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Obama, Faith Talk, and Religious Rhetoric

Soon after the 2012 election a Perspectives editor asked me to write about the diminished role overt faith had in presidential campaign discourse. He thought I shared his disappointment in the Obama campaign’s reluctance to use Christian rhetoric and (his description) “almost total disregard for the Christian community.”

So writes Douglas Koopman of Calvin College, in his A Great President’s Second Inaugural Address, an “As We See It” in the current issue of Perspectives. And I am the aforementioned Perspectives editor.

It’s July, typically a slow season for politics. Wildfires, heat waves, and the All-Star game usually make up the headlines. The Supreme Court horned in last week. Nonetheless, with Koopman’s help, I want to talk about Obama, faith talk, and religious rhetoric. Koopman continues,

Turning down the request, I offered a contrary view that the diminished “God talk” of the Obama and Romney campaigns might be good. The limited religious rhetoric was consistent with the two major party candidates’ apparently sincere but private faiths. These private faiths seemed to have no independent influence on their policy positions, as all their views were comfortably in the mainstream of their respective parties. It seemed refreshing that neither Obama nor Romney used God talk as a strategy to “humanize” the candidate and appeal to swing voters—the usual ways it is deployed in campaigns.

I don’t know Koopman personally. He’s done some good work for Perspectives, a thoughtful Christian with a measured center-right political voice—an endangered species these days. My aim here is not to counter his piece, but rather to try to articulate what I meant by my “disappointment in the Obama campaign’s reluctance to use Christian rhetoric and almost total disregard for the Christian community.” For me, more than drones, more than collecting phone records, this is my biggest disappointment in Obama and his administration.

Koopman and I concur that Obama’s Christian faith is genuine. My next assumption is perhaps my weak link. I believe Obama’s faith informs and inspires his politics. This is where my disappointment comes in. The evidence seems to back Koopman’s claim of an “apparently sincere but private faith” with “no independent influence” on his policy positions. As a Reformed Christian, I find that hard to fathom, let alone celebrate.

I think it would be inspiring and wise and good if Obama would sometimes let the public see how his faith directs his decisions. I’m not looking for him to “talkshow” his faith, to use it as a cudgel to beat his opponents, to shrewdly “humanize” himself by making occasional references to Jesus. Friends and foe alike agree that Obama is an intelligent, eloquent person. That he couldn’t do this in a genuine, careful way that didn’t simplistically claim he alone had access to God’s ways, I find hard to believe.

What if during a discussion of immigration, the President would simply say, “My faith tells me always to be concerned about the foreigner in our midst. And I think other faith traditions say likewise.” During the healthcare debates, I wished that I had heard the President or one of his lieutenants say something like, “No doubt there are huge financial implications, and questions of efficiency, but we also can’t lose track of what happens to the ‘least of our brothers and sisters.’”

My political messaging expertise consists of watching The West Wing and running for Student Senate 35 years ago, but even I am aware that all presidential utterances are sliced and diced from every conceivable angle. There are no carefree, value-neutral statements. Wouldn’t words like these, every once-in-a-while, be like leaven that raises the whole loaf?

Why don’t we hear statements like this from Obama? I don’t know. Out here in the blogosphere, I’ve read various theories. Christians just aren’t worth it. We’re never satisfied. We always want more. We always insist on purity, absolutes, black and white. I find these plausible, but sad explanations. It has also been suggested that the political left, the Democratic Party, is so thoroughly secular that they are hostile, maybe embarrassed, by the sorts of statements I suggest above. Perhaps. But wouldn’t even the most Machiavellian perspective see this as shortsighted and ill-advised?

And why do I want Obama to be more public, more vocal about his faith? I do happen to believe it would help his cause and make for “good politics.” But I suppose I also simply long for him, in his own way, to let his light shine.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I sympathize with you, Steve. You are right, I think. But having just finished Jim Bratt's magnificent biography of Abraham Kuyper, I am impressed again at the huge risk a Christian politician runs in confessing such things, a risk mostly to the reputation of his or her Lord.

  • Jeff Munroe says:

    Good piece Steve, and thoughts worth reflecting on. I find myself running this through the filter of what we've heard Obama saying this week in Africa – that he is offering economic development instead of financial aid. I like that a lot. It is non-paternalistic and non-patronizing. But it is also very pragmatic and that's what I think lies at the heart of the issue. The man is a political pragmatist more than an ideologue, for better or for worse. Look at the politics of his pronouncements on gay marriage. He mirrored the changing view of the majority of America. I just don't think his faith compels him the way his political instincts do. Maybe he will lighten up after the 2014 mid-term election and speak openly of his faith. Maybe. I doubt it.

    I enjoyed the "Perspectives" article your feelings generated – anything that brings Lincoln's second inaugural address to people's attention is worth doing. It's like reading Hopkins' poetry – no one talks like that anymore and we are worse because of it.

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