Monday, April 30, 2012

You Say You Want A Christian in the White House

By Jeff Fulmer
Originally posted at Hometown Prophet

I should confess right off that I voted for George W. Bush in 2000 because, in part, he was a man of faith. He called himself a “compassionate conservative,” which was how I liked to think of myself. After a couple of years, I realized the man I had voted for wasn’t very compassionate or conservative, at least not fiscally. By the end of his second term, I was ready for someone totally different. Yet, even though my politics had shifted, I still wanted to vote for someone that shared my values. 

In 2007, I heard a rumor that Barrack Obama was going to visit the Bethel AME Church in my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. He was here to campaign with Harold Ford, who was running for the US Senate. While then-Senator Obama wasn’t yet running for President, he was obviously considering it. Like a lot of people, I’d heard Senator Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention and was intrigued enough that I drove across town to see him in person. 

When we got there on Sunday morning, we were surprised that the small church wasn’t even full. It didn’t seem like word had gotten out. I don’t remember any cameras or reporters. While we were about the only white people, we were warmly welcomed. The young minister admitted he was nervous and then went on to pray in a moving way. The singing rang to the rafters and there was a real feeling that the Holy Spirit was in the house. 

When it came time for Senator Obama to say a few words, I expected to hear a well rehearsed stump speech. Instead, he openly and enthusiastically talked about his background and his coming to faith. Apparently, he told us a lot more than he told Franklin Graham about how he came to accept Christ, at least more than Franklin chooses to remember. We all left moved by the entire service and I felt that I had not only witnessed a great speaker, but someone I could believe in again. 

As President Obama’s first term nears completion, I am still proud of my vote and the record he is running on for re-election. He has not worn his faith on his sleeve or taken up the social issues that divide us as a country. For me, that’s a huge step in the right direction. To my continual amazement, he has consistently risen above the rancor and the hostility that is regularly hurled at him. And, whether conscious of it or not, he is quietly following the principals I find in the Bible. 

For example, President Obama has provided access to medical care for people who least can afford it. He expanded the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to insure four million children and pregnant mothers. (President Bush vetoed two attempts to expand coverage to this same group). Prior to the Affordable Healthcare Act, anyone with a ‘pre-existing condition,’ could be denied coverage, charged two or three times what they were paying, or have their benefits slashed. 

Another tangible way of sticking up for the little guy is through the Credit Card Reform Act. This caps and cuts an assortment of fees, gives consumers more reasonable opportunities to pay off their debt, and restricts a credit card company’s ability to arbitrarily raise interest rates. President Obama boosted funding for the SEC to fight insider trading and started the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, once again standing up to challenges from the powerful banking lobby and Republicans. 

While domestic oil production has increased during President Obama’s first term, he has given the EPA more tools to enforce existing laws on the books. He’s also been investing in cleaner forms of energy, such as wind, solar, and bio-fuels. Perhaps over-reaching at times, he’s at least attempting to give alternatives a chance to compete with big oil, gas and coal. Taking a stand for the environment sometimes comes at political peril and there will be many who will ridicule anything that deviates from business as usual. 

President Obama is in the process of ending two foreign wars that have cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars. While no can accuse President Obama of being weak on defense, he has sought peaceful solutions first. His critics will point to the deficit, which is a valid concern. However, slashing the budget during a recession is a sure way to extend the economic downturn. It also seems to me that President Obama has been more than willing to negotiate in good faith on deficit reduction, putting cost-cutting measures on the table in exchange for very modest tax increases on the most wealthy. 

These are the types of the issues that affect people’s lives and where principles intersect with reality. Despite his critic’s inexplicable outrage, President Obama seems to be a pragmatic politician who is gently nudging the country toward being a fairer and more just place for all of its citizens. And many of the issues he’s promoted are the modern day equivalents of what Jesus cared about in his day. Whether it’s standing up to bullies (the Hate Crimes Bill), defending “the least of these,” protecting creation, or being a peacemaker, President Obama continues to represent my values as a Christian.

Jeff Fulmer is the author of the book "Hometown Prophet."


  1. It's a sad day when proper and accessible health care is seen as standout proof of Christian values in action.

    The previous US health care system was pretty draconian and absurdly unchristian in its commitment to inequality, so it's great that Obama reformed it. But by doing so Obama was hardly a champion of biblical values. Rather, he was merely playing catch-up to the rest of the developed world, correcting an abberation which had no right to exist in a wealthy 21st Century country - let alone one that claimed to be Christian. (Ditto for the Hate Crime bill). Most of us in the rest of the West have had accessible health-care all our lives, even though many of our leaders have not been overtly Christian.

    Bringing an indecent and uncaring healthcare system closer to the standards of the secular West is hardly 'shining the light of Christ', is it? It's more like simply opening one's eyes in a room that's already well-lit.

    I think a more genuine litmus test of a president's Christian values would involve an area that cuts closer to the core of Jesus' teaching, such as the Sermon on the Mount. It seems to me that Obama was given an excellent, albeit daunting, opportunity to do so a year ago when fate brought an enemy of the state into his hands - an enemy that Jesus explicitly commanded him to love.

    Instead, Obama went on national TV to proudly announce that he had ordered the murder of the man, and the nation celebrated. In a rare moment of bipartisan solidarity, Republicans and Democrats tipped their hats to Obama for this victory. United in their hatred of bin Laden, and in their unrepentant thirst for vengeance, Americans danced on the streets. A Christian nation with a Christian president? Yeah, right.

    I'm not discounting the fact that Christian politicians have extraordinarily difficult jobs. Reconciling economics, defense and public opinion with Jesus's radical and egalitarian teachings would be nigh impossible to do perfectly. Even Jesus couldn't pull it off without getting crucified and abandoned by his followers...and he didn't have the added difficulty of being an elected official - he was just a homeless peasant who could afford to live on the fringes of the system. So we shouldn't expect the president to do a great job of it either.

    I think what's most needed then is a bit more honesty: an honest appraisal of how badly current Christian politicians miss the mark of Christian ideals, but also a more relaxed acceptance of their failings, so they may at least try without being paralysed by fear of failure.

    At the moment though, it seems like too many Americans take a black-or-white stance - either a politician is being a wonderful Christian or he's not being a Christian at all. Almost as if in a theocracy, people seem to jump at the chance of equating their president with their religion. We see this in the zealous Fundamentalist support for people like Bush or Palin, and we see it in statements like the one in your final sentence (that Obama manages to represent your Christian values).

    In an atmosphere where politicians are regularly judged by whether or not they fit the label "Christian", it's only logical that maintaining a Christian image becomes a priority for any American President. And it's usually much easier to maintain an image by talking the talk than it is by walking the walk.

    Hence, we end up with the sad paradox of a country that is one of the most overtly Christian nations in the West yet finds it harder than most to relinquish the shackles of destructive (and clearly unchristian) patterns of behaviour, such as starting wars, developing weapons, perpetuating social inequality, encouraging consumerism, or ignoring the poor. A country whose leaders are too afraid to admit that, much of the time, they suck at being Christian, just like the rest of us.

  2. Thanks so much for the truly thoughtful response!