Defending President Obama’s Faith

Defending President Obama’s Faith

Belonging Before Believing

Critics are once again questioning President Obama’s faith.

Questioning the President’s Faith

Yesterday, in an interview that was supposed to be about testimony at congressional hearings on the Affordable Care Act contraception mandate, MSNBC host Martin Bashir grilled Dr. Craig Mitchell, an associate professor of ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, about a recent upsurge in attacks on President Obama’s Christian faith.

Bashir became incredulous when Mitchell said the president wasn’t the first to “have that charge leveled against him.”

“People do have their concerns and it’s not wrong for them to express those ideas,” said Mitchell. “What I know is that he says that he’s a Christian, so I have to take him at his word.”

“That kind of response is damning someone with faint praise,” Bashir replied as he pressed Mitchell again and again to affirm the president’s faith based on both his words and his deeds.

Speaking Up for the President

No one who knows the president would question his Christian faith, Florida mega-church pastor Joel Hunter said today on a press call that was designed to counter “escalating attacks on President Obama’s faith and engagement with the faith community.”

“I’m very saddened by that kind of evaluation because it’s obviously coming from a political stance rather than a personal stance,” Hunter said. He attributed recent comments by Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum and the Rev. Franklin Graham that cast doubt on President Obama’s faith to election year politics.

“When we get together, we don’t talk about policy or politics. We talk about his personal life, his family. We pray for the country,” Hunter said of his informal role as pastoral adviser to the president. “I often find myself thinking: I wish a good number of my congregation were as devoted to daily spiritual growth as this man is. So it really grieves me to hear people questioning his faith. I’m just sorry that it’s part of the political process.”

Actions Speak

Other religious and non-profit leaders on the call talked up the good works they’ve been engaged in with the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Thabiti Boone, for example, praised President Obama for the Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative he launched in 2010.

Boone is the international representative for Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative and said his organization has been “on the ground since day one” with the president, working to strengthen families. Seven hundred Omega Psi Phi chapters have committed themselves to improving the importance of fatherhood, Boone said. They’ve done so by partnering with local fatherhood programs in their communities, identifying mentorship opportunities, and advocating with elected officials.

Boone is also a fatherhood advisor to the Allan Houston Foundation and said the foundation is working with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office in New York City to support the president’s initiative. Given Bloomberg’s intransigence on the New York City Board of Education’s decision to prevent religious groups from renting public school space for worship, UrbanFaith asked Boone if the mayor works with faith-based groups on the initiative.

“Yes, he’s working to increase opportunities of how does he connect and tie in with the faith-based community in New York City?” said Boone.

Relationships Are Stronger Than Ever

“The state of the federal government’s relationships with faith-based groups is stronger than ever. Common ground is sought and it is found. Religious freedom is respected and partnerships are being developed in record numbers,” said the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, president emeritus of the National Council of Churches.

She also said she appreciated the fact that President Obama asked the White House Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Advisory Council, on which she served, to respect religious freedom. She quoted the president as saying, “If we lose religious freedom, we lose democracy.”

Hunter, who worked with the previous administration’s Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, said, for President Obama, the office is “an expression of who he is as a Christian.” Hunter recalled a pre-2008 conversation he had with the president, in which they both agreed that faith communities are underutilized in solving the nation’s problems.

“When I did get to hear his testimony for the first time—this was well before he was president—I was struck by how much it involved service to neighbors and how his call to Christ was about helping out the poor and the vulnerable. That was just part of his understanding of what his faith was. And so, all of this work that is being done is not simply good government. It is also a genuine part of how he understands his own responsibility and his own faith,” said Hunter.

Mistakes Were Made

UrbanFaith asked if any participants on the call would concede that the administration had stumbled recently in its communication with religious groups and citizens?

Boone said that as he has traveled the country, speaking to churches and other faith-based groups about fatherhood and mentoring, he’s found increased interest in and support for the president’s programs.

Hunter said that from a white evangelical perspective, “The first iteration of the announcement on the contraceptive ruling was a stumble.” However, he said he appreciates the fact that the administration acted to correct its “mistake.”

Melissa Rogers, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and former chair of the Faith-based and Neighborhood Advisory Council, agreed that the administration “did not strike the right balance with their January 20 announcement,” but affirmed the president’s decision to change course.

She said she disagrees with the administration on some church/state separation and religious freedom issues, but argued that it has “made important contributions to the furthering of religious freedom.” For example, Rogers said the Department of Justice has repeatedly “gone to bat” for houses of worship to prevent them from being zoned out of communities.

“That’s really spectacular work. It’s work of the first order in terms of promoting religious freedom. That work hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves,” said Rogers. “It would be a mistake to overlook very important achievements like the Department of Justice’s work to ensure that our religious institutions, that are so important to us, are able to locate across America in a way that does so much to further faith and to protect the religious freedom of the faith community.”

Time ran out before UrbanFaith could ask if, as critics charge, the administration is downgrading it’s support for religious freedom internationally.

What do you think?

Is the president’s faith fair game in an election year?

The Miseducation of Whitney Houston

The Miseducation of Whitney Houston

DANGEROUS LOVE: Whitney Houston in 1997 with then-husband Bobby Brown. (Photo: Kathy Hutchins/Newscom)

Over the past week, we have been riveted by the tragedy of Whitney Houston’s untimely death. Accounts of drug use and a fallen icon have flooded the media. Yet, little has been said about how her self-professed faith may have contributed to both her downfall and eventual escape from an unhealthy marriage relationship.

In her last major interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2009, Whitney states that she stayed in the marriage, endured abuse and humiliation, and engaged in self-destructive behaviors in her effort to be a “good” Christian wife. No matter what happened, she felt she had to remain because as she quotes, “What God has brought together, let no man put asunder.”

Yet, Whitney’s statements about letting, indeed inviting, her husband “to take control of her life,” and that a wife must do whatever her husband says is not a new concept. In fact, the concept of women being required, as a matter of faith and faithfulness, “to submit” to their husbands in all things is the pervasive normative gospel preached in churches across racial, denominational, and geographical lines. Ephesians 5:22-24, which outlines a wife’s duty to submit, is often taught without context or nuance.  Rarely is the verse above it, which says to “submit to one another,” discussed. Moreover, the last verses of the chapter, which make it clear that a man wouldn’t hate or hurt his own body, do not get much airplay in the church either.

This kind of uncritical, a-contextual acceptance of a half-developed theology leads many women to unconditional obedience to a man regardless of how he treats her, much like Whitney Houston. It rebuffs and chastises women who critically analyze its meaning much like slaves were chastised for questioning the ever popular scripture of slave masters, “slaves obey your masters,” (Col. 3:22). Both the Ephesians 5:22-24 and Colossians 3:22 texts are biblical since they do appear in the Bible. But both have the potential to be misused to oppress and disenfranchise whole groups of people. They’ve also been used to maintain the status quo of unjust power structures in society.

Moreover, in 2011, CBS News reported on a Glamour/Harris poll that found that “30 percent of women who have been in a relationship have been abused. Of that 30 percent, 62 percent were hit, 33 percent were choked or strangled, and 11 percent feared their partner would kill them. Even more shocking, another 30 percent of the women said they had experienced behaviors by their partners that can be categorized as abusive, whether they be emotional or physical.”

With this kind of data, it seems incomprehensible that the church would continue to simply preach the gospel of female submission without critical reflection and further context. It is also sad that we do not give equal attention to stressing that violence has no place in any dating or marital relationship. Finally, since 83 percent of Americans categorize themselves as Christians, according to ABCNEWS/Beliefnet, this is relevant to a huge portion of our population.

Yet, Whitney’s is not just a cautionary tale of how one’s theological premise can lead them to accept abuse, disrespect, humiliation, infidelity, and neglect. In the end, it was her faith that gave her the strength to finally realize that the God she believed in did not want her to continually make herself and her talent small, so that her husband could feel big.

AMAZING GRACE: Houston was baptized in the River Jordan near the Sea of Galilee during a Holy Land pilgrimage in May 2003. (Photo: Ygal Levi/Newscom)

Whitney recounts her mother’s prodding her, telling her that the life she was living with drugs, abuse, and chaos with then-husband Bobby Brown was not God’s best for her. According to Houston, her mother, a strong Christian, reminded her of God’s presence and power to bring her out. Whitney says in the 2009 interview, “I began to pray.  I said, ‘God, if you will give me one day of strength, I will leave [this house and marriage].” And one day, she did. Much like Tina Turner left her husband, Ike Turner, with only the clothes on her back, Whitney Houston left her home and husband with only a change of clothing.

The transformative power of her faith can be seen in her public discussions. When asked by Diane Sawyer in 2002 what she was addicted to, Whitney rattled off a number of drugs and added that she was “addicted to making love [to Bobby Brown].” But when Oprah asked Whitney in 2009 who she loved, the singer said, “I love the Lord!” And it was that part of her faith that had her on the way to a professional comeback and personal redemption.

In the end, Whitney Houston did not conquer every challenge that haunted her. And none of this excuses the decisions she ultimately made for her life. She owned that. But to understand her life, it is critical that we analyze the thinking and theology that animated her decision-making and helped lead her to such a tragic place.

In the Christian tradition, good theology illuminates, liberates, and pushes us to be our best selves. Bad theology takes bits and pieces of scripture out of context and threatens any who has the audacity to ask questions or to critically analyze the paradigm put forth by those in power.

Whitney’s story is the story of millions of women. It is a cautionary tale that reiterates the importance of thinking critically even about matters of faith. It also invites remembrance of the core tenant of the faith, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” (John 3:16). A God who does not want anyone to perish in the afterlife surely does not condone them perishing at the hands of another in this one.