Saint Paul famously said he would be "all things to all men" (and women, when he was in equal rights mode) for the sake of his beliefs. That was no mean feat given that the missionary apostle was a strictly observant Jew who came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah and spent the rest of his days preaching to the pagans of the Roman Empire, which recognized him as a citizen. These days it seems that Barack Obama is channeling Paul.
In the past month, the president absorbed sharp blows from Catholicism's right wing and delivered a commencement counterpunch at Notre Dame that wowed theologians and pew-sitters alike. On Thursday in Cairo, Obama gave a highly anticipated speech to the Muslim world
that won over more than a few skeptics. A day after that speech, he became the first U.S. president to visit the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp in Germany.
In his speech at Cairo University, Obama's citations ranged from the Talmud to the Koran (he also delivered Islamic greetings in Arabic), while the Sermon on the Mount has become a touchstone of his policy addresses. Indeed, Obama consistently speaks with a religious breadth and a theological conviction and complexity that are rare in a president -- even one like George W. Bush, who wore his faith on his sleeve but couldn't cite a favorite philosopher other than Christ, "because he changed my heart." Obama speaks fluently about his own faith as well, but can easily cite a favorite theologian like Reinhold Niebuhr
, a mainline Protestant. Niebuhr's wide-ranging writings on Christian realism find a strong echo in Obama's view of humility as a religious vocation, and in Obama's recognition of original sin (at Notre Dame, specifically) as part of the human condition. Even ordained preachers don't touch that one any more.
Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court tapped a deep vein of social justice progressivism that runs through Latino Catholic culture, but his little-noticed nomination a few days later of Catholic (and Cuban-born) theologian Miguel Diaz to be his ambassador to the Vatican drew on that tradition more explicitly and broadly. Diaz is a father of four who describes himself as "pro-life," and yet his writings engage controversial beliefs associated with liberation theology. Obama has been channeling Catholic thought so consistently that the eminent Jesuit church historian John O'Malley last week saw in Obama, rather than any bishop, "the most effective spokesperson" for the reforming spirit of the Second Vatican Council.
So what's going on here? Secularists worry that Obama has imbibed Bush's faith-based Kool-Aid, conservatives rail that he's (again) exalting himself as a false messiah, while religionists wonder if Obama is trying to pull a fast one by pretending to beliefs that he really doesn't share.
A more tenable reading, however, is that Obama is trying to recover the lost gospel of America's civil religion -- the doctrines of tolerance and of personal responsibility for the common good, of shared truths and national ideals always imperfectly realized but always worth pursuing. This vision was outlined in the "social contract"
that Jean-Jacques Rousseau proposed in the 18th century and was broadened and re-defined for the American context four decades ago by Robert Bellah
Since then, however, culture warriors (and some secularists) have harnessed sectarian dogmas to civil religion and in the process demeaned both sacred and profane.
Obama, on the other hand, can "re-present" such a transcendent civil theology, in part, because he literally embodies it, with DNA from a white mainline mother and an African father raised as a Muslim (and a name reflective of all that), as well as a childhood spent partly in exotic (to us) lands, and a family life today grounded in the experience of black America. Moreover, the black church Obama joined as an adult preaches, as R. Stephen Warner
, the distinguished University of Chicago sociologist wrote, a congruence between private and public religion that is rarely found in other denominations. "Out of necessity, the black church rarely had the luxury of separating individual salvation from collective salvation," as Obama put it in "The Audacity of Hope." (One could argue that Latino spirituality shares a similar dynamic.) Obama also embraces doubt as a theological virtue with the kind of honesty that can disarm even the most ardent neo-atheists.
But more than just a providential mashup of genes and beliefs, Obama's gospel is also a coherent evocation of the ideas of another hero, Abraham Lincoln, who the Harvard theologian Ronald F. Thiemann
calls "our greatest public theologian." (See in particular the Second Inaugural Address
.) Like Lincoln, Obama can alternate between the rhetoric of an Old Testament prophet and the idealism of the New Testament evangelists to "establish the articles of a purely civil faith, not exactly as dogmas of religion but as sentiments of social commitment," as Rousseau put it. "Unlike many presidents who have used theological language for rhetorical flourish or to curry favor with religious supporters, Lincoln used theology to shape his political sentiments into powerful analytical and persuasive arguments," Thiemann writes.
And Obama aspires to a similar goal. "Public theology is a complicated vocation, especially as practiced by one who represents the entirety of an increasingly diverse nation," Thiemann continues. "But President Obama seems, in these first months, to be carrying on the task in critical continuity with a range of inherited traditions. These traditions are both noble and flawed, but the President seems aware of both dimensions. How and whether his theological reflections will assist him in grappling with issues of immigration, racial and economic inequality, and worldwide economic peril is uncertain, but more than any president in recent memory he seems to be engaged in a genuine and serious attempt to be a public theologian for the whole nation."
A central tenet of Obama's civil religion is the religion of civility, the fair-minded witness of competing claims, however strongly held. Daily discourse on the web and talk radio, as well as events around the world last week -- audiotaped threats from Osama bin Laden and the assassination, inside a Kansas church, of abortion doctor George Tiller by a right-wing zealot -- would seem to bode ill for Obama's gospel. But extremism is also symptomatic of the desperation of a losing cause (witness John Wilkes Booth), and perhaps a paradox of hope for the future.