‘Hail to the (New) Chief’: Barack Obama and the future of religion and politics

In one of America’s most historic votes, Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States. The first African-American to become the nation’s chief executive, the Democrat won the presidency by running on a platform of fundamental change. Yet there are also continuities, as President Obama — like his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush — is a professing Christian who says his faith will inform his decision-making. Many of Obama’s policy decisions, however, veer sharply from those of President Bush, who came from a much more conservative social and economic Christian tradition.

Background

Experts said that Obama’s faith-infused vision, along with the perceived successes of the so-called “religious left” in rallying liberal believers, signaled a new direction for religion and politics, not an end to that often controversial mix. How does Obama’s faith affect the direction of his administration — and the country? Will his goal of reconciliation lead to a truce in the “culture wars” — or a renewed struggle by both sides?

Why it matters

The president of the United States not only directs critical policy decisions, but he is also a global leader, and Obama took office at a time of international tensions that have a significant religious element. The financial crisis at home and abroad tested the incoming president, and showed how and whether his more liberal Christian vision affected his policies. Moreover, the presidency is a “bully pulpit,” as Theodore Roosevelt put it, from which the chief executive can set the tone for the role of faith in an American society that remains very religious.

The administration

The President

Barack Obama attended Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago for most of his adult life. In May 2008, he left that congregation after an uproar over comments and sermons by the church’s controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In the Aug. 7, 2008, edition of Time magazine, Obama wrote a brief essay, “Changing Hearts and Minds,” which sets out his personal faith story.

The Vice President

Joe Biden, Obama’s running mate and now vice president, was born and raised Catholic in Scranton, Pa. He is considered a moderate supporter of abortion rights, and his stance on Roe v. Wade has brought him into conflict with some church leaders. An Aug. 27, 2007, Christian Science Monitor profile of Biden, “A Frank and Abiding Faith,” is a good starting point for exploring his personal religious views.

The issues

The following is a guide to some of the principal issues of religion, morality and ethics that the incoming administration will face, along with links to ReligionLink resources.

Has the 'religious left' arrived?

Obama’s election victory was also interpreted as a victory for the so-called “religious left,” which for several election cycles has sought to gain traction as a counterweight to the vaunted “religious right.” How much pull did the Christian left have? What about the long-standing “God gap” between the Democratic and Republican parties? Will the religious left remain an organized force, part of the new structure of grass-roots politics? Or will Obama’s victory cause its adherents to leave the rest up to the government?

Where will the Obamas worship?

After the Wright controversy, when Obama and his family formally left Trinity United Church of Christ, he indicated he would find a new congregational home at some point in the future. Now that he will be living at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., will the Obamas find a Washington church? Foundry United Methodist Church near the White House has often been the default choice for presidents. But recently, presidents have also declined to attend a specific church, and have often organized small group worship and Bible studies at Camp David or the White House.

Whither the religious right?

After initially voicing grave reservations about John McCain, the Christian right — galvanized by the selection of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate — threw considerable resources and prestige into defeating Obama. The tenor of some of the rhetoric was more apocalyptic than ever, according to many experts. And yet McCain lost. Some cite factors like the economic crisis, the unpopularity of a sitting Republican president or a perceived bias by the media for the loss. But observers said the defeat was a gut-check for the religious right, as it is for the Republican Party. What went wrong? Is the religious right done, as many have long predicted? Was it overwhelmed by events beyond its control? Or is this part of a transformation as a new generation of leadership emerges? The traditional, GOP-leaning religious right lost some of its old guard leaders to death and scandal. Who will step up? And what of the role of the “new evangelicals,” who include issues such as the environment and poverty reduction among their electoral concerns?

Binding up the nation's wounds

The campaign of 2008 will likely be remembered as one of the most bitter and controversial, with race and gender used as wedge issues along with the usual hot-button topics, like abortion and gay marriage. Negative advertising and ugly outbursts at some campaign rallies made the rounds on the Internet, and live on in cyberspace even after the votes are counted. What of the future, however? Did Obama fulfill his vow to bring people together, even after such an angry campaign? What role did the nation’s religious communities play? Many leaders and believers threw themselves headlong into bitter disputes. How did they react? And what role did the Web play? The campaign cemented the central role of blogging in public discourse. But many believe bloggers also coarsened the public conversation, and religiously oriented bloggers bear some of the blame. What will those Internet voices do now?

Communion watch, Catholic conundrums

The 2008 campaign revealed deep divisions within the Catholic Church in the United States, still the largest denomination by far and the largest single bloc of voters, nearly one quarter of the electorate. Obama’s selection of Biden, a lifelong, practicing Catholic who supports Roe v. Wade, renewed the furious debates from the 2004 campaign as to whether John Kerry should receive communion, or whether Catholics could in good conscience vote for him and consider themselves in good standing with the church. Both liberal and conservative Catholics, laity and bishops alike, clashed sharply in public rebukes, blog postings and op-ed columns. Obama’s success in capturing the Catholic vote, however, partially left the U.S. hierarchy in a bind, as the views of the hierarchy seemed so divergent from those of the Catholic electorate. Also, many bishops fiercely opposed Obama because of his stands on abortion. Yet the bishops also want to have a role in influencing public policy on that and other issues.

Another potential fault line revealed by the 2008 campaign was within the church itself, as the fast-growing ranks of Hispanic Catholics were much more sympathetic to Obama than white Catholics. What does this split herald for the future of American Catholicism?

The Supreme Court

The high court is the battleground for many of the most contentious issues of religion and the public square, from abortion to land-use restraints on houses of worship, prayer in schools to school vouchers. Apart from specific cases brought to the court, nominations by Obama were a snapshot of how things are going in the culture wars.

Just as important, however, and often overlooked in the focus on Washington, are appointments to lower federal appeals courts. Because the Supreme Court agrees to take only a fraction of the cases submitted to it, these regional appellate courts often have the last word in legal disputes. Moreover, the president had many more opportunities to make lower court appointments, and they signaled his intentions and judicial philosophy.

Faith-based future

Like Bush and McCain, Obama supports government funding for faith-based programs. That seemed to ensure that the policy shift to funding such programs, undertaken by Bush, endured after he leaves office. But there are some important differences. The principal one was set out by Obama in a July 1, 2008, speech in Ohio in which he backed the expansion of faith-based programs but said organizations that accepted federal money could not discriminate in hiring based on religion.

God and the IRS

Death and taxes are the two sure things about life, but an Internal Revenue Service investigation of the tax-exempt status of houses of worship is coming in a close third, at least during an election year. Although 70 percent of registered voters said it was inappropriate for clergy to speak publicly on behalf of or against a specific candidate, politicians continued to court such support – and they often got it. Will there be investigations of houses of worship as a result of the campaign? Is the rate of complaints higher or lower than previous elections?

  • survey released in June 2008 by Calvin College shows that only 28 percent of Americans agreed that “clergy should be permitted to endorse political candidates during worship services.” Support for political activism by clergy was highest among Latino and black Protestants.
  • IRS investigations targeted liberal as well as conservative churches. In an article, “IRS: Bipartisan Tool,” in the spring 2008 edition of Religion in the News, Marc Stern, a church-state expert and general counsel of the American Jewish Congress, explains the issues at stake. See also a Sept. 2, 2008, New York Times story, “Pastors’ Web Electioneering Attracts U.S. Reviews of Tax Exemptions.”
  • Read a source guide on “Religious leaders’ political endorsements.”

Abortion

This election saw unprecedented efforts by Obama and the Democrats to scramble the usual pro-life/pro-choice categories by changing the party platform’s language on abortion and making an effort to focus on policies that would reduce abortions rather than arguing over Roe v. Wade. How much did abortion rights — a focus of so much coverage — really affect voters? What about going forward? Will abortion opponents redouble their efforts to overturn Roe? Or will there also be an effort to work together with the Democrats on abortion reduction programs? There were also ballot measures in California, Colorado and South Dakota to limit abortion, all of which were defeated or headed for defeat.

  • Also see an Oct. 25, 2008, New York Times story about the Democratic Party fielding candidates who oppose abortion.
  • ReligionLink has a number of resources addressing the various issues of abortion, birth control, public policy and the courts

Gay marriage

Gay rights and gay marriage in particular run a close second to abortion in terms of galvanizing and polarizing voters. Both (originally) Obama and McCain said they defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman, but Obama would support some form of civil unions.

War and peace

The war in Iraq and its attendant issues marked a bright dividing line between the two presidential candidates. Obama opposed the American-led invasion of 2003, and McCain supported it. Obama would like to withdraw U.S. troops quickly, while McCain said he would keep them in place as long as it takes to reach certain thresholds of success. The decrease in violence in Iraq after the troop surge and the prospect of a recession at home pushed the war down the list of voter priorities. Still, it remained a volatile topic, and one with no easy answers.

  • Read a source guide published about religion and peacemaking.

Women as leaders: A church-state divide?

Many women were deeply disappointed that Hillary Clinton did not win the Democratic nomination and was not chosen as Obama’s running mate. McCain’s choice of Palin was aimed at drawing some of those voters. As The New York Times reported Aug. 29, 2008, Palin said during her introduction at a rally in Ohio that “Hillary left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America, but it turns out the women of America aren’t finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.” The defeat of the GOP ticket put off that dream for at least four more years, but Palin’s candidacy did prompt an intense debate about the role of women in public life. Many asked how conservative Christians could support a Christian woman like Palin for one of the highest offices in the land while denying women leadership roles in church. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, explained the difference in a Sept 5, 2008, essay at the Newsweek/Washington Post site “On Faith.” But the debate sparked by the Palin candidacy did not seem to be the end of the arguments about women in faith and public life, even within the conservative Christian community.

Economics and poverty

The failing economy took center stage in the final weeks of the campaign and gave Obama a bigger boost than McCain. Both supported policies to reduce poverty and revive the economy, including various government interventions and the $700 billion Wall Street rescue package. But they differed sharply on tax policies, budget reductions, spending and programs, with McCain hitting Obama hard at the end of the campaign as a “redistributionist” who wants to penalize wealthier Americans with higher taxes. That in turn prompted a debate within various religious communities in terms of the faith perspective on taxation and justice. That debate seemed destined to sharpen as the Obama administration began to make tough decisions on aiding the economy.

Immigration

Immigration reform is a controversial topic and a top priority for religious communities. Yet it received scant attention during the campaign and figured to be a lightning-rod topic for the incoming administration. Uncertain, however, is what the economic downturn meant for immigration. There are signs that with less work available, fewer immigrants are coming to the United States. On the other hand, religious groups and charitable agencies worry about the immigrants already here, many of whom are on the lowest rung of the economic ladder and most vulnerable during a recession. The topic is of course critical to recent immigrants, most notably Latinos, who are changing the political and religious demographics of the United States.

African-American candidate, black preacher

The historic ascent of Obama as the first African-American president (his mother was white, his father black) put a spotlight on the faith of black Christians. Black churches have always been admired as pillars of the black community and often the only refuge for African-Americans in troubled big cities. Politically, they have been an important bloc of voters, in recent decades always in the Democratic camp. Obama’s candidacy and his election highlighted the difficult issues of race that Americans face both in society and in their houses of worship. Obama’s own faith and the controversy over his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, put distinctively black Christian concerns and theology front and center – uncomfortably for Obama, at times. (His speech on Wright and race in March 2008 in Philadelphia is considered a landmark in American discourse on the topic. A transcript is posted by The New York Times.) Yet part of Obama’s appeal – his ability to deliver an inspiring speech – is also directly traced to his experience with black preaching.

Youth are the future

The 2008 race, especially the Obama campaign, energized young voters in a way few other contests have, experts said. On both sides, young voters of faith were particularly involved and enthusiastic. Experts said these voters not only made a difference in the election’s outcome, but this experience could define how they view politics for the rest of their lives. Moreover, young voters seem to define their faith and values in significantly different ways than previous generations. How will this affect the future of religion and politics?

Environment

The debate over global warming, the energy crisis and the record of the Bush administration all put a particular focus on the environment in this campaign, and religious groups emerged as important players here. How will the new administration move ahead with new energy policies? And how will faith groups — whose views on the issue vary — react?

Jewish voters

Jews and blacks were once united in struggles for civil rights and other campaigns, and though they still both vote predominantly for Democrats, there are tensions between the two communities. Obama said he wanted to heal those divisions, and he stressed support for Israel as a centerpiece of his foreign policy. Despite unfounded rumors and claims and viral emails about his Muslim roots on his Kenyan father’s side (Obama himself is a Christian), Jewish voters overwhelmingly went for Obama. What will this mean for the future of the Republican Party’s efforts to attract the Jewish vote? The campaign also revealed fault lines in the problematic effort by the GOP to court the Jewish community through the conservative Christian movement, which is very pro-Israel. What of that relationship?

Muslim voters

Similarly, what about Muslim voters? Both campaigns said they did not want to dismiss any group, especially in a close election. But they also did not want to associate themselves too closely with the Muslim community because of widespread suspicions about Muslims that could attach to their candidate. Muslims were generally strongly supportive of Obama, but there are complex issues about negotiating the status of ethnicity and religion and politics for this largely immigrant community.

Atheists – left out?

Atheists in the United States have been on a roll, with books blasting religion populating the best-seller lists while the so-called religious right and its champion, George W. Bush, seemed to be on the mat. Yet in the presidential race, both candidates courted the religious vote.  So, what’s a faithful unbeliever to do? A strong majority of atheists, agnostics and secularists still supported Obama (along with most in the “unchurched” category). But will they find a political voice? If not, what is their role in a very religious American culture?

The experts

  • Robert M. Franklin

    Robert M. Franklin was tenth president of Morehouse College in Atlanta. He was ordained in the Church of God in Christ and worships in several different traditions. He has previously been president of the Interdenominational Theological Center, directed black church studies at Candler School of Theology and has been the Ford Foundation’s program officer, directing grants to African-American churches delivering secular social services. He is a frequent commentator and radio and TV guest. Among the books he has written are Crisis in the Village: Restoring Hope to African American Communities (Fortress, February 2007) and Another Day’s Journey: Black Churches Confronting the American Crisis (Fortress, 1997).

  • David P. Gushee

    David P. Gushee is a distinguished professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Atlanta. He is frequently quoted about evangelical perspectives on ethics and was the principal drafter of the Evangelical Declaration Against Torture. He describes himself as a “Christian centrist.” Gushee’s most recent book is Changing Our Mind: A Call From America’s Leading Evangelical Ethics Scholar for Full Acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church, in which he outlines his change of heart from opposing same-sex relationships.

  • James Guth

    James Guth is a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. He has written widely on the emergence of Christian conservatives in the political arena.

  • Frederick C. Harris

    Fredrick C. Harris is a political science professor at Columbia University in New York, where he directs the Institute for Research in African-American Studies and the Center on African-American Politics and Society. Among the books he has written are Something Within: Religion in African-American Political Activism and (with R. Drew Smith) Black Churches and Local Politics: Clergy Influence, Organizational Partnerships, and Civic Empowerment.

  • Paul Knitter

    Paul Knitter is the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He is an expert in religious pluralism and can talk about how the election can affect the nation’s religious dynamics.

  • Serene Jones

    Serene Jones is president of Union Theological Seminary in New York and Roosevelt Professor of Systematic Theology. She can discuss the ways in which Obama’s presidency could move the religious focus from hot-button issues of sexuality to social justice issues, such as poverty and homelessness.

  • D. Michael Lindsay

    D. Michael Lindsay is a sociologist and the president of Gordon College, a Christian school in Wenham, Mass. His focus is on issues surrounding leadership, organizations and culture. He is a former Gallup consultant with an expertise on research about evangelicals. Lindsay is author of the 2007 book Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite and the 2014 book View From the Top: An Inside Look at How People in Power See and Shape the World.

  • R. Albert Mohler Jr.

    R. Albert Mohler Jr. is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and hosts a weekday call-in radio program. In 2001, he chaired the executive committee of the Greater Louisville Billy Graham Crusade. Mohler’s blog often mentions Graham.

  • Richard J. Mouw

    Richard J. Mouw is a well-known writer and commentator on evangelical Christianity and the president of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., a leading evangelical institution. Contact Mouw through Fred Messick, Fuller’s associate vice president for public affairs.

  • Laura Olson

    Laura Olson is a professor of political science at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., and is also an expert on women and gender in religion. Her books include, as author, Filled With Spirit and Power: Protestant Clergy in Politics and, as co-author, Women With a Mission: Religion, Gender and the Politics of Women Clergy. She is also co-author of a paper on mainline Protestant congregations and homosexuality.

  • Anthony B. Pinn

    Anthony B. Pinn is a professor of humanities and religious studies at Rice University in Houston. He has been critical of the prosperity gospel preached in some black megachurches for its lack of emphasis on community service and charity. He is the author of Why, Lord?: Suffering and Evil in Black Theology and editor of Redemptive Suffering: a History of Theodicy in African-American Religious Thought. He also studies African-American religious humanism and is the author of African American Humanist Principles: Living and Thinking Like the Children of Nimrod and By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism.

  • Thomas Reese

    The Rev. Thomas J. Reese is a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for Religion News Service. He writes and comments widely on Catholic culture and politics. He is the author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church

  • Grant Wacker

    Grant Wacker is professor emeritus of Christian history at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, N.C. He specializes in the history of evangelicalism, Pentecostalism and world missions and is the author of Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture.

  • John K. White

    John K. White is a political science professor and fellow at the Life Cycle Institute at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

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