourselves on “God’s side.”

He quotes C.S. Lewis, “Christianity has not, and does not profess to have a detailed political program. It is meant for all men at all times, and the particular program which suited one place or time would not suit another.” In other words, God is neither Democratic or Republican, but all Democrats and Republicans would do well to be God-fearing, God-serving men and women.

Obama continued:

Living in a pluralistic society means that our personal religious beliefs alone can’t dictate our response to every challenge we face. But in my moments of prayer, I’m reminded that faith and values play an enormous role in motivating us to solve some of our most urgent problems, in keeping us going when we suffer setbacks, and opening our minds and our hearts to the needs of others.

The President reminds us that, “As a loving husband, or a supportive parent, or a good neighbor, or a helpful colleague – in each of these roles, we help bring His kingdom to Earth.” “We are imperfect vessels” he confesses, “who benefit from turning to our Creator . . . avoiding phony religiosity.”

With many examples, the President pressed home the theologically sound teaching that our faith is born out in our deeds, that in fact the only work of God’s kingdom that most of us will ever do is that which we do in the course of our everyday lives.

Treating others as you want to be treated. Requiring much from those who have been given so much. Living by the principle that we are our brother’s keeper. Caring for the poor and those in need. These values are old. They can be found in many denominations and many faiths, among many believers and among many non-believers. And they are values that have always made this country great – when we live up to them; when we don’t just give lip service to them; when we don’t just talk about them one day a year. And they’re the ones that have defined my own faith journey.

In this cynical time it is easy to dismiss political figures as insincere in their religious expressions. Sometimes it is just “phony religiosity” and that is proven by the shabby lives those politicians live. But this President has not given us any reason to believe that the theology he propounds is not the one by which he lives. His words ring true and seem to be an expression of his own experience. The nation, and particularly that part of the population that professes to share his Christian faith, would do well to listen to him, and to follow his example of serving God through serving his fellow man. Jesus did say, “As you have done it unto the least of these, my brothers, you have done it unto me.”

Check it out. Here is a link to the speech. There is much more to it than I have quoted.

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