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Organizing With Obama: Faith in Action

by Ira Chernus

If you heard Barack Obama last week testify that his sins could be redeemed because he let Jesus into his life, and now he is called to do the Lord's work, it might have made you nervous. If you heard him pledging more public funds for faith-based initiatives, it might have made you more nervous. It made me nervous too. We've learned all too much in the last seven years about the potential for abuse when religion and politics mix.

But the thought of a President John McCain makes me even more nervous. So I'm prepared to cut Obama some slack on this one. His job is to win the election. He is running far behind among whites who are regular churchgoers and say religion is important in their daily lives. He'll gain more votes with all this faith talk than he'll lose. He has to bend over backwards to prove that he is a real Christian, since some 10% of the public thinks he is Muslim and about 15% more say they don't know what religion he is.

Obama also has to think ahead. He told reporters that he knows he can't win a majority of the Christian evangelical vote. But he can win enough to put him in the White House, and then he'll have to be president of all the people. The more people are able to talk to each other and narrow the divides that separate them, including the divide of faith, he said, the easier it will be to govern. So it makes sense to show evangelicals that he can talk their talk.

Obama certainly showed that in his sermonic speech to the African Methodist Episcopal conference, speaking comfortably and piously about God and Christ and the Gospel. How much does he really believe it? We'll never know. Candidates always use the language their audience wants to hear; when addressing religious groups, they always sound like religious people.

In any case, Obama made his evangelical witness sound like his native language, the real deal. That was a key to George W. Bush's success among evangelicals. Why wouldn't any candidate who knows how to do it want to repeat that success? When it comes to giving our tax dollars to religious groups for social services, though, there are big differences between Obama and Bush. Obama stated flatly that he would forbid discrimination on any basis in hiring staff for these faith-based programs. He said equally flatly that "if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize. . . . Federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs."

George W. Bush never said that - not only because he was courting churches for political purposes, but because the strictly secular approach contradicted the basic theology of his faith-based program. That theology, worked out by his mentors Myron Magnet and Marvin Olasky (who coined the phrase "compassionate conservatism"), is based on the concept of original sin. "Man's sinful nature leads to and lust and idleness," Olasky wrote. "The fundamental purpose of the social order," according to Magnet, "is to restrain man's instinctual aggressiveness." They assume that religion is the institution that has always done this best.

Religion is the antidote to poverty too, they argue, because the root of poverty is sinful sloth. It's even more so now, because the poor believe they are powerless victims. Poor neighborhoods are "reduced to savage anarchy. ... No one is in control and the forces of lawlessness are sliding out from restraint," Magnet opined. "The required solution is for the poor to take responsibility for themselves." Those who refuse to work and behave themselves must suffer painful consequences. A "demanding love, a severe mercy," Bush has called it.

But to learn the necessary self-discipline, poor sinners must have have an inner spiritual transformation and accept the highest authority: God. So religious groups can help the needy only by dishing out religious teaching and inspiration along with hot meals and job training. And the best teaching comes from the Bible. That's the theory of "compassionate conservatism."

Unlike Bush, Obama has no record of making such a conservative theological approach central to his policymaking. He did tell the AME conference that social problems are partly - not entirely - rooted in sin. And he briefly mentioned the importance of personal responsibility, urging the poor not to use poverty as an excuse.

But Obama does not treat social problems primarily as individual faults the way "compassionate conservatism" does. He treats them as political problems. His record is not in urging spiritual reform, as Bush's was when he ran for president. Obama's record is in organizing in churches, helping people see that their problems come from systemic abuse by the wealthy and the powerful, and teaching them how to resist.

That's why he opened his call for faith-based initiatives by lauding the Campaign for Human Development and concluded it by including "interfaith coalitions like the Let Justice Roll campaign." These groups don't rely on charity and evangelizing. They do congregation-based community organizing ( CBCO), giving the poor political tools to fight and change the system. They know that poverty comes from unjust systems, not individual sin. By making CBCO an integral part of his faith-based approach, Obama signaled that he'll take a very different path than Bush.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he has taught for over 30 years.  He has published numerous articles and eight books including Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.

©2007 Religion Dispatches

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