TIME magazine has just posted short essays from Barack Obama and John McCain about faith in advance of their meeting next weekend with Saddleback Church leader and Purpose-Driven Life author Rick Warren. In keeping with his broader campaign strategy, McCain’s emphasizes his biography as a POW, highlighting the role that faith played during those excruciating years. It’s deeply moving. It’s also more a historical artifact than a window into McCain’s faith today and how it influences him.
Obama’s essay, meanwhile, is a study in how to connect with evangelicals and other religious conservatives. Here are ten examples from the piece:
1. I began my Christian journey over 20 years ago, as a young man fresh out of college.
Evangelicals often describe their faith as a journey, which suggests that it’s an active relationship with Christ rather than a static state of affairs.
2. …since that time I’ve been serious not only about deepening my relationship with Christ.
This reinforces a relationship with Jesus that has matured over a course of two decades. Obama’s saying that he hasn’t just seen the light since becoming a candidate. In a realm where authenticity means everything, making that point high up is essential.
3. I think there are some lessons that Americans from all political persuasions might learn in this regard, lessons that I take to heart each day.
Speaking to what’s on “one’s heart” is a Methodist formulation that adherents of various Christian traditions use to denote experiential learning as opposed to book or head-based learning. When Christians speak from the heart or take something to heart it means that that thing is more deeply felt than a mere fact that’s filed away mentally.
4. We have to start by remembering the role that values play in addressing some of our most urgent social problems. As I’ve said many times, the problems of poverty and war, the uninsured and the unemployed aren’t simply technical problems in search of a 10-point plan.
Obama’s recognizing a central role for faith in government and public policy, a direct challenge to Religious Right figures who complain that secular liberals are trying to stamp out religion from the public square. It represents Obama’s challenge to those secular liberals in his pary’s own base, too. A lot of those folks were responsible for Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the primaries.
5. They’re rooted in societal indifference and individual callousness — in the imperfections of man.
The imperfectability of man, and the converse need for salvation, is the central tenet of born-again theology. Obama’s been beat up by the Religious Right in recent weeks for promulgating a vision of faith that comports with the Social Gospel school of Christianity, which hold that man can perfect–or at least vastly improve–the world through his own actions. This is Obama’s pushing back.
6. …I also believe that when a gangbanger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody disrespected him, that’s not just a government problem — it’s a moral problem. There’s a hole in that young man’s heart.
Sounds like vintage George W. Bush, doesn’t it?. These lines recognize the limits of government influence in the lives of individuals and suggests that true societal change is born in the breasts of real people through personal transformation, aka salvation.
7. That’s a lesson that friends of mine like Pastor Rick Warren and Bishop T.D. Jakes know well.
These two megachurch pastors were regulars in the Bush White House and have unrivaled credibility in the evangelical universe.
8. My values speak to… the expanse of God’s creation that is warming day by day, the single mothers struggling to provide for their families and the fathers who are too often absent from the scene.
Combating climate change–”Creation Care”–has become an important cause in many evangelical circles. Taking deadbeat dads to task, meanwhile, has long been a staple of the “pro-family” movement. It implies that the nuclear family is the building block of society. James Dobson has been saying the same thing for three decades.
9. I don’t believe we should ignore the debate over traditional “values issues” at the expense of these other moral challenges.
Here, Obama slyly pays respect to cultural conservatives by insinuating that traditional “values issues”–code for abortion and gay marriage–deserve a place at the table. Most Democratic candidates up till now have labeled such concerns as “wedge issues” that serve merely to distract from real problems like war and the slumping economy.
10. But we can’t just talk about “family values.” We actually have to stand up for policies that value families.
Obama attempts to co-opt a Christian Right catch phrase, “family values,” rather than belittle or dismiss it. Many Democrats have traditionally opted for the latter approach.
Not bad for a 408-word essay.