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.
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.