Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Faith and the President

Michael J. Gerson


February 11, 2011?
by Michael Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

When a politician talks about his or her religious faith during a political season,
there is always some skepticism. President Obama’s remarks at this year’s National
Prayer Breakfast in Washington were no exception. Some critics questioned his timing
and motivations. But his speech was personal, autobiographical and direct.

The president talked, in his words, as a “fellow believer.” He related the story
of a largely secular upbringing, leading to an adult conversion when he became a
community organizer in Chicago. “It was through that experience,” he said, “working
with pastors and laypeople trying to heal the wounds of hurting neighborhoods that I
came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my Lord and Savior.” Obama
went on to say that the pressures of the presidency have only deepened his faith.

When someone in politics—really anyone in public life—embraces the Christian
faith in public, it is not our job to tear them down. The president found his inspiration,
by his own account, in the social justice teachings of the civil rights movement. This
is different from the views of many conservative evangelicals and Catholics. But it is
a long, distinguished American religious tradition, which has contributed much to our
common life.

There are, however, two points worth keeping in mind. First, when a
conservative evangelical or Catholic politician makes a similar public confession of
his or her faith, they are often greeted with much harsher criticism, even with derision.
Somehow, it is interpreted as a violation of the Constitution for them to exercise one
of their most important constitutional rights. This is an unfair double standard. No
politician should use public office for sectarian advantage. But nearly every president
has talked about his own faith – just as every citizen has a right to talk about his or her
own faith. Pluralism does not mean silence about the things that matter most.

Second, it is not necessary to doubt the President’s faith to raise questions about
the policies of his administration. In particular, the White House Office of Faith-Based
and Community Partnerships has been largely invisible during the last two years. One
former head of the office, Jim Towey, says it now has “no record, no results and no
relevance.” Even more disturbingly, according to Towey, the office has been used for
partisan purposes, particularly to build political support for health reform.
I strongly believe that government should actively work with private and religious
groups to confront social problems from addiction, to homelessness, to father-absence, to
the dropout crisis. But this has not been an emphasis of the Obama administration, and
that is a shame. Given the President’s own faith and background, the faith-based agenda
should be a priority, not an afterthought.

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The
Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of
City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”