October 21, 2014

Obama’s Theology Problem

John Mark Reynolds observes in the Washington Post that President Obama’s liberal Christian theology “represents a last chance for a faith that has been in decline in the West since the 1950s.” Reynolds, an Orthodox Christian, blogs at The Scriptorium Daily along with other faculty from the Torrey Honors Institute, a great books program at Biola University for which he is founder and director.

Reynolds:

President Obama has a chance at greatness, but Tuesday demonstrated that his theology could undermine him. Bush is gone and Obama can no longer simply not be George W. Bush to succeed. He has taken the Oath of Office and now must govern.

Of course, Obama could not truly fail on Tuesday.

Seeing him take the Oath of Office, the mere image, was a great moment for the nation, but his speech failed to add anything to the greatness. President Obama made history by being elected, but great presidents govern. The picture of the swearing in will make every child’s American history book, but nothing he said will improve on the image.

Being a change from the past will not be enough in the years to come. Republics never stand still and our culture demands daily vision or the leader will perish. President Obama is not some medieval monarch who can cure evil with a touch. He will have to govern.

Tuesday’s speech strained for greatness and failed. One can imagine a group of men and women sitting down and saying, “What is a great Inaugural speech? Let’s define our terms, study past models, describe a great speech, and then write one.” Anyone who has, like I have, been a member of a liberal Christian church recognizes the process and heard the mediocre product in the text of the Obama oration.

Obama is a great speaker cursed with bad speeches that are the product of an inadequate view of God. Say what you will about the God of Sinai and Calvary, but He would never give His servants such speeches. The God of the Liberal Christian can produce a great episode of Barney, but the platitudes of the purple dinosaur are not enough to move nations to greatness.

After awhile they become cloying and ripe for parody.

The vague platitudes and multitude of small minded programs that sap the energy of the organization without doing much good are exactly what one should expect from a Christian of Obama’s sort. Just as the liberal Christianity he embraces only gets energized when opposing “fundamentalism,” so President Obama’s cause is too dependent on opposition to Republicans. Of course, Obama also had the power of his personal story, but Tuesday was nearly the last day when that will be enough.

The strength of liberal Christianity comes when orthodox Christians fail. They sound good, but don’t do much good. If you want someone to talk about compassion for the poor, you call a liberal Christian. If you want someone to feed the poor, you call the Salvation Army.

When liberal Christians win their fight, they are good at purging the fundamentalists, instituting scores of hopeful sounding programs, and then fading away. The old joke is that if you cross a Baptist and a liberal Episcopalian, you will get somebody who will knock on your door, be dressed well, and then have nothing to say.

The Obama administration risks being a cross of Reagan and Carter, somebody who can win an election and then doesn’t know what to do with it after an initial burst of reactionary moves against the Bush policies. Will he start “study groups” to decide what he should do next? This will leave him at the mercy of the corrupt Congressional Democrats who know what their big money donors demand.

This potential problem is a predictable product of the liberal Christianity Obama embraces. Of course, liberal Christianity has many advantages over secularism. It keeps Biblical language and some Christian ideals and these contain the possibility of good things. It retains from its Evangelical roots a desire to feed the poor and for social justice. Liberal Christianity has historic connections to the glorious Christian cultural heritage of music and art. If it is overly afraid of religious zeal and dogma, there is still value in the lesson.

At its best it is helpful, but it is not a prophetic faith. It has no vision and so it has slowly perished from most of the world. In that sense, President Obama represents a last chance for a faith that has been in decline in the West since the 1950’s.

Obama would be wise to look elsewhere for vision, because it is an essentially reactionary faith based on an early twentieth century fear that secularism would triumph, a worry that it might be better for mankind if it did, and a desire to save what they could of religion from fundamentalists. Great movements and religions are rarely motivated by fear, worry, and caution, and so liberal Christianity has always been weak.

The good news for Christianity in the twentieth century was that secularism failed. The bad news for liberal Christianity was that secularism failed. Liberal Christianity has faded away in most of the world, but has continued a parasitic existence with Christianity. When traditional Christians fail, liberal Christianity is energized and grows a bit. Mostly liberal Christianity is parochial and isolated. It is obsessed with taking away rights from the unborn and destroying traditional marriage. Globally its future does not look bright.

President Obama has a chance to broaden his vision by looking away from narrow Western liberalism to global Christianity. Fortunately, this global orthodox consensus is well represented in many American churches. Most African-American ministers have nothing in common theologically with Jeremiah Wright. Most African-American Christians are not part of the theological left. President Obama would be wise to attend and begin to draw from the unique combination of theological orthodoxy and progressive politics found in the Evangelical African-American community.

It is, however, hard for a man in his late forties to change. Here is hoping President Obama can do it. His presidency could be great, the media is trying to thrust greatness on it, but so far lacks a theology sufficient for the task.

Comments

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    Maria Weir says:

    What a disappointment that this blog assumes we all agree that President Obama is just another liberal Christian (distinguishable from another liberal politician) and makes little to no effort to support this supposition with evidence. It would help to better understand in what ways, other than speechifying, that this new President is already measured and found wanting.

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    Fr. Johannes Jacobse says:

    Maria, John Mark Reynold’s piece is an editorial, not a research paper, thus the broad themes and the lack of “evidence” you require. But these themes presume a basic familiarity with the ideas that inform them — as all editorials do.

    Your responsibility is to understand the ideas, and then offer a rebuttal to the piece based on those terms rather than dismissing it as “speechifying” (finger-wagging doesn’t get very far here.) You can start by reading John Mark Reynold’s blog.

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    Scott Pennington says:

    “It would help to better understand in what ways, other than speechifying, that this new President is already measured and found wanting.”

    Maria,

    Well, he’s already signed executive orders directing the federal government to fund abortions. Moreover, he supports the Freedom of Choice act wich would abolish many currently legal restrictions on abortion. It is unclear how many abortions per year were prevented by measures in place before Obama’s election but I have heard estimates of 30K -100K per year. Abortions which will now go forward. Sounds like a run of the (abortion) mill liberal “Christian” to me.

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    Michael Bauman says:

    I found Mr. Reynolds comments a really odd mixture of political commentary and social theology. I did not find it either particularly well written or persuasive in any particulars, especially his unjustifiable optimism.

    The oddest idea is that Obama could be a great President. How, when the earliest acts of his administration are focused on allowing and spreading the killing of the unborn?

    Such government sponsored killing violates every bit of the Constiution Obama swore to uphold and defend as well traditional Christian teaching on the nature of human beings and our responsibility to one another. Great Presidents are not those that allow and encourage the killing of the weakest citizens of the this nation.

    We haven’t even gotten to FOCA yet (the so-called Freedom of Choice Act). If FOCA goes through without a freedom of conscience clause (a clear violation of the 1st amendment), forcing religious hospitials and providers to do abortions, the Catholic Bishops will close down all Catholic hospitals rather than comply.

    Obama might likely use such an action as an excuse to nationalize the previously Catholic hospitals thus gaining defacto control over the health-care industry in the US. The economic and social disruption of such an act is quite far-reaching.

    Obama is a corrupt Chicago politician (I know that’s a redunancy) with a theology that is far worse than Liberal Christianity. (Sin to Obama is anything that violates his own values). It is not really a theology at all because it denies the dignity of human beings as unique persons in the image and likeness of God (otherwise one cannot promote abortion). It is a construct that sees nothing higher than man’s own will(the essence of nihlism). Such a philosphical orientation cannot result in either justice or genuine compassion. Any real possibility of maintaining the ‘more perfect union’ the Constitution was established to create, encourage and allow is destroyed.

    The assumption that Maria says is made here regarding Obama should be the normative assumption for any Orthodox Christian. Unfortunately, Obama’s orientation is the creature of the depraved darkness that dominates the American soul. That is why we elected him.

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    Fr. Andrew says:

    FWIW, there’s that 2004 interview Obama did on his faith. He doesn’t openly come out and say that Jesus isn’t God, but his response to “Who’s Jesus to you?” sounds pretty heterodox, almost sort of a “Mere Arianism.”

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    George Michalopulos says:

    I believe it is incombent upon all Christians to pray for the new president, especially that his heart will be softened towards the unborn. We cannot despair. This being said, it is given to us to be “wise as serpents” and not operate under any delusions that Obama is anything more than heterodox (at best). I like Fr Andrew’s remark: “mere Arian,” I think that sums up best Obama’s theologically muddled upbringing (atheist father, hippie-agnostic mother, both lapsed).

    This is one of the reasons I was so upseet with Bishop Savvas’ enconium to the new president after the election, besides the abrogation of the Christian witness and responsibilities, which have been taken over by the state with the willing acquiescence of the Church.

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    Darell Moseley says:

    Hello, I have read the comments, and what I fail to see is true backbone from anyone to call this theology what it truly is! Obama clearly states “we are a nation of Christians, Muslims,Jews, Hindus, and unbelievers” This states that he is a Deist, a Deist believes that as long as you believe in some higher power, or some god, you are a believer. This is an antichrist theology, which seeks to bring the world into a one world religion, (Rev 17:13) as in the tower of babel: He is deceiving the Christians that will be deceived, the Muslims, that believe he is one of them, and all the rest with his seduction, that we can come together on a “One World peace accord, and pray to the God of our own understandings ” This guy is dangerous, and is not a saved individual! Any true Christian knows there is only One True God, (John 14:6) “Jesus says: “I am the way, the Truth, and the Life, no man comes to the Father but by Me”
    That is what a real Christian stands on! And by the way, Obama’s father was a radical Muslim,not an atheist:as was his step dad, read his book, “Dreams of my Fathers”…………
    Also for those of you who pray, please be led by the Holy Spirit to pray for Obama, not compelled by man using scripture, because there is a sin we are not to pray for: (John 5:16)………..D-Ray

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    George Michalopulos says:

    Darell,

    I don’t disagree w/ you. Unfortunately what passes for Christianity in America today is deist. (Think of all the mainstream denominations.) What is more hurtful is the enthusiasm w/ which many Orthodox bishops have shown when it comes to being one w/ the NCC/WCC axis.

    I fervently believe that there will come a time in which it will be impossible to belong to some Orthodox jurisdictions and be a faithful Christian if things keep going this way. As to which jurisdictions, I wouldn’t venture a guess as irresolute ones may find a backbone whereas some of the more pietistic ones may lose theirs’. That’s why we pray for a “Christian ending to our life.”

Care to comment?

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