Faith-Based Politics, The Obama Way

Nov. 17, 2008–People think of George Bush as being the first evangelical president. But Barack Obama may bring his own evangelical flair to Washington. For all the significant changes Obama is expected to usher in, religion may be one that some people didn’t see coming. If the past eight years have been dominated by prominent conservative evangelicals like Pat Robertson and James Dobson, the Obama years may be the era of Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo, social-justice-minded evangelicals in the model of Walter Rauschenbusch and Martin Luther King Jr.

The religious shift Obama has ushered in is significant for black Americans and the country as a whole. For the first time in African-American political history (certainly since Booker T. Washington died in 1915) the most prominent political representative of black America is not a religious figure. Black political engagement, grounded in the Hebrew tradition of the prophets, is no longer the centerpiece of black political activism. That’s big!

But for Americans overall, the social shift has been just as dramatic. Obama’s presidency will mark the first time in American political history that the voices of progressive evangelicalsthose driven more by the greater social good than by personal moralizingwill be privileged inside of the White House. As the transition unfolds, there is as much speculation about where the Obamas will attend church as there is over where their . More important than where the president worships, though, is how he uses his faith to lead. And if his actions during the campaign are any indication, Washington should prepare for new voices to emerge on issues of faith and values.

Obama courted the faith vote early and intensely. Town-hall meetings themed around “faith in action” helped Obama win the crucial early states of Iowa and South Carolina in the primaries. In the general election, the campaign expanded its faith outreach into a full-fledged “American Values Forum” initiative, complete with DVDs targeted to religious voters and organized house parties where supporters gave “testimony” for the Democrat. Obama still lost the conservative white evangelical vote by a healthy margin, but he improved on the performance of other Democrats and won the Catholic vote outright (this may be attributable to Joe Biden, a Catholic).

Obama was always more comfortable talking about his faith than John McCain, but in the Democratic primaries, he emphasized more of a “civil religion”the idea that collective hope could be a political force. Over the course of the campaign, he held closed-door sessions with evangelical leaders (mostly white, but including T.D. Jakes, Kirbyjon Caldwell and Eugene Rivers), shifted the language of his stump speeches and began emphasizing his own experience of being “saved by the blood.”

On Aug. 23, for instance, in his nationally televised conversation with powerful mega-church pastor Rick Warren, Obama took on the question, “What does it mean to you to trust in Christ?”

His answer: “Well, as a starting point, it means I believe inthat Jesus Christ died for my sins, and that I am redeemed through him. That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis. Yes, I know that I don’t walk alone. And I know that if I can get myself out of the way that, you know, I can maybe carry out in some small way what he intends. And it means that those sins that I have, on a fairly regular basis, hopefully will be washed away.”

The expression conveyed as much “born-again” evangelical sensibility as any of the direct salvation references of George W. Bush during his 2000 campaign. But Obama’s actions, advisers and outreach suggested a much more progressive bent. Over the past eight years, media and political power brokers have tended to cluster all evangelicals under the same tent. But that’s never been so and certainly is not now.

All forms of evangelicalism share core tenets: a belief in the importance of personal conversion through Jesus Christ (salvation); the commitment to biblical activism (authority of the Bible, not reason or experience); and an investment in public morality (public witness). Where they differ is in their emphasis: progressive evangelicals strongly emphasize the suffering of Jesus and his political struggles against the social order, while conservative evangelicals are preoccupied with imposing “biblical” morality.

Where Bush has been a Christian imperialist, Obama will be a Christian pluralist. While his own conversion roots him firmly in the Christian faith, his intellectual skills and international experience allow him to understand that there are many paths to the truth. And his rhetorical abilities allow him to give new meaning to the language of faith to both positively affirm people of different faiths all over the world and properly acknowledge leaders from non-Christian nations. This will be a crucial corrective to the divisive notion of faith propagated in the Bush era and could play an important role in reestablishing America’s reputation worldwide.

Domestically, look for an overhauled office of faith-based initiatives. In Denver, the Democratic Party’s first “faith caucus” engaged a spirited discussion on the role and relevance of such programs and how they might differ from similar policies offered by George W. Bush. Most likely, the least of these thrusts of progressive evangelicalism will empower the already flourishing network of Christian social programs that emphasize economic equality and burgeoning anti-poverty movements. The warriors in this fight will not only be religious figures. Marian Wright Edelman has been framing poverty as a moral religious issue for the last 35 years, even though conservative evangelicals would never claim her (or she them).

In general, the challenge for Obama will be to expand the networks he has built during the campaign to reshape the popular dialogue about the role of faith in politics. He will have to liberate the very notion of faith, which has been hijacked during the Bush administration for very narrow political interests. And as the country gets used to a more embracing posture of faith, African Americans will be challenged to shift further away from the prophetic religious tradition that has defined black political engagement for generations. What we’ve known as the historic black church may morph into a combination of Iyanla Vanzant’s deep spirituality, T.D. Jakes powerful preaching, Al Sharpton’s focus on justice, Jesse Jackson’s rainbow coalition, Alice Walker’s womanism and Johnny Ray Youngblood’s community activism, all geared toward a racially inclusive, religiously pluralistic, non-hierarchical conception of faith that celebrates human dignity, values economic equality and has a global sensibility.

If it sounds like an enormous leap forward, think of the chasms already crossed this year. Old-time religion may just be ready for something new.

Andre C. Willis is an assistant professor of the philosophy of religion at Yale Divinity School.

Dayo Olopade contributed reporting to this essay.

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