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Mayhill Fowler

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Obama, God And Governance

Posted: 07/ 8/08 09:03 AM ET

Barack Obama's Zanesville, Ohio, remarks on July 1st, in which he pledged a continuation, if reorganization, of the Bush Administration's Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, are part of a larger Obama religious outreach called the American Values Campaign, a "journey," in which the Obama camp is mulling the role of faith in the public square and reclaiming the "moral values" debate. The campaign's so-called American Values Supporters get a Daily Faith Briefing as well as the opportunity to blog a Values Question of the Week.

Likely this wing of the campaign is a surprise to some of the Senator's progressive supporters. Here is a candidate who has had to navigate stumbling blocks such as the Reverend Wright, Father Phleger and the Muslim urban myth, as well as the words out of his own mouth on working class Pennsylvanians clinging to religion, nevertheless consigning his summer outreach to Director of Religious Affairs Josh DuBois, a young Pentecostal minister who signs off as Joshua, and Alyssa Martin, a Religious Affairs Intern who signs off with Blessings. Is this good strategy?

The Senator's intention to give religious faith an important place in the public square, should he be elected president, is not a revelation. He has long argued for a connection between religion and politics. In his June 28, 2006, Keynote Address at the Call to Renewal's Building a Covenant for a New America conference, Obama talked about the need "to tackle head-on the mutual suspicion that sometimes exists between religious America and secular America." This need is "a prayer worth praying, and a conversation worth having in this country," Obama concluded. Certainly, much of the debate in the presidential primaries, both Democratic and Republican, continued this conversation. It's just that many in the press and many of Obama's liberal/progressive supporters chose to ignore the talk, likely on the assumption that Obama was just politicking. There was no need to take him at his word.

At the June 4, 2007, Sojourners Presidential Forum held on CNN with Anderson Cooper's "Situation Room," Obama assured moderator Soledad O'Brien, "I think we can get past the left and right divide" on the issue of faith. A few minutes earlier, Obama told his friend Jim Wallis, the left-leaning Evangelical founder of Sojourners, "So my starting point as president is to restore that sense that we are in this together. That's the starting point. And faith informs that. My moral commitments to that vision of what Dr. King called a 'beloved community' rose out of my faith." The significance of these remarks -- the sense that we are in this together, the vision of America as a beloved community, and the further significance of who is doing the beloving -- were obscured at the time by the forum's set-up, in which, one-at-a-time, the Democratic candidates answered superficial questions, and by the underlying dishonesty of allowing Jim Wallis, not known among the general public as Obama's friend, to feed Obama questions. Andrew Sullivan, excoriating "the faith-off" for its fatuousness and Bush-like religiosity, set the tone for skeptics.

Over the past twelve months, therefore, it has been easy to ignore the Obama faith forums in Iowa and New Hampshire and their dynamic of the "campaign altar call"; the Forty Days of Faith and Family leading up to the South Carolina primary; that part of Obama's "On My Faith and My Church" blog on The Huffington Post, published during the March 2008 segment of the Reverend Wright saga, in which he proclaims "the gospel of Jesus, a gospel on which I base my life"; the April 14, 2008, Compassion Forum at Messiah College (Obama tells Jon Meacham he has not "come to a firm resolution" on the subject of abortion); and Obama's June 10, 2008, meeting in Chicago with more than thirty religious leaders, including Franklin Graham. The latter was a meeting Obama did not have to convene; surely, he knew in advance that Graham would resist recognizing him as a fellow Christian. Nevertheless, the convocation was part of Obama's call of the faithful to the public square and an example, as if any more were needed, of his boldness and confidence.

The vision of the beloved community knit together by "the sense that we are in this together" has always been Obama's particular Christian epiphany and subsequently the compass that directed him through the wilderness of the long and bruising Democratic primary battle. The significance of his Zanesville remarks last week on federally funded faith-based initiatives is that it should now be clear that Obama means what he has always said. Furthermore, he has given us a glimpse from Zanesville how the presence of faith in the public square of an Obama Administration would work.

First of all, faith would play a major and not a minor role. Building on the Bush Administration's faith-based initiatives, Obama plans to establish a new and improved and more powerful Council that will be "a critical part" of his administration, either at cabinet-level or directly under his own supervision. Whether he grasps the thorny intricacies of marrying federal guidelines with church practices is unclear, but Obama had the confidence to tell Zanesville that his Council will "help set our national agenda." So any Obama faith-based programs will be empowered and seriously funded. They also will be -- and here's the catch for the money recipients -- engaged "to train the thousands of groups that don't" know how to get federal grants. Catholic Charities, therefore, will be required to help smaller groups -- a Pentecostal store-front church, say, or an immigrant Somali mosque -- to "build and run effective programs."

Everyone is called to the public square to help one another. "We need all hands on deck," Obama said in Zanesville. And who might be our Captain? The old familiarity of this maritime metaphor shouldn't obscure its significance -- one that Obama himself may not have realized is so revealing, for it shows that he is thinking in terms of absolute authority. Those churches that accept federal monies for social programs -- they will help other religious groups. Obama has not only the confidence that comes with the will to power but also the iron control of a commander.

The Zanesville speech on faith-based programs was part of the Obama Campaign's orchestration of the Fourth of July holiday week, through the patriotism speech in Independence, Missouri on June 30, the Zanesville speech on July 1, the "New Era of Service" speech in Colorado Springs on July 2, the "Remarks on Veterans" in Fargo, North Dakota, on July 3, and the Address on Faith to the African Methodist Episcopal Church convention in St. Louis on July 5. It is worth noting, first, that the McCain Campaign has yet to show any aptitude for this level of sweeping strategy. But more importantly, through his Christian faith and its emphasis on brothers' and sisters' keepers, Obama is redefining the American Dream. To the Veterans in North Dakota, he expounds "the idea that America could be governed not by men, but by laws; that we could be equal in the eyes of those laws; that we could be free to say what we want and write what we want and worship as we please; that we could have the right to pursue our individual dreams, but the obligation to help our fellow citizens pursue theirs [italics mine]." This obligation not only is new but also exists, if it does, in tension with individual freedom.

From "the commitments that bind us to our nation, and to each other" (Independence speech) to "all hands on deck" (Zanesville) to "we must also serve a common purpose" (Colorado Springs) to "the ideals that stir so many of us as Americans -- pride, duty, and sacrifice" (Fargo) to "carrying out His works" (St. Louis), Barack Obama is setting a pietistic tone for the presidency to which he aspires. Obama is calling all of us to a great commingling, where he as our Leader, gentle in tone but forceful in command, will require of us that we summon our common values and our faith, if we are religious, to work together toward an "American renewal." This is a vision beyond partisanship, beyond policy, beyond Democrat or Republican, Catholic or Protestant, Evangelical or Atheist, rich or poor, black or brown or white. This is what Obama has always meant when, from the beginning of his race for the presidency, he has talked about sacrifice. To put it flippantly, this is Obama's plan to put us on a diet, ration television, reduce our individual carbon footprint, and nudge us into national service. (In his Service speech, Obama called for "a new generation of Americans to join our military.")

Obama's remarks to Zanesville, which is part of Appalachian Ohio, show how he is dealing with and will continue to approach blue collar and rural voters. He is holding such voters to the same high standards as he does everyone else. "So I am asking you -- on this 4th of July -- to reject that divide [between the problems of private life and the public square], to step into the strong currents of history, and to shape your country's future," he tells Colorado Springs. This is a parallel with the call-out to Appalachian Ohio on the social gospel. The underlying supposition, which is a radical departure for recent Democratic presidential candidates, is a high regard for these particular folk. This is also a bold strategy, one whose underlying faith message fits uneasily with the anodyne and sometimes ridiculous faith outreach elsewhere in the many-tentacled Obama Campaign. Today, for example, the Obama Daily Faith Briefing begins with a paean to the recent decision to move Obama's August 28th acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention from the hall itself to an outdoors venue before a Rocky Mountain crowd of 75,000 (echoes of the Sermon on the Mount?) and ends with praise for Obama's support of merit pay for teachers. If the currents of our history teach us anything, it is that we Americans, despite our cyclical bursts of religious enthusiasm, in the end resist bringing too much under the rubric of faith.

This week: Following Up with Zanesville; Following McCain in Appalachian Ohio


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