Obama’s choice of church will be more revealing than any political policy
President Obama promised much to many. It is the price one pays for being all things to all people. But his one consistent promise was change, of which he is the very incarnation. And he may well have transformed the image of America abroad, but his transformation will stop short of transubstantiation.
Although he was supported by the majority of America’s Roman Catholics, he shall not worship among them. There is the lovely little St. John's Church just across the park from the White House, which is known as the ‘Church of the Presidents’ and can trace a presidential lineage back to James Madison. And St. John's has a standing invitation: Pew 54 is the President's Pew, reserved for the nation's leader.
But this was the sanctuary of President George W Bush, and President Obama may not wish to hear from the same Episcopalian God as his predecessor, for he sent all manner of curses and plagues.
In truth, the President-Elect has been spiritually homeless ever since he severed his links with his mentor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity Church of Christ in Chicago. This was the man at whose feet Barack Obama learnt the scriptures, at whose home he enjoyed fellowship, in whose embrace he prayed, by whose words he was married, and by whose hands the Obama children were baptised.
He exit from the stage is convenient for all manner of reasons. Not least because it permits the Rev. Billy Graham to play pope once again and preside over the coronation of another president. Actually, although this is possible, it is not likely as Dr Graham is ill with Parkinson's disease and other health problems. The prospect of the first black American president receiving the crown at the hands of a white man may have been a little unpalatable anyway. But Dr Graham remains America’s counsellor, pastor and god-father, and his theological views have from time to time been known to permeate more than a few presidential policies.
And so churches in Washington are falling over themselves to welcome the Obamas to their congregations. And the pressure is most keenly coming from those rooted in African-American culture and history. In his 2006 book ‘The Audacity of Hope’, Barack Obama wrote: ‘the historically black church offered me a second insight: that faith doesn't mean that you don't have doubts, or that you relinquish your hold on this world... You needed to come to church precisely because you were of this world, not apart from it.’
So ‘believing without belonging’ is not an option for him: he has to go somewhere.
And the choice is bewildering:
There are the broad headings – the ‘Christian Right’, the ‘Born-Again’ variety, the ‘Evangelicals’, and these terms are not all mutually inclusive, for there are Evangelicals which are politically liberal or progressive. Black Evangelicals, for example, are overwhelmingly Democrat and identify with the poor and unemployed, but are conservative on issues such as homosexuality and capital punishment. In fact, ‘Evangelical’ is such a broad church it embraces groups as disparate as black Baptists, the Dutch Reformed Churches, Mennonites, Pentecostals, Catholic charismatics and Southern Baptists.
But President Obama is not really a Protestant Evangelical.
Unless he is speaking to them or dining with them.
When the bell rings, he transmutes into whatever he needs to be.
President Obama transcends labels and denominations, and will most likely ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ his theology to match the national mood. And yet he cannot easily church-hop, so it is worth looking at the chief political features of each theological strand, for these will have implications for the United States' role and image in the world.
The three contemporary streams of American Protestantism (‘Fundamentalist’, ‘Liberal’ and ‘Evangelical’) lead to very different ideas about what the country's role in the world should be.
The Fundamentalists tend to be pessimistic about the prospects for peace and security, and perceive the world order as an unbridgeable gulf between the sheep and the goats. They, of course, are the sheep. The goats are anyone who does not like America. Liberals tend to be more optimistic about the prospects for world order, and they perceive the common
The Fundamentalists are not only sceptical about social reform; they are hostile to the idea of a world order based on secular morality and on global institutions such as the United Nations. There is no compromise to be had with terrorist regimes, and no cooperation with governments that oppress churches, forbid Christian proselytising, or execute apostates. For the Fundamentalists, the UN is the seat of the Antichrist, Islam is a religion of death and destruction, and the demise of George W Bush hastens the final conflict and the Day of Armageddon.
President Obama shall not fellowship with them, for they shall remind him of Sarah Palin.
For the Liberals, the Bible is not literal narrative, but metaphorical and relative. All people of all faiths are united by their common humanity. The Unitarian Church, introduced to the United States in 1794 by the English scientist and theologian Joseph Priestly, is of this school of theology. It seeks to combine theism, materialism, and determinism which Priestly believed would lead to a proper understanding of the natural world which would promote human progress. He was lauded by Benjamin Franklin and was also a significant theological influence on Thomas Jefferson, although both presidents attended Episcopalian services when they went to church.
Liberals dispense with ‘original sin’ and tend towards universal ethics and entertain the Christ in Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Atheism. There is a kernel of ethical truth in all people, all religions, and secularism. This optimism positively embraces the prospects for a peaceful world order and about international organisations such as the UN. Liberal Christians have frequently perceived such institutions as the partial fulfilment of the kingdom of God. The Liberal Protestant tradition has influenced such presidents as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, Dwight Eisenhower, and John Foster Dulles. They are typified by their environmentalism and involvement in human rights organisations like Amnesty International. They are also separated from Roman Catholics by their support for abortion and gay rights, and alienated from many Jews by their decreasing support for Israel.
President Obama may fellowship with them, for they are ecumenical and inclusive.
Evangelicals share common roots with Fundamentalism, but their ideas about the world have been heavily influenced by the optimism endemic to the United States. They have a history of ‘soft Calivinism’ and are most comfortable with the teachings of John Wesley. The largest denomination is the Southern Baptist Convention (16.3 million members), and this is followed by the African American churches (which include the National Baptist Convention and the National Baptist Convention of America, representing around 10 million members). It includes the Pentecostals, the Assemblies of God, the Lutheran Church¬ and a few ‘para’ organisations, such as the Campus Crusade for Christ, the Promise Keepers, and the Wycliffe Bible Translators.
Their world may be divided into sheep and goats, but each goat has the possibility to become a sheep. Salvation is available to all, and billions of perishing souls are worthy of great national effort. They will work with Roman Catholics and Jews on issues such as abortion, though are more sceptical of working with Muslims. They not only dedicate their lives to help poor and needy, they see it as the task of America – the light on the hill – to proclaim the gospel and bring lost souls to Christ. But they are pragmatists and can fuse most aspects of US culture with the practice of their faith and belief in moral progress. They expect revival and look forward to the return of Christ, but are less obsessed than the Fundamentalists with the identity of the Antichrist.
The growing influence of evangelicals has affected US foreign policy in several ways, not least the issue of foreign aid and human rights. Evangelical influence also affects US support for Israel. George W Bush appointed Evangelicals to his policy and speech-writing teams, and it is noteworthy that his presidency has seen a 67 per cent increase in aid to Africa, including $15 billion in new spending for programmes to combat HIV and AIDS. Evangelicals do not, however, follow blindly the human rights and humanitarian agendas crafted by liberal and secular leaders. They have made religious freedom a central focus of their efforts. President Bush introduced the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998, establishing an Office of International Religious Freedom in a somewhat sceptical State Department.
President Obama is not likely to fellowship with them, for fear the ‘light on the hill’ be misinterpreted as a moral crusade.
Within these broad Protestant threads is a plethora of denominations, and President Obama could choose to worship with the Episcopalians, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, or the United Church of Christ. And he will find elements within them all which are antithetical to his policies.
Or he could eschew them all, and go to the gym every Sunday, just as he has done throughout his campaign.