President Barack Obama’s remarkable eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, one of the nine victims of the recent tragic shooting there, has again called attention to the president’s often misunderstood faith. Obama’s singing of the venerated Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” and focus on the theme of grace has been widely discussed. Sadly, Obama has been called upon to play the role of our national pastor, our comforter-in-chief, numerous times in his six and half years in office — in the aftermath of shootings in Tucson, Aurora, Colorado, Newtown, Connecticut, Boston, the Washington Navy Yard, and Fort Hood, Texas; tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri and Moore, Oklahoma; and an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.
Despite his repeated testimony to his Christian faith (Obama has shared his personal faith journey more than any other president), many Americans either profess confusion about his religious convictions or consider them to be irrelevant. It is well known that numerous polls, especially during his first term, report that only half of Americans consider him to be a Christian. The other half either do not know what his faith was or think he is a Muslim. Undoubtedly speaking for many, James Fallow asserted recently in the Atlantic Monthly, “if asked to describe Obama,” he would probably use many other adjectives before he employed “‘religious’ or ‘Christian.’” The president is “much more likely to explain his views” by referring to history, literature, economics, or jurisprudence “than to the teachings of his faith.”
Obama has rarely used faith language or Biblical passages to support his signature health program. He has, however, frequently employed religious rhetoric and scriptural phrases (most notably “my brother’s keeper”) to promote many other policies, including ones pertaining to poverty, immigration, the environment, and gay marriage. Obama even named his 2014 program to create “more pathways to success” for Latino and African-American boys and young men “My Brother’s Keeper Initiative.” Obama has strengthened the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, frequently solicited the advice of religious leaders, called on religious groups to help solve the nation’s most urgent problems, and asserted that his faith “informs who I am — as a president, and as a person” and guides his actions.
Granted, Obama’s faith is complex. It has been shaped by various streams — the African-American church, the Social Gospel movement, mainline Protestantism (especially through his long involvement at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago), and evangelicalism. Moreover, he has rarely attended church while president. Because they disagree with his policies on abortion, gay marriage, poverty alleviation, and other issues, countless religious conservatives question whether Obama’s faith is genuine. These factors help explain why many Americans are perplexed about the nature of his faith, how much it means to him, and how much it influences his policies.
Given his background and repeated use of Christian language, Obama’s eloquent and moving focus on God’s grace at the funeral service at the College of Charleston is not surprising. The president used his eulogy to urge Americans “to put our faith in action” by working “to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless” through both doing charitable acts and creating a more just society. He hoped that this tragedy caused Americans to ask “how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty,” “attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career.”
Obama’s central theme, however, was grace. He lauded Pinckney for understanding “the power of God’s grace” and emphasized that Christianity taught that God’s “grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God.”
While some commentators seemed befuddled by Obama’s emphasis on God’s grace, it was not new; he has repeatedly accentuated this theme in speeches at national and Easter prayer breakfasts, proclamations of national days or prayer, eulogies, and numerous other occasions. Obama has stressed how God’s grace can help people cope with tragedies, resolve their differences, and work together more effectively.
Obama’s primary focus, however, has been on God’s grace in forgiving people’s sins and deficiencies. At the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast, Obama shared that as he reflected on through a “period of doubt and confusion” and finding “Christ when I wasn’t even looking for him,” he was overwhelmed “by the simple grace of God.” God’s “magnificent grace,” His “Amazing Grace,” Obama declared in 2013, “calls me to ask God for forgiveness for … those times that I’ve fallen short.” On other occasions Obama has thanked God for sending Jesus to earth to atone for human sin. At a 2014 Easter breakfast, he celebrated “the grace of an awesome God” Who “loves us, so deeply that He gave his only begotten Son so that we might live through Him.”
Americans will continue to debate the nature of Barack Obama’s faith for the remainder of his presidency and for years after he leaves office. Many conservative Christians are understandably very upset about Obama’s long-standing support of abortion and his more recent enthusiastic endorsement of gay marriage. Obama has used Biblical rhetoric to justify his positions on these issues, but his stances clash with traditional understandings of scriptural teaching. In evaluating Obama’s faith, we should carefully consider all his words (including those inspiring ones delivered in Charleston) and his varied actions.
Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and his most recent book is “Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents” (Oxford University Press, 2015). He is a fellow for faith and politics with The Center for Vision & Values and the author of “Faith and the Presidency from George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2009) and “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press, 2011).