President Obama showed up at the National Prayer Breakfast. In fact, not only did the president show up, he got it right. Well, almost. In a week where the news cycle focused on economics, it is important not to miss Obama's seven wins and his one loss at the gathering of political leaders for a faith assembly.
Of course, the president included praise and endorsement for his poorly-conceived Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This government boondoggle was started by Bush and enlarged by Obama. Mingling government money and regulation with faith-based ministries only serves to rob faith-based organizations of control of their own destinies. Worse, it robs those groups of the very motive that started their mission effort to begin with. The government telling a church that it can serve soup but must do so without explaining WHY it is serving soup means the hands no longer express the heart. They merely serve soup. Faith-based without faith is de-based.
Nevertheless, President Obama struck seven powerful notes in his address at the National Prayer Breakfast.
First, he overcame his Islam fetish. In fact, he failed to mention Islam at all. That omission has to be a first for this president who always feels compelled to remind us that Islam is “one of the world's great religions” and that it has been “defiled by extremists.” Look at any address where he mentions religion, at his speech before the West Point cadets regarding Afghanistan policy, or at his faith-laden comments around Ramadan and Eid-al-Fitr, and you will hear his relentless political correctness regarding the wonders of Islam. Compare those regularly glowing remarks with his failure even to mention Jesus in his Christmas comments, and one has to wonder why he feels so embarrassed about Jesus and Christianity yet so enthusiastic about protecting the brand image of Islam. This is political correctness at its worst.
President Obama also got it right in his comments about the faith-based response to the disaster in Haiti. Obama rightly sounded the bell that it is faith-based teams who respond quickly and enthusiastically in the hour of the world's need. He praised Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Jews for their timely, compassionate and generous responses to the earthquake. He rightly omitted Islam since there appears to have been no Islamic mercy for the victims in Haiti. Good for him for not glossing over that absence.
Third, the president invoked faith as an instrument to grow America forward in righteousness, equality, justice, and hope. He did this particularly well as he recited the faith of Lincoln to love his enemies in the faces of Confederate soldiers, the faith of Dr. King to love those who fire-bombed his home, and the faith of Wilberforce in England to be so motivated by faith that he overcame great opposition and derision to bring about the end of slavery in Britain. In these comments, Obama's warmth shone through in a way we have not seen since his speech on race from nearly two years ago.
Most Christians differ vigorously with him on issues of the sanctity and dignity of human life. He has yet to make a case for why torture would be immoral while abortion is not. Nevertheless, in his remarks about Lincoln, King, and Wilberforce, Obama revealed glimpses of how much his faith has been shaped by his experience in the black Church in America where the heartbeat for civil rights and equality has resided. Our president best embraces faith when it focuses on the rights of those treated poorly by society. Occasionally, it is nice to hear that dimension of his own Christian faith, and it does serve as a reminder to many Christians in America that it was often the white Church who so virulently opposed the efforts to end slavery and provide equality for all citizens.
In doing so, Obama also revealed some of his own much-maligned personal faith life. He remarked on his reliance on prayer in a warm and personal way rather than the more clinical descriptions he has provided in the past. And he spoke to the role of faith in giving him strength and hope to endure what surely has been a difficult year, much of which from his own poor choices about leadership priorities. For those who have been curious as to his family's reluctance to attend church, these words bring some assurance that the man has not abandoned the faith life that has been a part of his family for the past twenty years.
Fifth, President Obama used faith as a helpful reminder to the attendees that all of us are created in the image of God. As such, civility in how we treat one another, even in vehement public policy disagreements, is a reflection of our morality and faith in the God who made us.
Surprisingly, President Obama also spoke with humor and grace. These qualities have been largely AWOL since his inauguration. He even injected levity into the gathering. “But surely you can question my policies without questioning my faith, or, for that matter, my citizenship.” That comment drew both laughter and applause, a welcome contrast from the usual finger-pointing and blame-placing that we have grown accustomed to in political gatherings where more than one opinion is represented.
Finally, he showed up. Maybe I should not be surprised, but I was. His presence surprised me, given his growing predilection for waxing cautious on all things faith-related, from the erection of a crèche in the White House at Christmas, to his failing even to mention the name of Jesus in His Christmas remarks (I think Jesus had something to do with Christmas, but I'll get back to you on that).
In matters of faith and morality, Obama usually seems tentative and careful, perhaps a reflection of his scars from the Jeremiah Wright ordeal. I think it is more likely, however, that Obama's own faith is still quite nascent, even, dare I say, embryonic.
However, his willingness to address the prayer breakfast at all suggests that he continues to try to move down a road that unnerves him a bit. For that willingness, I applaud him. May his emerging faith grow to full maturity.