Obama: Social Gospel? I say Not Really

John Blake, one of CNN.com Belief Blog’s fine writers, has a lengthy study about President Obama’s faith. Two of his main points: Obama’s faith doesn’t fit the profile of many Americans’ view of what a Christian is — which is a way of saying the President’s faith is not evangelical. Second point: his faith is the Social Gospel.

Yes, and No.

To begin with, I find it exasperating that once again the commentators and locators of Obama’s faith are lilly-white Americans: Jim Wallis and Diana Butler Bass. Both of whom, intelligent as they are, want to locate Obama’s faith in the social justice tradition. Fine, I say, Yes, the President fits there.

But there’s a major issue. White elites are the ones who articulated the Social Gospel, most famously Walter Rauschenbusch but not limited to him. That Social Gospel was fixed deeply in the psyche and ministries of much of the mainline denominations so much that one can say culture and church meshed to where difference is not always detectable. Mainline faith in the USA is the religion of the privileged. The Social Gospel is a kind of white social justice Christianity.

African American “social gospel” types are not simply the Social Gospel type. Why did we not have an interview with someone like Brian Blount, a clear, forceful African American liberation theologian? Or James Cone? It is my view that “Social Gospel” does not do justice to President Obama’s faith.

His influences derived from the ministry of Jeremiah Wright, who besides bringing his own agendas to the table, represents a strong liberation strain of the social gospel side of Christianity. A theology done from the oppressed and for the oppressed is not the same as a theology done from the position of power and privilege. President Obama’s faith is an African American liberation kind of social gospel. There’s a difference and it is worth the nuance.

Social gospelers tend to look at structures of power and their systemic injustices; African American liberation theologies “do theology” through the experience of slavery, oppression, and systemic violence. There is undoubtedly substantive overlap, but they come from two different places.

Location is everything.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • JoeyS

    Interesting take. I read, at your recommendation, A Better Freedom by Michael Card a few years ago. Is the tradition he speaks of more closely aligned with Obama?

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    “There is undoubtedly substantive overlap, but they come from two different places.”

    Yes. And if you’ve spent much time inside a Mainline denomination like the PCUSA you frequently see the tension between white and African-American social gospelers.

  • CGC

    Great thoughts Scot . . . I remember my frustration and eye-opening experience when I listened to white and black Evangelicals talk about social justice. The issues were so divergent with a few overlap and for me as a white Evangelical, it was a learning experience to discover how structured social oppresssion was happening against black families which I was not even fully aware of! So yes, social location is everything.

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    I want to note that the believe that Obama is muslim still is mostly a believe among Christian evangelicals. My guess is that african americans do not believe this of Obama. But I have not noticed any breakdown by race.

    Just this morning I had a facebook conversation asking a friend (relatively prominent pastor in his circles) to stop saying Obama is a muslim. The response was all about how he could not be a christian based on what he has done, which means he has to be a muslim.

  • Phil Miller

    Before moving, my wife and I were members of a primarily African American congregation (we’re both white and in our 30s), and though I’m certain that most people in the congregation liked and voted for Obama, I don’t think his theology is representative of theirs. Liberation theology definitely played a role in the church, but this particular congregation saw liberation from a spiritual warfare paradigm than trying to influence broader social structures. Don’t get me wrong, there were definitely NAACP members in the church, and they did invest a lot of energy in fighting racism and working towards social change. But there are certain things about Obama’s politics that were quite different.

    Most in that congregation were very conservative when it came to social issues. They were pro-life, would never dream of supporting gay marriage, and I even know a few people who were pro death-penalty (which is still kind of shocking to me). Even when it came to issues like taxation and wealth, some were conservative. I guess my point is that much of politics comes down to identity politics. Sometimes when people identify with a politician, they really have very little in common with him. In Obama’s case, I do believe that race is a strong bond, and I think that despite philosophical differences with him, African Americans see him as a positive male role model.

  • Joe Canner

    I saw Blake’s article a few days ago and was thinking of referring to it with respect to several of your recent posts. The article does seem to capture some of the disconnect between Obama and Evangelicals, but I, too, had a vague sense that something wasn’t quite right with putting Obama in the Social Gospel category. Perhaps part of the problem is that the church he went to in Chicago was UCC. Even though that particular church was mostly African-American and reflected Jeremiah Wright’s take on liberation theology, the UCC is a liberal mainline denomination with roots in the Social Gospel.

  • Pat Pope

    Good word, Scot.

  • SteveSherwood

    I appreciate the thoughtfulness of this approach. I suspect, most of the “Obama is not a Christian” or “Obama is a Muslim” sentiment is not so nuanced. My guess is a fair bit of it, not perhaps in more theologically driven circles, but “on the street” and in too many pulpits is: He is a Democrat, he has an exotic, Muslim sounding name, he isn’t white = he’s Other. I recognize that’s pretty cynical, and I don’t think that’s everyone who takes issue with Obama’s theology, but I do think that’s a lot of folks.

  • http://www.herenowkingdom.com Andy Catsimanes

    Why the need for others than Obama to define his faith? He’s perfectly capable of doing so himself.

  • http://www.mindfuljustice.com Jim

    Thanks, Scot. Very well put and a certainly helped me see important distinctives.

  • http://priestfield.org.uk Jared H

    Great post Scot – a really important distinction. When at Princeton Brian Blount was my supervisor and a gracious, scholarly, powerful teacher and preacher he is (even if I don’t always agree). We were taken to an AME church in Newark and the sense of worship from a place of poverty and oppression was palpable. I can picture the President more in that context than in Nassau PC.
    BTW – I’m a WASP

  • David W. Gill

    This is spot on. Cultural myopia. How I wish this point could be heard widely.

  • Jeff Y

    Andy – I think part of the reason is that Obama has not done so himself (other than a bland, “I’m a Christian” – which might mean anything); or perhaps is not in fact capable of doing so from an historic Christian perspective (to place it historically & sociologically). Plenty of educated people have a faith but don’t really have the theological/sociological perspective to know where it goes.

    Personally, I understand why white evangelicals want to label Obama a muslim (though that is incorrect, of course). The reason is that they hear reports of administrative policies that tend toward sympathy toward islamic issues; and then also see juxtaposed, moves by his administration that tend to make things more difficult for evangelical beliefs.

    I do think that the liberation theology of J.Wright is the likely better location for placing Obama’s faith. What is more interesting to me, is whether Obama believes in a real resurrected Jesus or whether his liberation theology is purely of a social nature and somewhat agnostic to whether the Jesus of the four gospels was a real historical figure – and how he sees Jesus’ atonement. There are plenty of “Christian” liberation theologies that have little interest in the resurrected & reigning Messiah of the gospels.

  • Tim Atwater

    Good post and good comments.

    And the disease of the assumtion of white privilege — soft racism wherein white viewpoints are always deemed normative without questioning — runs deep.

    For example, virtually every Christianity Today article I’ve seen (i’ve subscribed for about a dozen years) has actually meant white evangelicals every time they say ‘evangelicals’. The Black evangelical church (which is probably most of the African American church, at least as defined by core scriptural and doctrinal beliefs) is just not counted as part of CT’s (and the wider ‘evangelical’-culture) considers as evangelical in outlook — even though the core beliefs are the same as to inspiration of scripture, divinity of Christ, real death, real resurrection, real judgment and etc — still the Black evangelical church (and I am almost as sure also the Hispanic and Asian evangelical church in America) are NOT counted as evangelical in normal white evangelical discourse.

    Because the Black and Hispanic evangelical church doesn’t usually fall in line, even when they hold very similar views to white evangelicals, in prioritizing abortion, gay marriage, and the republican party. The priorities are more usually economic and cultural flourishing in a strange often hostile land.

    Also, perhaps in more depth another day — the term social gospel in my view now means very little, and hasn’t for at least three or four decades. People within social justice Christian circles prefer other terms, most of which are in constant process of redefinition…
    I’ve worked and lived in social justice cultures most of my life and have very rarely met anyone very close to Rauschenburg (who was in fact still an evangelical in his day on matters of doctrine — and also, at least somewhere along the line, a bit of a racist…)

    Labels usually are used to diminish.
    Sometimes though we have to deconstruct terms and labels to be aware of the diminishment of other humans made in the image of God.

    Grace and peace,

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields
  • Kenneth Tanner

    Good point, Scot. The reporter also wasn’t terribly broad in his sources on the other side of the question. The report was absent any sane critic of the President’s “brand of Christianity.” Didn’t this also stand out to you?

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    Scot, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke/wrote often on structures of power and their systemic injustices — and was inspired by Howard Thurman and others. Obama sort of fits in there, but all the drone casting rubs against not only MLK, but liberation theology threads, and does place him more into your “white” social justice stream.

  • http://openoureyeslord.com Gary Shogren

    Hey, this is a nice brief article, thanks. I rub shoulders with Latin Americans, N. American black evangelicals, and also white evangelicals. I keep hearing Obama being tossed into the wrong category. He fits nicely into the movement of my African American evangelical friends – a strong affirmation of individual salvation through Christ, combined with deep commitment to structural and local change.

  • http://jelanigreenidge.com Jelani Greenidge (@jelanigreenidge)

    Tim Atwater (14) –

    re:
    “And the disease of the assumtion of white privilege — soft racism wherein white viewpoints are always deemed normative without questioning — runs deep.”

    …and all the following thoughts…

    YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    THANK YOU.

    That DRIVES. ME. CRAZY.

    This is precisely what irks me so much about Franklin Graham jumping on the Romney bandwagon. It’s not that I think Romney will be a terrible president, or that I think his theological position should preclude him from the presidency (it shouldn’t), but it’s the herd mentality that undercuts all of the evangelical rhetoric about the importance of belief and a commitment to Biblical theology.

    It appears as though White evangelical leaders want to believe that we’re all one in Christ and united in the fight for goodness, justice and righteousness… until their self-interest is threatened, they find all sorts of reasons why the “one in Christ” part can wait until after the election. For them, there may not be “Jew nor Greek” but there is CERTAINLY right and left, and they’ve held their nose and made their choice.

    And we WONDER why 11AM is still the most segregated hour in America???

  • Patrick

    Jelani,

    What if Graham did pr for Obama? How would you view that act as opposed to his pro Romney activism?

  • http://www.godpots.com Susan Phillips

    I’m looking at our names and wondering about the ethnic, class, denominational and other sociological breakdowns within this discussion. Are we a mostly white-privileged group? I am.

    Thanks, Naum, for the Howard Thurman context. He would probably fit better in the social gospel than any color evangelical category. Jelani, I appreciate you pointing out how the boundaries change to fit the political motives.

    Do y’all know that the National Council of Churches adopted a new Social Gospel for the 21st Century in 2007? The Presbyterian Church USA adopted in 2008, 100 years after the original social gospel movement. I think you might like some of it: http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/acswp/social-creed-21st-century/

    Re: Billy Graham. The deep sadness there would seem to be his son, Franklin, doing politically what Billy refused to do or regretting doing. It would seem the father is being used by the son for political gain.

  • http://www.morethanservingtea.wordpress.com Kathy Khang

    @Patrick, I think if Graham did pr for Obama, Graham would be answering questions about Obama’s Muslim ties & birth certificate as well as explaining how a Graham could venture so far off the Father’s path.

    But at the end of the day, he didn’t do pr of Obama. And there are many of us non-White evangelicals who are not surprised.

    @Tim & Jelani – Amen and Amen!

  • http://exiletheology.wordpress.com Danny Nowotarski

    If Obama’s faith is an African American liberation kind of social gospel, one could argue his faith has influenced his domestic policy. Yet, probably not his foreign policy.

  • http://jesusweblog.com Anthony Le Donne

    Thank you for this Scot. A much need critique of simplistic categories.

    -anthony

  • http://wwwi-wonder-as-i-wander.blogspot.com/ linda

    A theology done from the oppressed and for the oppressed is not the same as a theology done from the position of power and privilege.

    this is a great distinction. thanks for this post scot.

  • Brad

    Yes to Danny in 23. I see no evidence of any influence of liberation theology in Obama’s relatively hawkish foreign policy. The surge in Afghanistan and unprecedented numbers of drone strikes do not reflect a preferential option for the oppressed. Obama has said his favorite theologian is Reinhold Niebuhr. His policies (especially his foreign policies) seem to reflect a sort of so-called “Christian realism” more than anything else.

  • Kim Hampton

    Thank you thank you thank you.

    White evangelicals are scared of liberation theology because of its emphasis on systematic oppression. They benefit from this systematic oppression.

    Plus, liberation theology says that social salvation is as important as personal salvation. And white evangelicals are so focused on personal salvation (which is why they focus on things like abortion and gay rights) that social salvation isn’t even in their sights.

    The only reason most whites (of whatever religious stripe) know who Jeremiah Wright Jr. is is because of video of sermons taken out of context. So it’s no surprise to me that most white evangelicals have no idea who Brian Blount or James Cone or Victor Anderson or James Logan are. And they would have no idea that Delores Williams, Jacqueline Grant, Katie Geneva Cannon, Emilie Townes and Stacey Floyd-Thomas exists.

    The black church has existed under the radar of white Christianity for almost three centuries with only occasional appearances when necessary. But the reason that when Christianity is presented in the media it’s almost always white Christianity is because the people doing the looking are white and they tend to go with their own. This is why there needs to be more diversity in the media.

  • Pierre Keys

    Preach Kim!

    Why do White Evangelicals approach Social Gospel or Liberation Theology as if it’s an alternative to the Gospel? Care for the poor and advocating against injustice is woven thru the scriptures and is a fruit of the Spirit. There’s an important book entitled “Divided by Faith” that gives us an anthropologetical look into the reasons we are divided on Faith-at the root of it is privilege and racism.

  • Pierre Keys

    anthropological

  • Mike M

    Read “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire. While his approach is Roman Catholic from the start, the Vatican came to spite him later on. His approach is communalistic (as opposed to communistic) as was Jesus’ approach. How Freire’s approach translates into white evangelical reality is beyond me but I am certain very few evangelicals have read this. Next to Mao’s “Little Red Book,” this is one of the most popular books in the underground (oppressed) economy.