President Barack Obama’s remarkable eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, one of the nine victims of the recent tragic shooting there, has again called attention to the president’s often misunderstood faith. Obama’s singing of the venerated Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” and focus on the theme of grace has been widely discussed. Sadly, Obama has been called upon to play the role of our national pastor, our comforter-in-chief, numerous times in his six and half years in office—in the aftermath of shootings in Tucson, Aurora, Colorado, Newtown, Connecticut, Boston, the Washington Navy Yard, and Fort Hood, Texas; tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri and Moore, Oklahoma; and an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.
Despite his repeated testimony to his Christian faith (Obama has shared his personal faith journey more than any other president), many Americans either profess confusion about his religious convictions or consider them to be irrelevant. It is well known that numerous polls, especially during his first term, report that only half of Americans consider him to be a Christian. The other half either do not know what his faith was or think he is a Muslim. Undoubtedly speaking for many, James Fallow asserted recently in the Atlantic Monthly, “if asked to describe Obama,” he would probably use many other adjectives before he employed “‘religious’ or ‘Christian.’” The president is “much more likely to explain his views” by referring to history, literature, economics, or jurisprudence “than to the teachings of his faith.”
Obama has rarely used faith language or Biblical passages to support his signature health program. He has, however, frequently employed religious rhetoric and scriptural phrases (most notably “my brother’s keeper”) to promote many other policies, including ones pertaining to poverty, immigration, the environment, and gay marriage. Obama even named his 2014 program to create “more pathways to success” for Latino and African-American boys and young men “My Brother’s Keeper Initiative.” Obama has strengthened the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, frequently solicited the advice of religious leaders, called on religious groups to help solve the nation’s most urgent problems, and asserted that his faith “informs who I am—as a president, and as a person” and guides his actions.
Granted, Obama’s faith is complex. It has been shaped by various streams—the African-American church, the Social Gospel movement, mainline Protestantism (especially through his long involvement at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago), and evangelicalism. Moreover, he has rarely attended church while president. Because they disagree with his policies on abortion, gay marriage, poverty alleviation, and other issues, countless religious conservatives question whether Obama’s faith is genuine. These factors help explain why many Americans are perplexed about the nature of his faith, how much it means to him, and how much it influences his policies.
Given his background and repeated use of Christian language, Obama’s eloquent and moving focus on God’s grace at the funeral service at the College of Charleston is not surprising. The president used his eulogy to urge Americans “to put our faith in action” by working “to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless” through both doing charitable acts and creating a more just society. He hoped that this tragedy caused Americans to ask “how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty,” “attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career.”
Obama’s central theme, however, was grace. He lauded Pinckney for understanding “the power of God’s grace” and emphasized that Christianity taught that God’s “grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God.”
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