The Moral Measure of Obama’s Presidency

In several recent articles, President Obama has been characterized as ignoring African American religious leaders despite having received overwhelming support from the black religious community. In two of those articles I was characterized as one of those critics. I was even quoted as claiming that the president “does not respect black ministers.” For the record, by no means do I believe that the president lacks respect for African American clergy, although I do think there are ministers whose abdication of their responsibility to work to make this a more politically just and economically equitable society renders them not particularly worthy of respect, at least not in the public square. As for me, I take complete responsibility for not better representing my true sentiments to my interviewers. But what is important here is not whether I personally agree with these charges against the President – and I do not – but that they mischaracterize both the President’s interaction with African American clergy and, far more importantly, who he is as a moral leader.

I was among the first African American religious leaders invited to join the faith advisory committee of the Obama presidential campaign. I accepted this invitation not for the prospect of joining a winning team, for given our nation’s tortured racial history, I did not imagine that a black man could be elected to the American presidency. The reason I joined the Obama campaign is because of the man I saw, a man who used his Harvard Law School degree not to get rich, but to try to love his neighbors as himself by working to empower them as an organizer in some of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. I noted the progressive political positions he had taken, the compassionate policies he proposed and supported as a state and national lawmaker. I listened to the content of his pronouncements and read the ethical vision underlying his words. I saw a devoted family man and a committed member of a Christian church which, with more than sixty community ministries (including senior’s citizen healthcare and housing, HIV/AIDS and hospice care and twenty-two ministries for youths), is the very prototype of a Christian servant congregation. These factors convinced me that Barack Obama is a man of deep faith who is fundamentally committed to building a more just, more equitable, more abundant and more morally healthy nation for all Americans. That is why I chose to support him.

Since then I’ve come to believe in Barack Obama even more strongly as I’ve watched him struggle to provide healthcare for tens of millions of American children, women and men at risk for bankruptcy, unrelieved suffering, even premature death because they lacked the healthcare protection that every civilized society should vouchsafe for its citizens. I’ve believed in him more strongly as I’ve watched him stand fast against the forces of hateful reaction and refuse to allow the torture of fellow human beings. I’ve believed in him more strongly as I’ve watched his excruciating attempts at bipartisanship (the political equivalent of “love your enemies”) and witnessed his refusal to gloat or cast aspersions after his hard fought healthcare victory. I’ve believed in Barack Obama more strongly yet as I’ve watched his decency in the face of the lies and vitriol and rank hatred directed toward him and his family to such a degree that has seldom been seen in the history of our republic. Even as his political opponents have spewed all manner of hateful, uncivil invective against him, even demeaned his wife and young daughters in terms too indecent to be printed here, he has refused to return evil for evil. No person of good will can deny that in today’s shamefully overheated political discourse, President Obama has acted in a much more Christian fashion than all but a few of his right-wing self-identified Christian opponents.

With regard to critics’ charges of inaccessibility, it is not true that the president ignores or lacks regard for black religious leaders. I have no doubt that some of my fellow black religious leaders and thinkers would like personal access to the president or that some of them feel ignored by him. Yet I also have no doubt that at least some of this feeling has to do with an inflated notion of ministerial self-importance, an occupational hazard to which ministers of all hues have quite often been known to succumb. The reality is that no president has time to meet with every pastor, black, brown or white, who believes he has a point that must be spoken directly to the ear of the inhabitant of the Oval Office, especially since in my experience as a seminary president and professor, there is at best an underwhelming number of ministers who are such astute observers and critical interpreters of social trends and political policy formulation that their thoughts deserve a hearing at the highest levels of government.

Yet the truth is that the president has been accessible to a sizable number of thoughtful and observant black religious leaders, just as he has been accessible to religious leaders of diverse races and religious traditions. I think it is politically naive to expect that because the president is an African American that black clergy should have privileged political access to him. He is a black man, yes, but for the entirety of his time in the White House he is first the President of the United States whose responsibility is to assure that no constituent or constituency is privileged above any other.

All of the world’s major religions share similar views of the ethical and moral requirements of just and righteous governance. One place this view is reflected is the Book of Psalms, in its description of the ideal king which, in effect, posits the character and practice that should be expected of all rulers and governing officials. Psalm 72 counsels that those who govern should be endowed with the desire to do right, to judge “people with righteousness, your poor with justice… May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush those who wrong them” (Psalm 72:2, 4).

What the Gospel of Luke portrays as the initial – and the definitive – sermon of Jesus’ ministry, with its clear and unerring political implications, not only defines the social responsibility of all who claim to be persons of faith and good will, but also sharpens the broad strokes articulated in Psalm 72 of the behaviors that should be expected of those in positions of power and authority:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free… (Luke 4:18-19)

As one who takes the moral and ethical witness of the Bible seriously, I support Barack Obama’s presidency because I am convinced that he is seized by this biblical vision of just and fair and compassionate governance. Yet, the presidency is a political position. Thus, like every president before him, Barack Obama must maneuver within the realities of the political realm. That means that he cannot accomplish every social and political change that he’d like and that he must often make compromises in order to accomplish the good his heart and his faith commit him to. Like others, I’d love for the leader of the free world to do everything according to the Gospel of Me (insert your name), but to judge him by that measure would be an exercise in gross selfishness and a ludicrous assertion of personal intellectual infallibility. From the perspective of a person of faith, I don’t have to agree with everything the president does as long as through his policies and leadership he continues to strive to serve the cause of justice and fairness for all according to his best understanding, to be compassionately responsive in equal measure to all those in need, to engage in truthful discourse with the American people, and to never forget that as a political leader he must also be a moral leader. That is not only how Barack Obama’s actions and policies as president should be judged but, according to the Gospel witness, indeed, according to the witness of the world’s great religious traditions, that is how all leaders, indeed, how all persons should be judged.

Yet we should not stop there. I believe that no matter one’s faith identity, the foremost way we should evaluate the actions of the President of the United States is according to the primary standard of judgment offered by Jesus of Nazareth in Matthew 25: 31-46, a moral perspective held in common by the all of the great religious traditions: whether or not we try to provide care for the ill and strive to free the poor, the vulnerable and the needy from undue want, with the admonition from the Divine Judge, “As you have not done it to the least of these, you have not done it to me.”

In political terms, this standard is the most important measure by which President Obama and all who govern and lead should and must be judged.