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Senator Obama and the Social Gospel

By Dan Phillips
web posted January 8, 2007

All the fuss over Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) and his possible presidential candidacy is hard to explain. He is a recently elected junior Senator. Under normal circumstances his candidacy would be considered premature at best and hubristic at worst. So why the fawning treatment, especially by the media?

Barack ObamaWell, I have to admit the guy is smooth. I saw him on Jay Leno, and I was very impressed with his persona. He was funny, self-deprecating, and able to banter back and forth with Leno. He is able to engage in small talk without immediately mounting the bully pulpit as many politicians are prone to do. In this respect he reminds me a lot of Bill Clinton. He seems like a regular guy. How much of that is an act, I have no idea. He did graduate from Harvard Law which tends to tarnish your regular guy credentials. But much of politics is an act, and he seems pretty good at it.

A big question is how long he will be able to pull off the "can't we just all get along?" act. Will the Democratic primary voters tolerate that shtick in the hope of victory, or will they force him to more clearly articulate where he stands on the issues? Despite all the talk that he is a bridge between left and right, his positions are cookie-cutter liberal. If the Democratic primary voters don't force him to reveal his hand, I'm sure the Republican campaign machine will if he becomes the Democratic nominee.

But why is cookie-cutter liberal Senator Obama considered a potential bridge? Primarily because he is very open about his faith and is not reluctant to use religious language and discuss values. Coming from a liberal Democrat, this is definitely against the recent grain.

Usually you hear liberals denouncing conservatives for wanting to "shove their values down other people's throats." Or they are all in a lather that the religious right is trying to abolish the "wall of separation between Church and State," a phrase that the well informed know is nowhere to be found in the Constitution. Despite the utter lack of progress on social issues, they claim the GOP is a captive of the religious right. (Yeah, I wish.) In fact, it is the other way around. The religious right is a captive of the GOP.

Of course, the liberal candidates (Pelosi, Kerry) speak openly of their faith since atheistic candidates in America go over like a . . . err . . . in church. Well, you know what I mean. But we are assured that their faith will have no impact on how they govern. You know, "I'm personally opposed to abortion, but . . ." One could ask, "What good is such a faith," but we won't go there in this essay.

However, this sort of opposition to the open discussion of faith on the Left is a fairly recent development, historically, and it seems to be partially a reaction to faith being used effectively by conservatives and the GOP. But it has not always been so. Faith, especially Christian faith, has historically been used to justify all sorts of progressive initiatives, from government involvement in relief for the poor to federal Civil Rights legislation. Currently, some supposedly conservative Christians such as Senator Brownback, Governor Huckabee, and World Magazine's Marvin Olasky are trying to use a progressive understanding of Christianity to justify support of "guest workers," (read amnesty) and lax enforcement.

This leftist use of Christianity was facilitated by the advent of something called the Social Gospel. Northern Puritanism was theologically conservative – orthodox is probably a better term. (Some theologians, especially Catholic and conservative Anglicans would dispute this, but that is a discussion for a different day.) Suffice it to say that Puritanism upheld the historic essential doctrines of Christianity. For whatever reason — and again there is much theological and historical opinion to explain this — the theologically orthodox Puritans morphed into advocates of the Social Gospel. (They were joined by a Quaker element in the Mid-Atlantic States.) They rejected many of the historic beliefs of Christianity to a greater or lesser degree. For some, the idea of Christ dying on the cross for our sins was rejected in favor of a new explanation. Jesus came to show us the way, to serve as our example, but not as our sacrifice. For some, Christ was no longer the Son of God, but a very good man and a profound teacher. This interpretation lends itself very well to progressive crusading. Instead of Jesus coming to die on the cross for our sins, He came to teach us the importance of being kind to the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden. He did both, although it is highly debatable that being kind to the poor mandates a particular position on government Food Stamps; but the Social Gospel advocates deemphasized that whole sacrifice thing. The Catholic version, called Liberation Theology, had its day as well and often adopted outright Marxist terminology.

As an aside, a good case could be made that the Social Gospel advocates get it exactly backwards. The Jews were expecting a political Savior who was going to liberate Israel from the clutches of Rome. But Jesus did not come here to fundamentally alter the social order. He altered the moral order. For example, Jesus' claim that thinking about fornicating makes one guilty of fornication or that hating one's brother makes one guilty of murder is harsh and impossible to uphold, hence the universal need for a Savior. But He left unarguably unjust Roman rule intact.

Some theologically liberal Social Gospel advocates were upfront about their rejection of the orthodox view, but others were not. Regardless, they continued to use entirely Christian terminology. However, they invested much of the terminology with new meaning. The term fundamentalist is a reference to the fundamentalist/modernist controversy that rocked the Church around the first few decades of the last century. The modernists won the debate within the mainline denominations, but the Fundamentalists arguably won the war for the hearts and minds of most American Christians. The mainline denominations are declining while the conservative churches over the same period of time have grown. Despite all of the modernist silliness embraced by evangelicals, such as praise and worship music, modern evangelicalism remains theologically conservative. A story for another day is how thoroughly the modernists won the institutions such as academia and the media, and how totally they dominate the culture. One could argue that the reason surveys indicate that evangelicals live lives similar to the rest of the decadent culture (similar divorce rates, for example) while embracing a conservative theology is because the evangelicals have not opposed cultural modernism to the same degree that they opposed theological modernism.

There was a recent dust up among some evangelicals and Catholics because mega church pastor and author of the best-selling Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren, invited Senator Obama to speak at his Church for a conference on AIDS. Here is some of what Senator Obama said:

My faith also tells me that – as Pastor Rick has said – it is not a sin to be sick. My Bible tells me that when God sent His only Son to Earth, it was to heal the sick and comfort the weary; to feed the hungry and clothe the naked; to befriend the outcast and redeem those who strayed from righteousness. Living His example is the hardest kind of faith – but it is surely the most rewarding. It is a way of life that can not only light our way as people of faith, but guide us to a new and better politics as Americans.

In light of my discussion above, does anyone recognize this? It is pure, unadulterated Social Gospel. I would not question Senator Obama's faith, that is between him and God; but he left out that icky dying on the cross for our sins part.  There is nothing objectionable about what Senator Obama said, but it is what he didn't say that is perhaps illuminating. Such is always the case with the theological liberal. The terminology is there: "God sent His only Son." But does it mean the same thing when Senator Obama says it, that it does when an evangelical says it? I don't know.

The evangelicals who are warming to Senator Obama because of his open embrace of faith need to ask him that.
There really is nothing new under the Sun. What is surprising is that people would be shocked that a liberal is embracing liberal Christianity. Historically, this is par for the course. As I said, the fundamentalist/modernist controversy has already covered this ground. Is Christianity primarily about the Gospel of the Bible and saving souls, or is it about liberal social transformation?

Note, I am not suggesting that Senator Obama is opportunistically embracing the Social Gospel to deflect criticism or entice "values voters." He may be since he is a politician after all, but I have no real reason to question his sincerity. I am suggesting that Senator Obama's embrace of Christianity is not a new phenomenon on the Left. It is a tried and true strategy.

Many prominent Black Christians such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson have been peddling this alternative gospel with no break between them and the progressive Social Gospel advocates of the past. The Rev. Jackson and the Rev. Sharpton are quick to invoke Christianity when crusading against alleged oppression, but when was the last time you heard either man say publicly that someone needs to "repent, turn from his wicked ways, and get saved," or say "Jesus died for your sins" instead of "Jesus cared for the poor?" It need not, and should not be either or, but if the message of sin and sacrifice is not preached, the Gospel is not preached. Instead both men are fighting their way to the front of the latest pro-choice parade. I really don't see Jesus marching in a pro-choice parade, and I'm not sure what advocating consequence free recreational sex has to do with healing the sick or caring for the poor, especially since we all agree that Jesus is on record as against even thinking about fornication. Maybe one of the good Reverends could walk me through that logic. Interestingly, Rev. Jackson used to be pro-life before he decided to seek the Democratic nomination.

I am not afraid that Senator Obama will manage to chip off a significant number of evangelical voters, partially because evangelical voters are joined at the hip to the GOP, and also because I have enough faith in evangelical voters that they will not support a candidate who is openly pro-choice, especially a Democrat. Whether they would support a pro-choice Republican nominee like Rudy Giuliani is another story. I certainly hope not. I'm pretty sure many would balk.

What is more likely is that Senator Obama will by his open embrace of faith immunize himself from some of the scrutiny a liberal Democratic candidate would normally receive. With a lack of traditional conservative candidates so far in the GOP primary, Governor Romney's Mormonism, and Senator Obama embracing his faith, it is going to be very interesting to see how all this develops among evangelical voters. I hope they ask Senator Obama some tough questions about the nature of his faith.

(Thanks to Dr. Joseph Knippenberg at the Ashbrook Center's blog for bringing my attention to Senator Obama's speech.) ESR

Dan Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, Georgia. He specializes in the treatment of alcohol and drug addiction and obsesses about politics on the side. He can be contacted at phillips_de@mercer.edu.






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