Back in January of last year, President Obama gave a passionate, vulnerable, teary eyed press conference to announce new guidelines for gun ownership. It provided some of the rawest, most authentic expressions of compassion and grief ever shared by a sitting American President.
It was also another example of a man’s religion speaking loudly without needing to be referenced at all.
You see, faith isn’t real faith until it’s walked out and most people know this. Without a life attached to it all theology is just theory, all religion only words. It’s so often (for both politicians and pew sitters alike) merely flowery language and religious window dressing designed for maximum curb appeal from a distance. But unless and until it shows up in the every day of a person—well it’s worth little more than zero.
Even before Barack Obama took office the attacks on his spiritual beliefs by his detractors were fierce and incessant, calling him a closeted Muslim whose religious convictions were more about the demise of America than a “personal relationship with Jesus” (something they often boldly brandish at every turn like a shiny, new Rolex whipped out at a cocktail party).
The narrative his adversaries have always tried to sell the American people, is that Obama’s is at best a fraudulent, irrelevant mockery of the faith; that they not he are the only believers truly worthy of guiding our “Christian nation”.
But a really funny thing has happened over the course of President Obama’s two-term tenure. This man quietly, consistently crafted a platform and a legacy that reflect Christ far more than those across the aisle like or will ever admit to—and in ways his successor will never dream of.
In many ways, he has in effect out-Jesused many of his Conservative Christian critics.
Rather than being the kind of showy, loud but largely loveless noise in the world that the Apostle Paul warns believers against becoming, the President’s time in the White House has yielded the kind of tangible fruit Jesus said would be the mark of the true person of God.
In other words, Barack Obama has let his life be his testimony:
He’s vigorously defended the civil rights of all human beings, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or faith tradition.
He’s engineered a national system of healthcare for all citizens.
He’s been an advocate of the working poor.
He has spoken out loudly against the death penalty.
He’s continually challenged us to be hospitable to refugees and immigrants.
He’s called out the corporate lobbyists and big business special interests that have crippled the middle class and widened the income gap between the richest and poorest of our people.
He’s been a champion for equality in the workplace for women and minorities and the gay community.
He’s worked to eliminate the bullying and marginalizing of the LGBTQ community.
He’s pushed back against the NRA and the gun lobby to reduce the violence in our streets.
While not at all perfect and certainly deserving of scrutiny and pushback, in so many ways President Obama’s tenure has championed justice, equality, and the inherent dignity of all people in a way that closely mirrors the stated mission of Christ; certainly as much as any politician on either side can claim. Many Evangelicals either don’t like to admit this or they simply no longer recognize the kind of life Jesus was actually calling his followers to live when they see it.
That’s because there’s a stylized, bastardized Christianity that many politicians and celebrity pastors have peddled for years; one that has slowly but surely become our American template. It’s a bloated, opulent, consumerist, aggressive, nationalistic, might is right amalgam that really doesn’t resemble Jesus much at all.
It’s the kind of religion that name drops God in stump speeches and invokes Scripture at every turn, but retains little of the deep humility, love for the poor, defense of the downtrodden, care for the hurting, call for community, and shunning of excess that we see characterizing the life and ministry of Christ. In fact, it’s President Obama’s failure to conform to this prevalent but counterfeit Americanized Christianity, that has revealed the real merit in his convictions.
Much of this Commander In Chief’s time in office may have flown in the face of that imitation Evangelicalism, but it’s in step with the early Church and I would argue, as recognizable as Christlike as any we’ve seen in the Oval Office. His faith is that of so many of us who remember what Jesus called the most critical of our callings in this world. We recognize in his life the religion we know to be worthwhile in our own and we respect.
That day last year (as extraordinary as it was) was really just another day out of many when this President with a continually questioned faith, reflected the compassion and teachings of Jesus far better than many of his loudest Christian critics.