What Barack Obama's Christianity can teach white evangelicals
The reputation of white evangelicals in America has suffered during the Trump era as a result of what politicians have asked of them, and the willingness of so many to fall in line. They are openly maligned as hypocrites in mainstream outlets, and many evangelicals themselves now contemplate whether their witness will be tarnished for a generation. Rod Dreher--echoing a call made by another politically-engaged Christian thought leader, David Kuo, a decade earlier—has suggested Christians need to make a strategic withdrawal from politics to protect their faith. Among white evangelicals, many have concluded, politics and political circumstances are soliciting unchristian behavior. Now, with the midterm elections ahead and the voting power of white evangelicals under the microscope, another test looms. Who could have guessed that a group that is referred to as 'Values Voters' would be driven by fear and a crisis of confidence to support politicians like Roy Moore and Donald Trump. Unexpectedly, perhaps, it was Barack Obama who saw this coming.
Obama's understanding of and appeals to evangelicals have largely been ignored by both Republican critics and Democratic loyalists, but it was a major aspect of his political success. He called out evangelicals' better angels when few other Democrats could even imagine they existed. At the 2004 Democratic Convention, his first time on the national stage, he spoke of an 'Awesome God,' and alluded to scripture multiple times. In 2006, a time when many fellow Democrats viewed George W. Bush's success with evangelicals as a reason to despise them, Obama called them into politics, affirming that they did not have to leave their faith at the door.
In his first presidential campaign, he opened up space for evangelicals to join him. He understood that many evangelicals were disappointed in the Bush presidency, and what a decades-long alliance with the Republican Party had done to their public reputation in influential quarters of American society. From his visits to evangelical forums like Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, and Sojourners' Call to Renewal conference, he knew that while most evangelicals had varying degrees of concern about abortion and same-sex marriage, they also cared about global and domestic poverty, immigration reform and health care. So while it was sparsely covered in mainstream press, Barack Obama and his campaign reached out to evangelicals offering something of a truce on social issues, and a welcoming partner on issues of common concern.
Obama was rewarded for these efforts, earning twenty-six percent of the white evangelical vote (not to mention high percentages of Catholics and Hispanic and black evangelicals). Millions of white evangelicals across the country supported Barack Obama.
President Obama came into Office with plans to deliver on the promise of his campaign outreach to people of faith, including evangelicals. He kept and expanded the White House faith-based initiative, creating an advisory council (which, unlike the current president's council, was official, established by executive order for the purpose of providing recommendations to the president and the federal government) that included robust evangelical participation. Four months into his Administration, he delivered a passionate case to heal national divides around abortion by seeking to 'reduce the number of women seeking abortions' while maintaining his commitment to Roe v. Wade. This speech was followed-up by years of staff work, overseen by the president, to pursue this common ground. Evangelicals were central to many of President Obama's signature achievements: the Affordable Care Act, New START, the Paris Agreement, the expansion of America's effort to combat human trafficking, and the rejection of deep social safety net cuts proposed by the Republican Congress.
In addition to discussing these partnerships, my recent book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America, also describes why the president's olive branch withered. On the right, political Religious Right groups made it their mission to sow distrust of and animosity toward the president. This went far beyond opposing specific policies or values of the Obama Administration. They did this through spreading half-truths, tolerating or promoting conspiracy theories, and insisting that Obama was an existential threat to their faith and the nation, among other things. There were notable exceptions to this fearmongering, but they were, sadly, in the minority and suffered under accusations of being closet liberals by their fellow evangelicals.
Of course, evangelicals' had long-held, substantive disagreements with the president's own positions on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and religious freedom that were real hurdles to political partnership. At times, the Obama White House unnecessarily exacerbated these tensions, too often choosing to stoke conflict around social issues rather than find common ground, particularly as the re-election campaign neared. Obama called evangelicals to a more constructive politics, but some of his decisions and the political strategy of his party also helped sow the seeds for their embrace of Trump. Nevertheless, though he faced accusations of waging a 'war on religion' and ran as the first nominee to support same-sex marriage, President Obama won significantly more support from white evangelicals in his re-election campaign than Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
However, in the president's second term, his posture toward evangelicals began to shift. While the fact that he no longer had to win election may have played a role in this change, I believe it had more to do with his weariness with the nature of evangelicals' engagement with his Administration, and in politics generally. The president began openly expressing his disappointment in evangelicals, with sometimes tone-deaf, but still incisive claims. At a poverty forum co-hosted by the National Association of Evangelicals, he expressed (unironically, despite the host and purpose of the gathering) his disappointment that evangelicals did not seem to put a stake in the ground on issues of poverty like they did on abortion and same-sex marriage. In a National Prayer Breakfast speech, at a time year when Christian persecution around the world was at an all-time high, he reminded attendees that Christians persecuted other religions during the Inquisition and Crusades. Evangelicals, he seemed to believe, had turned in on themselves, ignoring their history and their values out of a pursuit of tribal survival.
Most striking, however, was an interview he conducted of Marilynne Robinson. It was, of course, exceptional because it is rare that a president will interview someone else. But the content of this interview is even more extraordinary. The president opens the interview immediately soliciting Robinson's views on the state of Christianity in America. During an extended back-and-forth, Robinson raises her concerns about an 'in-group' mentality that was resurgent in American politics, and the corrosive idea of a 'sinister other.' The president jumps in, noting that Robinson had observed that reformed Christianity was once 'very much "the other"' in Europe. Soon after this, he poses a question that is imbued with all of his history as a Christian and with Christians in life and in politics:
'...you've struggled with the fact that here in the United States, sometimes Christian interpretation seems to posit an "us versus them," and those are sometimes the loudest voices. But sometimes I think you also get frustrated with kind of the wishy-washy, more liberal versions where anything goes. How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?'
In his question to Robinson, he makes the necessary and important step of making clear he does not expect evangelicals to blend in, forget about their moral commitments, and embrace relativism. That was never his litmus test for the public square and civic life. Beginning in Boston with his bold identification with evangelicals and the 'awesome God' they worshipped together, Barack Obama spent nearly a decade trying to appeal to evangelicals' better angels from the national political stage. Unlike many liberal critics, he at least knew those better angels existed. But by the end of his second term, he seemed convinced that darker impulses were winning. As I argue in my book, this development is certainly not unrelated to actions his Administration took in its second-term: namely, vetoing pro-life legislation and forcefully advocating for the national legalization of same-sex marriage. My point here is not that evangelicals should have forgotten these issues and embraced Obama because he appealed to them, but that their response to his presidency was characterized by the same kind of religious, cultural and political outlook that would ultimately lead them to support Trump. The problem I am highlighting here is not that the vast majority of white evangelicals opposed Obama, but that the political impulses that motivated their opposition to Obama are the same impulses that motivated their support for Trump.
During his final Easter Prayer Breakfast at The White House, an annual tradition he started in 2010, President Obama offered a meditation on 2 Timothy 1:7. 'For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.'
'For me,' the president said, 'and I know for so many of you, faith is the great cure for fear. Jesus is a good cure for fear.' This was his final effort as president to ask evangelicals to remember their better angels. If we do not, he warned, 'if we let it consume us, the consequences of that fear can be worse than any outward threat.' His admonition was prophetic.
Fear was the primary basis of Donald Trump's appeals to evangelicals. He did not pretend he was one of them. He told them they were alone, that Democrats were out to get them, that ISIS was 'drowning Christians in steel cages,' and only he could protect them. He offered himself as a bully. Yes, he had flaws. Yes, his pagan approach to sex, money and power was evident and unseemly, inconveniently brought to the surface repeatedly during his campaign. But he would be theirbully. If Hillary Clinton won, who would protect them?
The Clinton campaign inexplicably, and I believe fatally, affirmed Trump's message with their silence toward evangelicals. Her campaign neglected to even make a half-hearted appeal for their votes despite their personalized appeals to virtually every other constituency imaginable. In some conservative evangelicals' telling, this is because she knew evangelicals would never sink to her level. What they need to understand is that Clinton's campaign did not reach out to them, because they did not believe evangelicals were worth the effort.
A self-interested vote is the prerogative of every citizen. What makes the self-interested vote of many evangelicals so painful, so incriminating, is that the faith we claim contains within it every resource to resist self-centeredness.
Barack Obama's outreach to evangelicals, as imperfect and burdened as it was by his policy views on issues of importance to them, reflected his knowledge that evangelicals are central to the future of this nation. While for decades other liberals have rushed to declare them irrelevant, Barack Obama's repeated communications to them—his affirmations and his critiques—were all based on his audacious insistence that he had the right to speak to them. The right was his as a Christian, and as president of a nation where they represent more than a quarter of the electorate and are primary stakeholders in its future.
The inward turn of many white evangelicals was evident in how they received Barack Obama's outreach. Instead of fully weighing his words, they were prodded by talking heads and right-wing leaders to retreat into themselves. Who is this pro-choice, same-sex marriage affirming president to lecture us on the meaning of Christianity? What right did Barack Obama have to be disappointed in us? It was easy to dismiss Obama when, in their eyes, his Administration was abhorrently mistaken on key issues of human dignity and morality. When you feel like you're losing, critiques often sound like attacks.
Evangelicals may find such attention as they received from Barack Obama more hard to come by after the Trump era takes its full toll. In years to come, I believe evangelicals will view Barack Obama's disappointment toward them in a different light. They will see that it reflected much higher esteem than either Hillary Clinton's cold disregard or Donald Trump's toxic embrace. As they acclimate to the cultural changes that drove them to Trump, and understand just what their support of Trump cost them and our country, they will look back and see that Obama's disappointment was a compliment.
Michael Wear is the author of Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America which is now out in paperback with a new afterword by the author.