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?

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