Obama and the pro-life left (again)

obamachurchagain1For Christians in the West, Easter is not that far away and a strange combination of politicos and professional pew observers inside the DC Beltway are turning up the heat on the Obama family church watch.

The McClatchy DC bureau recently provided an overview of the process in a news feature that, naturally, focuses on life after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and views this issue primarily through the prism of race, rather than doctrine. Here’s a sample:

As America’s first black president, Obama faces another unique conundrum: whether to join a historically black church. Then there are standard logistical concerns: What churches could accommodate frequent presidential visits without seriously disrupting the existing congregation’s ability to attend services? Which can the Secret Service best secure? Which routes work well for a motorcade?

Of those churches that best fit the Obamas culturally — ideologically and in terms of community service — which have the best youth programs for children Sasha and Malia?

“The Obamas are committed Christians, and they are certainly looking forward to a place to worship in their time in Washington,” said Joshua DuBois, the director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and one of a handful of aides assisting the family’s search. “What has become clear is that it’s no easy task.”

Note that interesting word “ideologically,” which is almost certainly code language for issues of moral theology. In other words, President Barack Obama needs a church that fits his unique background and that includes an approach to moral issues that is to the left of most major African-American congregations. The family would certainly be welcomed in one of Washington’s major black churches, but there might be awkward moments if the sermons and Christian education offerings were a bit too, well, literal when it comes to the Bible.

Meanwhile, Godbeat veteran Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times has assembled a truly fascinating look at the clergy who — in the post Wright age — have stepped in to minister to Obama during this transition period. Call them the “kitchen clergy,” instead of a “kitchen cabinet”?

It is interesting that, in the lede, she chooses to say that Obama is primarily reaching out to “evangelical” — whatever that means — pastors. Then we read:

All are men, two of them white and three black — including the Rev. Otis Moss Jr., a graying lion of the civil rights movement. Two, the entrepreneurial dynamos Bishop T. D. Jakes and the Rev. Kirbyjon H. Caldwell, also served as occasional spiritual advisers to President George W. Bush. Another, the Rev. Jim Wallis, leans left on some issues, like military intervention and poverty programs, but opposes abortion.

None of these pastors are affiliated with the religious right, though several are quite conservative theologically. One of them, the Rev. Joel C. Hunter, the pastor of a conservative megachurch in Florida, was branded a turncoat by some leaders of the Christian right when he began to speak out on the need to stop global warming.

But as a group they can hardly be characterized as part of the religious left either. Most, like Mr. Wallis, do not take traditionally liberal positions on abortion or homosexuality. What most say they share with the president is the conviction that faith is the foundation in the fight against economic inequality and social injustice.

The questions looming in the background: How do you build a truly mainstream coalition for social justice without the authority of the Bible? But how do you embrace the Bible — as interpreted by mainstream churches for centuries — on one set of issues while shunning what it says on another set? Before you click “comment,” let me note that I think that this second, rather judgmental statement is equally true for many, many, many leaders on the religious right.

The story skates close to highly personal material, including the tricky question of whether Obama truly takes part in these prayer sessions or listens. The testimony is that he is very much a participant.

It is also impossible to leave politics out of all of this:

The pastor in the circle who has known Mr. Obama the longest is Mr. Wallis, president and chief executive of Sojourners, a liberal magazine and movement based in Washington. In contrast to the other four, his contact with the president has been focused more on policy than prayer. Mr. Wallis has recently joined conservatives in pressing the president’s office of faith-based initiatives to continue to allow government financing for religious social service groups that hire only employees of their own faith.

Mr. Wallis said he got to know Mr. Obama in the late 1990s when they participated in a traveling seminar that took bus trips to community programs across the country. …

“He and I were what we called back then ‘progressive Christians,’ as opposed to the dominant religious-right era we were in then,” Mr. Wallis said. “We didn’t think Jesus’ top priorities would be capital gains tax cuts and supporting the next war.”

Once again we face the question asked by E.J. Dionne, Jr., and others: How does Obama proceed on the social-justice issues that matter the most to him without the pro-life middle and left, including Catholic support?

Obama is a sincere liberal Christian, a member of the United Church of Christ a flock dominated by liberal congregations that in recent decades have defined the left border of American Christianity. It is also one of America’s fastest shrinking denominations. But it offers Obama the theological approach that he wants, on matters of biblical interpretation. Is it politically possible for Obama stay in that pew?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    but there might be awkward moments if the sermons and Christian education offerings were a bit too, well, literal when it comes to the Bible.

    As you alluded to in another part of your blog entry, this was also an issue during the recent President Bush’s administration when it come to some areas of the Bible. Biblical exegesis is, of course, part of the mixture and 2 Cor. 3:6, should be added to the mix of consideration of the liberal meaning versus a deeper understanding.

    …how do you embrace the Bible — as interpreted by mainstream churches for centuries — on one set of issues while shunning what it says on another set?

    I think this question is directly related to the recent study about the decline of organized religion in America. Leonard Pitts had some cogent words on that today:

    …God is, for the faithful at least, the sovereign creator of all creation. Religion is what men and women put in place, ostensibly to worship and serve Him. Too often, though, religion worships and serves that which has nothing to do with Him, worships money and serves politics, worships charisma and serves ego, worships intolerance and serves self.

    http://www.miamiherald.com/living/columnists/leonard-pitts/story/948713.html

    So I think the need to pay attention to mainstream churches is declining in importance every day. What President Obama needs to do is to continue to articulate the bedrock of his moral foundation, pay attention to others who disagree on some points and adapt his policies where possible.

    But to your headline about the pro-life left: Recently there was a news story about a significant spike in the number of abortions due to the economy. Clearly the appeal to the pro-life left is to fix the economy and thus remove a significant motivation for abortion.

  • Greg Zenitsky

    “We didn’t think Jesus’ top priorities would be capital gains tax cuts and supporting the next war.”

    What did they think the Lord’s priorities would be regarding abortion???

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com Dwight

    The schadenfreude over mainline decline comes through in this though I think it ends up hurting the whole of Christian faith with it. I think that’s highlighted well in this Andrew Sullivan piece: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/andrew_sullivan/article5907453.ece

    Of course if I was to give a recommendation of a broad based (not numbers wise but in terms of theological diversity) I might be self interested enough in recommending the Disciples of Christ. It’s the church of Reagan and LBJ (how post partisan is that?), and while the spectrum in the denomination is wide there won’t likely be many pronouncements by the denomination that would put it in a collision course with Obama or make it as if it was a left wing version of the religious right. Methodism in a lot of the 20th century had that function but as they tilt right this is becoming less the case.

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com Dwight

    Plus the Disciples and UCC have so many ecumenical partnerships that it won’t be seen as a cutting off of one’s religious history (since most are apt to treat religion cynically in this age of ours, removing that issue seems important)

  • Jerry

    liberal meaning versus a deeper understanding.

    Ack. That is a new record for a “Freudian” slip by me since I’m a liberal.

  • Julia

    the Rev. Joel C. Hunter, the pastor of a conservative megachurch in Florida, was branded a turncoat by some leaders of the Christian right when he began to speak out on the need to stop global warming.

    What the heck does global warming have to do with religion?
    We’re to be good stewards of the earth, but I don’t think the Bible addresses carbon footprints and the like.

    People are all over the place on the issue of man-made global warming – doesn’t seem to have much connection to their religious denomination. Or am I out of the loop?

  • Dave

    Julia, I should think that if a pastor believed — as a factual matter, not an article of faith — that global warming was threatening the created order, he or she would be obligated to speak out against this violation of stewardship.

  • Stoo

    In my experience overlaps between conservative christianity and anti-green sentiment do seem to turn up with depressing regularity. Wether the former is any cause of the latter, or if they’re just common results of some other factor, I dunno.

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  • Dave

    Stoo, there’s a green movement within Christianity known as “Creation Care.” It’s my impression that it reaches pretty far left and right.


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