If they’re becoming disappointed in Obama, perhaps it’s not the president’s fault. Maybe they just chose…unwisely.
His State of the Union address last week was not corrective: more pedantic than inspirational. Health care, centrist clerics say, would have been better if framed strongly from the outset as an issue of social justice. The economy, they continue, is also a values crisis, a failure on the part of the banks and government to respect our collective inter-dependence. “Not my problem” is exactly the mindset that Matthew 25 warns against. “I am my brother’s keeper, my sister’s keeper,” Obama would say on the campaign trail.
I reached Jim Wallis, the progressive evangelical leader whose new book is called Rediscovering Values, as he was leaving for Davos. Wallis has been close to the president, advising him early on about whether to run and exchanging e-mails with him amid the Jeremiah Wright turmoil. “We need a leader,” Wallis told me, “to call not for incremental change but transformational politics. The president could do that. I think he still has it in him, but the American people don’t perceive it.”
Other faith leaders are more pointed. Obery Hendricks, author of The Politics of Jesus, used to dial in to regular conference calls between the administration and prominent clergy, but recently he’s stopped, citing frustration and fatigue. “Is he listening [to religious leaders]? Frankly, I don’t know. They have the influence of window dressing.” The White House, he adds, is “patronizing and condescending,” especially to black clergy. “Many of the ministers feel that way.”
Obama likes the “brother’s keeper” language so much that he used it last year to sell healthcare reform to the same religious leaders that are now starting to distance themselves. During the campaign, I alternated between amusement and horror at how impressed some Christians were with Obama’s use of that biblical phrase, considering its original use in scripture.
Obama’s call to social justice comes from Genesis 4:8-10. That passage describes how, in a fit of jealously, Cain murdered his brother Abel. Later, God asks Cain where his brother is, and Cain’s answer is a dismissive “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” Basically, Obama is using a flippant remark by the first murderer to sell his health care plan to religious leaders. Maybe Sarah Palin was on to something, huh?
It seems to me that religious leaders aren’t moving away from Obama because they’re disappointed with his actions as president, but because they are tired of being used by a man who is no longer interested in their input.