Ever since the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, presidents have been judged on the successes they notch during their first 100 days. Now, as Barack Obama ends his historic turn on the political stage, Yahoo News is running The Last 100 Days, a look at what Obama achieved during his consequential presidency, how he navigates the struggles of his last months in office and what lies ahead for him after eight years filled with firsts.
In this 15th and final installment, we look at Obama’s religious rhetoric.
Over the course of his presidency, Barack Obama has spoken about his Christian faith arguably more often and in greater detail than any other modern U.S. president.
That claim will surprise many political liberals who still believe that George W. Bush spent his time in the White House trying to turn the United States in a theocracy run by evangelical Christians. It is also sure to outrage those conservative Christians who argue that Obama is hostile to their faith. And it must confound the 43 percent of Republicans who as recently as the fall of 2015 told pollsters they still thought Obama is Muslim.
But a look back through eight years of Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast speeches, his remarks at the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast that began as a new tradition during his first term, and the heartbreaking number of eulogies he has delivered following mass shootings reveals a president who has spoken about faith not only with great frequency but also with uncommon depth.
“This is a president who is very comfortable with deep reflection and discussion around the theological implications of faith,” says David Domke, communications professor at the University of Washington and co-author of “The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America.”
Previous presidents have certainly invoked religion and displayed a comfort with the language of faith. Dwight Eisenhower is still the only president to have written a prayer that he read at his first inauguration. He was baptized not long after. And he once said of himself, “I am the most intensely religious man I know.” Several decades later, Jimmy Carter taught Sunday school at a Baptist church not far from the White House during his presidency. George W. Bush cited Jesus as his favorite political philosopher in an Iowa debate before the 2000 GOP caucuses, and he enthusiastically made the support of faith-based organizations one of his first domestic policy priorities.
Bill Clinton may come the closest to Obama in being a president whose speeches occasionally veered into sermon territory. At one point during the 1992 campaign, Clinton traveled to Memphis to address the annual Church of God in Christ convention. Dissatisfied with remarks his staff had drafted, Clinton tossed them aside and delivered an extemporaneous sermon on the “new covenant” between government and citizens, drawing “amen”s from the crowd.
If Clinton sometimes aspired to be the preacher-in-chief, however, Obama has been a theologian-in-chief. Since entering the White House in 2009, he has steadily built on the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, the influential theologian he once told New York Times columnist David Brooks was “one of my favorite philosophers.” And as racial tensions at home and terror attacks abroad have spread anxiety, the president has spent the past few years developing a theology of faith in the face of fear.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Yes, Obama is a Christian. Raised in a mostly secular environment — his mother was “spiritual” but suspicious of organized religion, and his grandparents were nonpracticing Protestants — he began attending Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago after he moved to the city to become a community organizer.
He responded to an altar call in 1988 at age 26, knelt before the cross and became a Christian. As he told the National Prayer Breakfast in 2011, “It was through that experience, working with pastors and laypeople, trying to heal the hurting wounds of neighborhoods, that I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace him as my Lord and Savior.”
To little fanfare, in 2010 Obama and his close aide Joshua DuBois began a tradition of hosting Christian leaders at the White House for an Easter breakfast. At these gatherings, which continued through the last year of his presidency, Obama spoke in surprisingly intimate ways about the nature of his faith.
“We are awed by the grace he showed even to those who would have killed him,” he told the clergy at that first 2010 breakfast. “We are thankful for the sacrifice he gave for the sins of humanity. And we glory in the promise of redemption in the resurrection.”
At the 2015 breakfast, the president spoke about the daily challenges of faith. “Today we celebrate the magnificent glory of our risen Savior,” he said. “I pray that I will live up to his example. I fall short so often. Every day I try to do better.”
Just a few months later, after the killings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., Obama stunned mourners when he began singing the first verse from “Amazing Grace” while eulogizing victims of the massacre. It was a powerful moment. But while that may have been a first for a sitting president, others have spoken openly about their faith. Where Obama differs from his predecessors, according to Domke, is his willingness to go deeper in talking about theological ideas.
“In those moments of high-profile eulogies, he has been pretty comfortable with diving into some of the deeper areas of how faith can comfort and sustain people,” says Domke. “Obama didn’t just sing ‘Amazing Grace.’ He preached about the meaning of grace.”
Source: Yahoo News | Amy Sullivan