Barack Obama and Christianity Today

The Editors of Christianity Today "Get it Mostly Right"

In this month’s issue of Christianity Today ("God's Will in the Public Square: Democratic Senator Barack Obama gets it mostly right") the editors of CT praised Barack Obama’s recent address about religion and politics (“Obama's humility cuts through the cynicism many Americans feel when politicians begin talking about religion. He speaks about his faith and religious values with earnestness and with ease.”). They loved it when he said, “Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.”

They quote Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn when he “balked” at this Obama sound bite: “Speaking as a secularist…what we ask of believers—all we ask—is that they not enter the public square using ‘because God says so’ as a reason to advance or attack any political position.”

The editors of CT seem to believe that Christians should enter into political debate with their faith on their sleeves, as if everyone should believe the same as Christians should. Much in the same way Zorn “balked” at the idea that believers not use the “because God says so” ploy, they “balked” at what Obama later said is the proper way believers should enter into public discourse about political issues.

Obama said, “I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or [invoke] God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”

The CT editors write, “Unfortunately, later in this otherwise exemplary speech, Obama ended up agreeing with Zorn, and this suggests a continuing blind spot for many in their understanding of how religion relates to politics.” Citing Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., they go on to say that Christians should use Christian rhetoric in their political pleas in the public discourse.

I think that a balance needs to be found here. While Christians should engage with social issues based on their faith and should never be afraid to articulate their faith-based understanding on the issues, they cannot presume that people who do not share their faith will want to hear or will even understand these kinds of arguments. They must be willing to speak to both people of their own faith and people of other faiths and of no faith at all, just as Obama says.

The doctrine of Common Grace tells us that nonbelievers have been given the special grace from God in order to understand that which is needed for the common good. Government officials do not need to be Christian in order to run the government well. (Sorry, Katherine Harris, but you are wrong to say, “If you're not electing Christians, then in essence you are going to legislate sin.” You need a little Christian lesson on the meaning of Common Grace.)

Therefore, if Christians cannot articulate our opinions on today’s issues in more than “because God says so” language, then we have failed to be good Christians in the public square. While politicians should not fear using religious words to describe their views (as has been the case with Democrats), they should not use religious words as a manipulative code-language to garner approval from a certain group of voters (as has been the case with Republicans). Religious words in political discourse is appropriate for one of faith who is seeking public office if it flows out of who that person genuinely is. However, religious arguments can only go so far in public discourse in a pluralistic society.

For a Christian in politics, the Common Good should be explained from a perspective of a Christian Worldview. But political arguments for the Common Good cannot be exclusively debated from a religious perspective. The terms and arguments used must reflect God’s General Revelation, that which all humans can understand.

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Anonymous said...

I seem to find myself agreeing more with Boyd when it comes to the NAE and CT's political involvement that "less is more"..

They want to come across as balanced, but inevitably tend to toe mainly a rather predictable line.

Andy Rowell said...

Outstanding post. Thank you, Bob. Well written. I love Christianity Today (I haven't read the original piece yet) but I think if you are portraying the editorial right, they've missed it a little this time. Too bad.
Andy Rowell
Taylor University
Department of Biblical Studies and Christian Ministry
Blog: Church Leadership Conversations

RonMcK said...

Another really good post.

I agree that "God says so" is not sufficient justification in a pluralist world. We need to be careful that we do not shove our religion down the throats of other people. We must be really careful that we do not get into the game of forcing people to be Christian. God is not interested in forced obedience.

It follows that politics is about finding the "highest common denominator", to distort a mathematical expression. The aim should be to find positions that most people can agree on. In the past, when a Christian world view was more widespread, that highest common denominator was more Christian, but as pluralism increases, some of the things that were widely accepted in the past, are no longer part of the highest common denominator. For example, abortion was once was, but now is not part of the highest common denononator.

BTW What I like about the second table of the law is that murder, theft and false witness (Moses did not enforce the adultery laws) are still part of the highest common denominator. Almost everyone believes that they are crimes. They are specified as crimes in most legal systems.

A highest common denominator approach means that politics must remain humble. The problem is that most politicians want to do too much, so they end up going beyond the highest common denominator and start forcing significant groups of people to do things that they do not want to do, ie forcing a minority to do what the majority believe is good.

That is why I am not so keen on the expression "Common Good". This concept can be used to bludgeon groups of people into doing things they do not want to do, because it is required for the Common Good.

Your statement that "nonbelievers have been given the special grace from God in order to understand that which is needed for the common good" is interesting. I can see how it is possible to believe that in a country like the USA with a Christian legacy. I am not sure that people in China, USSR, Zimbabwe or the Congo, to name just a few, would feel the same about their rulers. The more common experience is that non-christian rulers (and many Christian ones) have special skills in looking after their own good, or the good or their cronies, or their social group. So I am not if common grace is really that common.

Ted Gossard said...

Excellent point. And I agree, and found myself in substantial agreement with Obama's speech. I never interpreted him to mean that faith language should be set aside in political discourse. But also, that we need to speak to all (as in God's general revelation, as you so well say).

I'm wrestling with the call of Jesus as seen throughout the entire New Testament. And what kind of "truck" that might have, in politics.

I do believe that compromise is the best way to get things moving politically, as Reagan was so good at doing (and as George W., as I understand it: has not been, in Washington).

But I'm not so sure that this is the way of Jesus and the way of the cross. (so as to avoid any possible misunderstanding, I'm not saying Pres Bush is right.)

One could ask as a business person: How can my work be like Christ, and still be "successful"? So I would ask the same of a Christian politician. And I'm sure we'd come up with different answers.

I just am seeing the Sermon on the Mount as so basic Jesus, and so political in its wholism, that I can't shake the question I just posed.

I do like Obama. We need more like him. By the way, though I think you know this: he is pro-choice on the abortion issue. In context he is saying, IF he held to an abortion being wrong postion.

Great post, Bob. Thanks.

Steve Hayes said...

While I agree with the general notion that one should not try to justify a moral position by simply saying "because God says so", I believe there is a case for Christians to enter the public square with specifically Christian arguments, otherwise we run the risk of spouting cliches and being woolly and humanist.

Let me give an example.

When I was a student (a long time ago now), a friend of mine was banned. He was a fellow student, a fellow-Christian, and later married my cousin. Students held a public protest against his banning, in the public square, carrying placards.

A humanist friend objected to the Christian content of some of the placards, saying that he thought we should protest "in wider human terms". I disagreed, and some of the Christians carried posters with slogans like "Jesus is our king, not Vorster", and "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

There were two reasons for this. One was that the government claimed to be Christian and to be defending Christian values, therefore we thought it would be in order to have posters that might appeal to their Christian conscience. Secondly, when a Christian is persecuted, Christians do not merely see it in "wider human terms", but in Christian terms.

For more info about banning see:


Anonymous said...

Reality! These days it is too hard to tell the difference between secular persons and the professing Christians . Genuine Born Again Evangelical Christians are total abstainers from smoking, drugs, alcohol, cheating, lying, stealing, tax evasions, pornography, or rather all personal vices, Impairments http://thefocusonthefamily.wordpress.com/2008/06/30/abstainers/

The major undeniable weakness, weakness, discrepancies, shortfall in the soft underbelly of the personal life of Barrack Obama and even Canada's prime Minister Stephen Harper is clear, and is that already proven too, that there is a wide discrepancy between what he verbally says he is and who he really is now and and what he in fact still next does. Even now starting clearly with his profession of being a real practicing Christian. Barack Obama for continuity he is not a real practicing Christian and he undeniably has violated God laws continually, and there is no excuse for it.. While it is often a thorny issue, discussion in the Christian faith, amongst the protestants and evangelicals whether Christians drinking wine is tolerate now, the Bible in both the old and new testament clearly and undeniably still says that anyone in a leadership position cannot consume wine, alcohol or get drunk. This is not even subject even to any debate now as well. Both Obama and Bilden do undeniably drink alcohol now.. and what about McCain and Palin now too?

Again ““Dr. Daniel Akin, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary has written an article in favor of the famous Resolution #5 (Resolution calling for total opposition to alcohol). Alcohol is the number one drug problem among teenagers. (1 Cor. 8:13; 9:19-22; 10:32-33). Because I am an example to others, I will make certain no one ever walks the road of sorrow called alcoholism because they saw me take a drink and assumed, “if it is alright for him it is alright for me.” No, I will choose to set an uncompromising example of abstinence because I love them. I will seek my joy and filling in the Spirit not in alcohol. I love the Phillips translation of Ephesians 5:18 which reads, “Don’t get your stimulus from wine (for there is always the danger of excessive drinking), but let the Spirit stimulate your souls.” Psalm 4:7-8 adds, “You [O Lord] have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound. In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” There is no record that Jesus drank strong drink, As a pastor or church leader, would I demand abstinence for leadership? Absolutely! The principle of Proverbs 31:4-5 is appropriately applied here, “It is not for Kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.” “

(1 Cor 11:28 KJV) But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. 29 For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. 30 For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. 31 For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.

(Prov 3:33 KJV) The curse of the LORD is in the house of the wicked: but he blesseth the habitation of the just.

Jesus himself had said that professing to be a Christian is not enough,

Matt 3:8 Bring forth fruit that is consistent with repentance [let your lives prove your change of heart];

Gal 5:23 Gentleness (meekness, humility), self-control (self-restraint, continence). Against such things there is no law [that can bring a charge].

Matt 7:16 You will fully recognize them by their fruits. Do people pick grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles?17 Even so, every healthy (sound) tree bears good fruit [worthy of admiration], but the sickly (decaying, worthless) tree bears bad (worthless) fruit. 18 A good (healthy) tree cannot bear bad (worthless) fruit, nor can a bad (diseased) tree bear excellent fruit [worthy of admiration]. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire. 20 Therefore, you will fully know them by their fruits.

The Bible’s suggestions on electing rulers.. good managers

(Deu 1:13 KJV) Take you wise men, and understanding, and known among your tribes, and I will make them rulers over you.
(Deu 1:14 KJV) And ye answered me, and said, The thing which thou hast spoken is good for us to do.
(Deu 1:15 KJV) So I took the chief of your tribes, wise men, and known, and made them heads over you, captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, and captains over fifties, and captains over tens, and officers among your tribes.
(Deu 1:16 KJV) And I charged your judges at that time, saying, Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between every man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him.
(Deu 1:17 KJV) Ye shall not respect persons in judgment; but ye shall hear the small as well as the great; ye shall not be afraid of the face of man; for the judgment is God’s: and the cause that is too hard for you, bring it unto me, and I will hear it.
(Deu 1:18 KJV) And I commanded you at that time all the things which ye should do.

(1 Tim 3:1 KJV) This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.
(1 Tim 3:2 KJV) A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;
(1 Tim 3:3 KJV) Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous;
(1 Tim 3:4 KJV) One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity;
(1 Tim 3:5 KJV) (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)
(1 Tim 3:6 KJV) Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.
(1 Tim 3:7 KJV) Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

1 Tim 3:2 Now a bishop (superintendent, overseer) must give no grounds for accusation {but} must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, circumspect {and} temperate {and} self-controlled ( Sober) ; [he must be] sensible {and} well behaved {and} dignified and lead an orderly (disciplined) life; [he must be] hospitable [showing love for and being a friend to the believers, especially strangers or foreigners, and be] a capable {and} qualified teacher,
Alcoholics, wine drinkers, smokers, drug users too they all tend to have evidentially lost their self control..

Undeniably whether you are also a leader or not getting drunk is still an unacceptable sin as well. And all true Christians consider this still a sinful act

Obama amongst some others reiterated his support for civil unions for homosexuals. No surprise there. Some Christians do indeed allow for the conferring of some legal rights, short of marital status, on gays as a simple matter of fairness. We cannot legislate or enforce morality. Nevertheless all true Christians consider this a sinful act But I suspect his rationale raised some hackles. "If people find that controversial then I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which I think is, in my mind, for my faith, more central than an obscure passage in Romans". Barrack Obama. Since when did Romans 1 become obscure? I thought pitting the words of Jesus against those of Paul was a tactic of Red Letter Christians, not something a serious candidate for the Oval Office would engage in.There is no refererence to gay civil unions in the Sermon on the Mount (unless you stretch the Golden Rule beyond all recognition). Perhaps Obama mixed up his Bible references Is Barack Obama a Red Letter Christian? http://blog.christianitytoday.com/ctliveblog/archives/2008/03/is_barack_obama.html