Obama’s Announcement and What It Means for “Liberal” Christians


This is something that, you know, we’ve talked about over the years and she, you know, she feels the same way, she feels the same way that I do. And that is that, in the end the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others.

.

But, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.

~Pres. Barack Obama

That President Obama’s announcement of his support of marriage equality for LGBTQI people was met with consternation by many in popular Christianity shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. That his “brand” of Christianity fails to be persuasive to a portion of the Christian world should surprise no one either. It is common to dismiss anyone who supports hospitality to those created LGBTQI by God as deluded (at best) and evil (at worst).

What I continue to find troubling, though, is the extent to which people who oppose marriage equality maintain that any support of it by those who call themselves Christian is some kind of hermeneutical dodge. The working assumption seems to be that if you fail to employ some form of traditionally conservative interpretive schema, you can’t reasonably expect to call yourself Christian. Because everybody knows that “liberals” don’t actually believe anything important about God or the Bible or following Jesus; they’re just trying to baptize their godless agenda and impose it upon the unsuspecting majority of real Christians.1 What many people apparently find too difficult to fathom, however, is that some people—among whom I take President Obama to be one—hold these “liberal” positions not in spite of but because of their commitment to following Jesus.

On a “liberal” reading of scripture, “loving one’s neighbor” isn’t a frothy placeholder for moral action nobody cares much more about than to feel it deeply in the heart; it is the very thing of which moral action is an embodiment. Put more simply, to progressive Christians “love” isn’t so much something you “feel” about God or another person, but a way of life that seeks to demonstrate its own authenticity by seeking justice and peace for those kicked to the margins by the powerful—which is to say, by seeking to love those whom God loves, but for whom love in this world is often illusory.

The greater (and more damning) criticism of “liberal” Christians is not that they don’t believe the Bible, but that they don’t live up to their claims about “justice” and “peace.” This is a real danger in progressive Christianity. Talking about justice and peace, without actually going to the trouble to see it realized rightfully leads to charges of hypocrisy—that is, failing to walk the walk.

In President Obama’s case, however, the criticism has for some time been reversed: His words about justice and peace for LGBTQI people weren’t matched by his deeds (e.g., refusing to uphold DOMA, doing away with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, etc.). His failure, according to his critics, was in not being willing to “talk the talk.” In other words, people from both ends of the spectrum were inveighing against him for failing to say in words what he was already doing in practice—a perhaps rarer, but no less damning criticism.

Since I don’t hear the you’ve-also-got-to-talk-the-talk line of argument very often, it got me to thinking about denominational officials, who privately will offer reassurances that they are in support of affirming the full inclusion of LGBTQI folk in the life of the church, but who publicly find it difficult to articulate that support. I understand why taking a stand publicly in support of a controversial issue presents all manner of political land mines, and it makes a certain amount of sense when politicians hesitate to do it. Even religious officials must weigh the political costs of taking, what we religious types call, a “prophetic stance.” But whereas in the case of our political leaders (to our shame, I would argue) we tend to expect political calculations to trump the integrity of personal convictions, one would hope that we haven’t yet reached that level of cynicism about our religious leaders.

Is it to be the case once again that the church can’t quite get its theology straight until the culture shows it the way? Because, let’s not fool ourselves, inclusion is the way things are inexorably headed.

The upshot of it all? If David Kinnaman is right, as Rachel Held Evans deftly points out, what our continued silence risks is the better part of a whole generation coming to the conclusion that they can find better ways to spend their time because they believe the church and its leadership to be “anti-homosexual”. And while I realize that speaking openly about support for our LGBTQI brothers and sisters carries its own risks, I think—like President Obama, it would appear—that silence is a risk no longer worth taking the.


  1. I know that description may sound like an exaggeration of a seriously held position, dear reader, but in my own defense, you haven’t read the kind of correspondence I receive. I do know that there are serious people who disagree with me about the issue of biblical interpretation, but they don’t seem to have maintained good relations with the gatekeepers of the interwebz—since their voices are routinely drowned out by that seemingly professional class of the perpetually aggrieved. ↩
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11 thoughts on “Obama’s Announcement and What It Means for “Liberal” Christians

  1. Pingback: Obama’s Announcement and What It Means for “Liberal” Christians | [D]mergent « The Company of the Eudaimon

  2. It means:

    * we speak out – reasonably and fearlessly.
    (it does mean we only “see” or “feel” the need to speak – it means we speak out in very open and public and identifiable ways.)

    * we register to vote and encourage and facilitate others registering to vote – especially those under the age of 30.

    * we discuss the issues and the differing positions of the candidates.

    * we vote and encourage and facilitate others to vote.
    (It is important to note that neither a majority of North Carolina citizens nor a majority of eligible North Carolina voters voted for Amendment One. The passage of Amendment One is an indictment of the ineffective measures used by the opponents of Amendment One to get out the vote. The same task will face us in Indiana this fall for state office elections and again in 2014 when the Indiana Marriage Amendment faces a public referendum.)

  3. Hi Derek, Thank you for this thoughtful article. I find myself guilty of the same lack of “talking the talk” in my local congregation that you identify in denominational officials. To be fair to them, local congregations and their pastors fail to have the dialogue that might make it possible for them to ‘weigh in’ with their personal beliefs when speaking for “the church”. In Disciples’ polity, things like this aren’t going to come from the top down, but will only come when congregations and local pastors (again, guilty!) are willing to have the conversations and ‘talk the talk’.

  4. Thanks, Derek.

    Personally, it is so hard to congratulate someone for finally recognizing that folks who have been systematically stigmatized, abused and denied a voice in our society deserve the same rights as those within the dominant culture. And it is especially hard when we are not talking about the commitment to ensure these rights today, but rather some
    recognition “in theory.”

    I know someone will accuse me of throwing a wet blanket on the praise of long-awaited progress (“we have to start somewhere, right?”), but I am compelled by the justice-imperative of God and the unashamed, inclusive love of Christ. Admitting that oppression via the legal denial of rights is perhaps unjustified is not tantamount to justice. The president saying that he no longer condones discrimination is not the same thing as demanding an end to it, along with positive action to correct an unbalanced system that allows for the denial of dignity.

    I am certainly more satisfied that my president leans to this side of the fence than the other, but I will save my celebration for when he comes down off the fence entirely and joins the voices of those who demand an end to inequality. It is my enduring hope that those of us in the church will amplify the voice of Christ, who cries out on behalf of those who have been shut out for far too long.

  5. You paint an awfully narrow and stereotyped view of those who disagree with you, my friend. That’s OK, I still love ya. As for President Obama’s announcement, I guess I didn’t give it a lot of attention only because it comes across to me like a political calculation rather than a core conviction. He has held many positions on the issue over time (he was for gay marriage already in 1996 before ‘evolving’ the other way and now back again). To me, he isn’t articulating his “liberal” view of Christianity. He is merely behaving like a politician.

    • Jim,

      It seems that political calculation and core conviction in public office are one in the same thing. The two seem so intertwined, I would not know where to cut the one without fear of cutting the other. Thoughts on how you would differentiate between the two?

      John

    • Jim: Thanks for commenting. Obviously, I painted with an over broad brush. I appreciate being called on it. That’s an important part of the conversation. (Hope you’re well.)

  6. Core convictions must be shaped and anchored by the timeless truths of God’s Word and lived out in faithful submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Truth doesn’t evolve and it isn’t determined by what is politically expedient. President Obama’s ever-evolving “convictions” on core values bring to mind the famous words of former president Gerald Ford: “We have an election in which candidates without ideas hire consultants without convictions to carry out campaigns without content.”

    • Relational truth, what I would argue Jesus embodied, does evolve. Even Jesus had to come to terms with the fact that the truth he embodied would both draw and repel others. Despite his core convictions, there were times when even he had to make important decisions about what to say, how to say it, and even where he could say it. I don’t think anyone would have suggested Jesus was being inconsistent in his message, his “core convictions”, but that Jesus knew the message had to be shared in different ways and different times for different audiences.

      In the realm of politics, a politician who shifts, be it Romney or Obama, will either be accused of flip-flopping or pandering to the party’s base, or being in process, or coming to terms with a position. Either way, it’s difficult to see how we could ever fully deduce from what we see, read, and hear that a candidate is acting out of core conviction or political calculation. But even if we could differentiate between the two wouldn’t, for example, a core conviction still manifest itself as a political calculation? I think this is the direction we’d hope the current flows, rather than adopting a quasi-core conviction as the result of high polling percentages.

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