Obama and the ‘social justice tradition’ of American Christianity

CNN’s Jeff Blake writes about Barack Obama’s faith, locating the president in the “social justice tradition” of American Christianity. “Yes,” Scot McKnight writes, “the president fits there.”

But McKnight also notes that Obama’s faith is shaped by the black church experience, and that is not quite the same thing as the white Social Gospel tradition of early 20th-century white liberal Protestants:

Image via The Niebuhr Society.

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.

I agree with McKnight, but I also think Obama seems to have read — and absorbed — a lot of Reinhold Niebuhr. His 2009 speech in Oslo seems like a good introduction to Moral Man and Immoral Society. And his 2006 speech at Call to Renewal seems like a good intro to The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness.

David Williams highlights C.S. Lewis doing his best impression of Reinhold Niebuhr: “Aristotle said that some people were fit only to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.”

* * * * * * * * *

Speaking of Lewis, here’s The Electoral Trilemma posed by the careers and campaigns of Ted Cruz, Mark Clayton, Michele Bachmann, Walter Jones, Steve King and Allen West:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about these candidates: “I’m ready to vote them into office, but I don’t accept their claims about Agenda 21 and the secret Judeo-Muslim-Gay conspiracy to control America.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who said the sort of things these candidates say should not be voted into office. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either these candidates are correct about global conspiracies or else they are madmen or something worse. You can shut them up for fools; you can mock them and vote against them as liars; or you can follow them through the looking glass and embrace all their conspiratorial lunacy. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about them being qualified for office despite these beliefs. They have not left that open to us.

* * * * * * * * *

CNN also too a look at the faith of Mitt Romney, in Jessica Ravitz’s article “The making of Mitt Romney: A look at his faith journey.”

Ravitz doesn’t mention how Romney’s faith shaped his cruel bullying at the elite Cranbrook School — or whether that faith compels him to repent or learn anything at all from that experience.

Romney shares the same religious tradition as that of his father, the late Michigan Gov. George Romney. That faith drove George Romney to support civil rights — years before his church repented of its own core doctrine prohibiting blacks from leadership positions. Mitt Romney shares the same religious devotion, yet it has led him in the opposite direction when it comes to his views on African Americans in particular and civil rights in general.

Ravitz doesn’t get into any of that, either, because the younger Romney’s pandering to racist voters with birther-jokes and ugly dog whistles won’t harm Romney’s standing with white evangelical Christians. But George Romney would be saddened to know his son has sought, and earned, the support of the kind of people who would proclaim “Vote for the Mormon, not the Muslim.” He would be disappointed as a Republican, as a Mormon, and as a father.


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  • Ethics Gradient

    If you haven’t seen it yet, Fred, I think this video was made especially for you:


  • *applause* I regret I have but one “Like” for this post.

  • Jurgan

    “The Electoral Trilemma”
    Can you explain that one?  I googled it, but I can’t figure out what you’re talking about.  What are the three choices?

  • EllieMurasaki

    It’s the same as the CS Lewis trilemma. Lying, crazy, or telling the truth, or (if discussing Jesus) liar, lunatic, or Lord. Which, one, he forgot ‘honestly mistaken’, and two, it never seems to have occurred to him that the same question could apply to Siddhartha Gautama.

  • D9000

    Not to mention Misquoted and Mythical. I never cared for his dismissal of ‘lunatic’, either, as if sanity and insanity were binary states and someone deemed ‘insane’ was insane in all they said and did, and nobody would ever follow anyone who was so obviously ‘insane’. He ought to have read up on the Taiping Rebellion (just for a start).

  • I’m pretty sure that a sleek politician as Obama doesn’t have a particularly deep faith or something. Yeah, he’s honey-tongued. So what?  

  • Carstonio

    “Aristotle said that some people were fit only to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.”

    Why not contradict the first point? It seems morally repulsive with or without slavery.

  • Carstonio

    With this election in particular, I saw the free market treated like a deity that rewards and punishes. Some of the arguments sound theodicean, as if things like unemployment assistance interfered with free will. Is this merely an outgrowth of the belief in a just world, or is there a theological basis for that type of market belief?