Michelle Obama has been appearing at churches, including evangelical churches, to speak on health, fitness and the dangers of obesity. I recently heard from a member of North Point Church, Andy Stanley’s church in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, that Michelle Obama appeared there last February. Meghan Clyne at the Weekly Standard wrote about it in April.
The outreach is directed through the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which has come under criticism for pressing a more partisan agenda than the office had previously. Where the Bush office largely sought to identify churches that were doing good work and resource them to accomplish shared objectives, placing religious and non-religious nonprofits on an equal footing in competing for federal dollars, the office under Obama has largely worked through its network of churches to rally grass-roots support for Obama administration initiatives, most notably the Obamacare reform. I listened in on the ‘conference call with the President’ in which Obama, the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and others like Jim Wallis expressed the support of “the faith community” for Obama’s health care reform efforts, and encouraged pastors and religious leaders to mobilize support for the Obamacare bill.
Clyne finds a similar worry in this case. While some portions of the “Let’s Move! Toolkit for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Organizations” are perfectly innocuous, like encouraging churches to host sports leagues for children, others are less so. Clyne calls them “efforts to have congregations place themselves in the service of government as recruiters for the welfare state.” The toolkit encourages congregations to help enroll individuals for food stamps, the “Summer Food Service Program,” breastfeeding and mother-support programs, and school meals. The problem, Clyne says, is this: ”rather than reducing the public’s dependence on government-run programs by empowering faith-based organizations, this White House seems to view churches, synagogues, and so on as tools to increase reliance on programs designed in Washington.” In other words, rather than using government to empower churches to serve the needy, the Obama administration approach uses churches to help government serve the needy. It encourages dependence on a far-off federal bureaucracy instead of on local organizations that are intimately involved in their communities.
Richard Land, one of the most prominent evangelical voices in the public policy sphere, has some choice words about the change in direction of the faith-based office. ”They’ve turned this on its head,” he says. Rather than having “people who live in a zip code making the decisions about what are the best ways to alleviate the problem in that zip code,” as the office had done under Bush, the office in its present incarnation “tells you what your priorities should be.” He also points to the double-standard in the media and liberal response: “If Bush had proposed what Obama has proposed, they would have been putting Prozac in the water at the ACLU.”
These are legitimate concerns, to which I would add a few more:
1. While Michelle herself may be entirely unmotivated by ulterior interests here, there’s little doubt (a) that the political strategists in the White House are mindful of how her holy road show serves the President’s electoral interests with a key demographic group whose support for the GOP is the biggest obstacle the Democrats face in 2012 and beyond, and (b) that these visits do actually serve the purpose of inclining evangelical voters, especially the women in these congregations, more favorably toward the Obamas.
Which raises the question: Is this a good thing for churches to do? Granted that children’s health is an important matter, is it a good idea for churches to provide platforms for politicians — or First Ladies, for that matter? To be clear: both sides do it, and it’s never sat well with me. George W. Bush spoke at churches on occasion, just as Barack Obama has. Then there are churches, such as my own Perimeter Church (also in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, not far from North Point), that will not be used as political platforms. Politicians are welcome to visit the church, but they are not welcome to come on stage and use the church for partisan interests. I’m not viewing this as a Constitutional problem, but as a spiritual and ecclesial one. By presenting politicians to their congregations, churches tacitly align themselves with the politicians’ interests, and becomes tools that serve the agendas of political parties.
Churches need to think about this theologically and with great care. While everyone can get behind healthy eating and exercise for children, the toolkit does not equip churches to do their own independent work but transforms the churches into cogs in the machinery of the federal government. Of course, increased dependence on government serves the interests of the party that represents big government (would you vote against the people you depend on to send you food stamps?), and expresses a particular political ideology. When churches earn favor with the state by performing the tasks the government prefers, their motives become mixed and their authority compromised. They also tend to lose their capacity to speak prophetically against the political party that controls the government with which they partner.
2. The other worry is that this encourages churches more and more to be community service centers rather than proclaimers of the gospel of Christ who live out that proclamation and Christ’s missional call in the ways in which the Spirit guides them. Clyne points to the churches’ work of “personal transformation,” and to the dramatic effects of the deterioration of family structures on health and chronic welfare dependency. Of course, this needn’t be an either/or. And it shouldn’t be. The church professes the gospel of Christ, the grace of God transforms individuals, and the redeemed are called to lives of service. The inward transformation can and should produce outward transformation. Churches that emphasize one at the expense of the other do their congregations a disservice.
Yet it’s a matter of priorities and right theology. Everyone agrees that a decent society ought to have a safety net; everyone agrees that churches should be involved redemptively in their communities. Yet something feels off when the federal government is encouraging churches to start community gardens and help local schools install salad bars. These are worthy things to do, and doing these things in love can reflect Christ. But hopefully churches will focus first on the proclamation of the gospel, on rightly teaching the Word of God, on worshiping in spirit and truth — and will let their witness to Christ and service to the least of these come from the overflow of God’s love and grace within them. Otherwise the churches might as well be secular service organizations.