Believers wonder: Where is the old Obama?


“We worship an awesome God in the blue states!” That was Barack Obama in 2004, not yet a U.S. senator, at the Democratic National Convention. And for the next four years, he did something extraordinary. He convincingly articulated a set of American values for the center-left.

“Values” were not something God gave to Republicans in exchange for their opposition to abortion and homosexuality. They were broader and higher than that.

Obama was elected because a majority of people felt he lifted them up. He gave Americans a sense of interdependence, and he reminded us of the gifts and responsibilities that come with a shared future. With that problematic middle name, Hussein, and his unpopular former pastor, Obama’s campaign was religiously fraught. Nevertheless, he managed to frame his belief in a common humanity in the language of faith.

On the trail, his favorite biblical paraphrase came from Genesis: “I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper.” Unlike some of his tea party foes, Obama rejected the idea of American exceptionalism — that God has special plans for this country. Like his hero, moral theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, he loathed any absolutist claims to know what God wants. “I believe that [God’s plans] are a little too mysterious for me to grasp,” he said in 2007, “and so what I try to do is, as best I can, be an instrument of his will.”

What a relief this was for millions of believers exhausted by the mean certainties of the religious right. Here was a man who would strive for perfection even as he failed to achieve it, and who would use government as the instrument of that striving.

Where is that man now?

After Standard & Poor’s downgraded our country’s debt rating, Obama took to the podium Monday and proclaimed in a moment of boilerplate speechifying that America “will always be a AAA country.” But he looked defeated, bureaucratic. Earlier, when he announced the debt-ceiling deal, he looked like someone who got mugged on the way to work.

The man who won the biggest bully pulpit on Earth by wielding an expansive and nuanced version of American values seems — in the midst of political war, economic disaster and a rising military death toll — to have forgotten what he stands for. Or at least, how to summon his principles in public.

The Rev. James Forbes, senior minister emeritus of the Riverside Church in New York, hesitates to pile on, sensitive as he is to the assault under which Obama suffers and alert to the racism that undergirds so much of the criticism. That said, Forbes pleads with the president to be clear about which of his values are non-negotiable.

For it is the ability to say, as Martin Luther did, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” that separates a statesman from a politician, Forbes says. “Those of us who supported you, we feel we need to know. Can you find a venue where you can tell us what your philosophical, foundational, existential value system is? Could we know what are the principles embedded in your heart and soul?”

The longer the president stays silent, the more he gives the ideologues on the right the opportunity to fill the gap, claiming to be working on behalf of God himself. Thirty thousand people showed up to hear Texas Gov. Rick Perry pray to Jesus in Houston.

Obama is a compromiser by nature, a man who believes “that getting half a loaf for the poor is better than no loaf at all,” says the Rev. Gerald Durley, an Atlanta pastor.

But he has compromised too far. In “The Irony of American History” (endorsed, in my edition, by the president), Niebuhr himself offers Obama a way out. Compromise is not a value in itself; it’s a way toward a better world.

For Niebuhr, a “combination of moral resoluteness about the immediate issues with a religious awareness of another dimension of meaning and judgment” allows a leader to protect the “moral treasures of a free civilization.”

Resoluteness is the fixed point that precedes any compromise. Belief in an unknowable God gives a faithful leader the freedom to stand before his people and risk it all.