With a new president, Donald Trump, entering the White House, there has rightfully been a lot of discussion about our outgoing president’s legacy—not least when it comes to matters of faith. To be sure, Barack Obama’s legacy in this area is both complex and important to understand for the future of our nation’s politics.
However, as a Christian, I believe we must not only think of how politicians interact with religious issues, but also how we ourselves interact with politicians and the work they do. What is the legacy of Christian witness in the Obama years, and what lessons can we learn to apply in the Trump era?
Here are three recommendations, based on my personal experience in the Obama White House.
When it comes to faith and policy, take politicians’ words seriously.
A certain kind of cynic tends to think that political wisdom consists of discrediting everything a politician says. On this way of thinking, realism demands that we understand that politicians have a motive for everything they suggest, and therefore nothing should be taken at face value. This approach was a major hindrance to the efforts of conservative Christians during the Obama years.
Partisanship played a major role in hardening this posture. A deep antagonism toward Democrats from Religious Right groups filtered down to the average Christian as a general distrust of Democrats, including Obama. When you consider the eagerness of some Christians to take even the slightest Trump utterance on judges or family values as a sacred promise, the partisan nature of (at least some) distrust toward Obama becomes clearer still.
A better approach would have been to take the President’s words seriously, to make clear that Christians believed what he said and would hold him accountable for his words. This is what other advocacy groups do. If the President goes to the Sierra Club and makes a commitment on land conservation, they put it up on their website and remind his staff over and over again about the commitment he made. Those advocating to close Guantanamo Bay did the same thing. In 2008, the President said in a speech that he did not support federal grants going to faith-based groups who considered faith when they hired employees. He later moderated that position, in large part because of his respect for the work faith-based organizations do and the effect such a policy would have on efforts to fight poverty. But the groups who wanted that policy to change sent letter after letter asking the President to follow through on his commitment.
Instead, when the President said he supported traditional marriage, many conservative Christians scoffed. When the President said he supported restrictions on abortion, instead of calling his bluff and asking his administration to draw up an abortion restriction along the lines of what he would find acceptable, pro-life groups worked to assure their members that no progress was possible. The President spoke to religious freedom in his re-election campaign in a video directed to people of faith that should have equipped religious freedom advocates for conflicts in his second term. Instead, the remarks went largely ignored as the “war on religion” charges made it difficult to acknowledge common ground.
Perhaps most profoundly, at a time when Christians are largely viewed as anti-science, anti-intellectual, and just generally uncool, a president who was widely hailed as brilliant, scientific, and very cool spoke from the East Room of The White House during Easter season every year about the saving grace of Jesus Christ and what he accomplished on the cross. Republican, evangelistic Christians (and I use “evangelistic” intentionally) ended up taking the same basic posture to these remarks as Bill Maher, who repeatedly questioned President Obama’s faith (though Maher did not face the same criticism as the evangelical skeptics). For Maher, Obama was just too open-minded, too pro-science, to believe in something like the Resurrection. The failure of evangelicals to view the faith professions of Obama as a moment for fresh conversations about our faith might be one of the greatest missed evangelistic opportunities in America during the last decade.