At the 2008 Democratic National Convention it was Joel Hunter. At the 2009 presidential inauguration it was Rick Warren. This year it was Louie Giglio. Evangelical pastors who drew criticism for their associations with Barack Obama. The rancor is bipartisan — stones are thrown from both the right and the left. And it’s not just pastors who are targeted: anyone remember the controversies involving magazine publisher Cameron Strang or gospel singer Donnie McClurkin? Regardless of your politics, if you’re a Christian leader who has ever taken your job seriously, becoming yoked with Barack Obama can be public-relations kryptonite.
Giglio, a popular Atlanta-based pastor, was set to offer the benediction at next week’s inauguration ceremony. But he withdrew after coming under fire from gay-rights activists for a 15-year-old sermon in which he was critical of the homosexual lifestyle. For many evangelical Christians, it was just further proof of the rampant political correctness that now pervades society, making it nearly impossible for people of faith to, you know, say and do the stuff that defines them as people of faith. For many gay-rights activists, it was viewed as another victory and a message to the nation that anything smacking of homophobic intolerance will not be tolerated.
This points to the first rule any pastor aspiring to rub shoulders with the president or others in high places should heed in this age of Google and YouTube: your sermons are not just for the ears of churchgoers anymore, and they may be held against you at some future date by those who have no interest in the contextual nuances of your biblical preaching.
But is that it, then? Is the culture war settled? Have all Christians with beliefs that conflict with the agendas of certain political-interest groups been served notice that they are now persona non grata at public ceremonies like the presidential inauguration because their values are considered hateful or out of step with mainstream ideas?
Or is it possible for both Christians and their cultural opponents to extend an olive branch, seek common ground, and in the words of the Lord via the prophet Isaiah, “come and reason together”?
Obama the Reconciler
What gets lost in these sad but predictable controversies is the fact that we have a president who perhaps more than any other modern occupant of the White House has befriended a wide range of evangelical leaders. Though evangelical voters generally do not support President Obama, this hasn’t stopped him from seeking commonality with them. The president selected Giglio in part because of the work he’s done to battle child slavery and sex trafficking. In fact, someday when the first real histories are written on such matters, it might be argued that Barack Obama was not just our nation’s “first gay president” but its most evangelical one as well.
The irony of this latest debacle is that it undermines Obama’s intentional efforts to be a president of inclusivity. When you’re the nation’s first African American president, the expectation (or, unfortunately for some, suspicion) is that you’re going to be a president who promotes diversity. For the same reason, President Obama has been obliged to demonstrate that he’s the president of conservative white people too, and not just people of color or those who agree with his policies.
That’s why the lineup for the inauguration was so inspired: it offered a little bit for everyone. President Obama’s civil rights side was represented in the choice of Medgar Evers’s widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, giving the opening prayer; his support of both Hispanics and the homosexual community was reflected in the choice of having gay Latino poet Richard Blanco recite a poem; and his identification and shared aims with evangelical Christians was reflected in the choice of Louie Giglio closing out the proceedings.
Some might say he’s a calculating politician playing identity politics, and they probably aren’t wrong. But it’s also important to recognize that Barack Obama’s background uniquely prepared him to be a president of many groups and constituencies.
One reason why many Christians have supported this president, even though they’ve disagreed with some of his policies, is because they sense that he gets it, that he’s willing to try to see the world from perspectives other than his own. He wants to understand the other point of view. Even though he might support an opposing position, he demonstrates empathy and a willingness to listen to others. This is an invaluable trait that we’ve rarely seen in other presidents. It seemed to emerge in Lincoln as both his presidency and the Civil War unfolded. FDR appeared able to step outside his privilege and display it. LBJ, for all his defects, had it enough to pass landmark civil rights statutes. Jimmy Carter has shown it more since leaving office. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush demonstrated flashes of it at various times, especially in the early parts of their presidencies. But Obama gets it honest because as a mixed-race kid who grew up in rural, urban, and international settings, he’s lived it. As biographer David Maraniss observed:
Obama … spent ten crucial years of his life, from the time he left Hawaii at age 17 to start college at Occidental in L.A. to the time at age 27 that he drove up to Cambridge to start at Harvard Law, trying to sort out the problems that life presented him, to work out his identity and resolve the contradictions of growing up … a mixed and cross-cultural kid. He worked his way through his problems so thoroughly and effectively that it helped him reach the White House, and once there this fact both helped and hurt him. In some sense, he thought that if he could resolve the contradictions of his own life, people and factions should be able to figure out how to resolve their differences just as he did.
There was no greater evidence of Barack Obama’s intrinsic empathy than his brilliant “race speech” in Philadelphia during the 2008 campaign. Though presented in part to do damage control after YouTube videos of his former pastor’s blistering critique of America surfaced, it became Obama’s signature statement on race relations and reconciliation in America — his most eloquent and comprehensive comment on the subject to date. “I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas,” he said. “I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression…. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners…. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”
In that speech, Obama revealed the depth of his understanding of race and class in America — his empathy for the “the doctor and the welfare mom … and the former gang-banger” who all occupy pews at black churches like Trinity Christian in Chicago, as well as for “working- and middle-class white Americans” who have “worked hard all their lives … only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor.” No other presidential candidate has spoken with more realness and credibility about the modern American condition because he was a product of it all.
Unfortunately, both that speech and President Obama’s gestures to show inclusivity at the inauguration were politicized by warring factions. The cynicism runs so deep that it has become impossible for our nation’s political parties to view their ideological rivals as anything but the enemy.
Lincoln, King, and Our House Divided
It was announced last week that for his swearing-in ceremony President Obama will use Bibles that belonged to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. — two leaders who thoroughly understood the importance of dialogue and conciliation with those from “the other side.” President Obama has been symbolically and directly tied to both of these leaders’ legacies from Day One for a variety of reasons. Like Lincoln, the tall and lanky law expert Obama earned his political wings in Illinois and went on to become an unlikely occupant of the White House, where he now presides over a divided nation. And journalists and scholars have written breathlessly about Obama as the human fulfillment of King’s “dream” of racial integration.
But the comparisons are not unwarranted. Lincoln presided over a nation that was ripped in half by a literal culture war whose manifold consequences continue to stymie and divide our nation today. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he presciently said as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, echoing the words of Jesus. He worked boldly, first to keep the Union together but later to eradicate the sin of slavery that enslaved it. Many have compared the state of contemporary American politics to that of a new civil war, with Obama charged with somehow bringing the Union back together.
And King, the southern Baptist preacher trained at northern theological schools, brought a social-gospel vision and evangelistic impulse to the challenge of leading African Americans and eventually the entire nation toward a new understanding of community and citizenship. On segregated battlegrounds such as Montgomery and Birmingham, King was able to work out the ideas of nonviolent resistance that he had studied and witnessed in the activism of Gandhi, the writings of Thoreau, and the New Testament teachings of Christ. Obama likewise has tried to work out his ideas about a multicultural citizenry in the Red State/Blue State context of our current segregated culture.
When President Obama decided upon the symbolism of using Bibles from these two great men, he surely was cognizant of their legacies, as well as the legacy he would like to leave.
Our Shrinking Humanity
The historic symbolism of the inauguration — and the tragedy of Louie Giglios’s withdrawal from it — is underscored even more by the fact that the public event falls on January 21, which this year marks the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. It has become popular to suppose which positions Dr. King would take on contemporary issues such as affirmative action, immigration, and same-sex marriage. The truth is, conjecture can be fun but no one knows for sure how King would have evolved on specific matters. I am willing, however, to go out on a limb and say King would be supportive of Barack Obama’s efforts to represent and reach out to America in all its complicated and contradictory diversity.
In Stride Toward Freedom, King said that one can only “close the gap in broken community” by meeting conflict with love. “[I]f I meet hate with hate,” he added, “I become depersonalized, because creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community.” For King, the systematic depersonalization of other human beings was at the root of our nation’s sins of racism and social inequality. It doesn’t take much effort to realize how we continue to depersonalize other human beings today through sexism and classicism, xenophobia and homophobia, and — yes — through political smear campaigns as were done on Shirley Sherrod and now Pastor Giglio.
Though his organizing committee may be backpedaling now, President Obama knew there would be stark differences in the worldviews of those he invited to participate in his inauguration. At some intrinsic level, I’m betting he saw value in putting those differing ideas on the same platform together. It’s a shame that our nation’s collective imagination and humanity are no longer big enough to tolerate an America where we can practice loving our neighbors, even as we disagree with their politics.