One of the articles making its way around the blogosphere is John Blake’s recent post, The Gospel According to Obama, on CNN’s Belief Blog.
When I was a student in college, I unintentionally attended a black church one Sunday morning. Still new to the faith, I wasn’t sophisticated in deciphering church names, denominational markers etc.
I had no idea the church I stepped into was going to be a black church. I had no idea until that Sunday that the way the faith was expressed and understood in churches like that was so very different from what I knew. And I had no idea until that Sunday to what extent my own Christianity had been conditioned by my white, middle-class, suburban life.
That Sunday in college, and worship services and relationships that followed into seminary, lead me to think Blake’s article, while not crap, is wrong.
Blake takes up the now
familiar, tired storyline about how many white, evangelical Christians do not view the President as a Christian, when Christianity is in fact the religion espoused by the President. Blake steers clear of the now familiar, tired statistics which describe the disturbing number of Americans who believe the President is a Muslim or a crypto-Muslim (why that would necessarily disqualify him for office is another, seldom asked question).
Instead Blake takes the ‘the President is Other’ storyline in a different direction. Blake, marshaling the inconclusive- and not a little opportunistic- opinions of Diana Butler Bass and Jim Wallis, argues that the reason white evangelicals don’t understand the President as a Christian is because they don’t understand his Christianity.
True so far, I think.
Blake, Bass and Wallis argue that evangelicals don’t understand the President’s Christianity because his is a ‘Social Justice’ Christianity, which focuses on the biblical mandate to care and advocate for the poor.
This is where they go wrong, I believe.
There’s no doubt the President’s political perspective overlaps with the Social Justice tradition on many tangible points; however, Blake, Bass and Wallis conveniently- but also mind-blowingly (and ultimately, offensively)- gloss over the fact that the Social Justice movement was from its inception and remains, in its muted strength, a movement of white, affluent Christians while the President- newsflash- is black.
In so thorough a piece, Blake somehow leaves out the fact that the Black Church in America has its own very particular, historically rooted understanding of the Christian story and its this-worldly implications for the poor.
The gaping hole Blake leaves in his article where the Black Church should be leaves one to wonder if he- or Bass and Wallis- actually know any African American Christians. That’s hyperbole. I’m sure they do. Still, for white liberal Christians, like Wallis and Bass, to leave out the distinctive witness of the Black Church and see in a black President’s faith only their own reflection is its own kind of racism.
White evangelicals don’t misunderstand the President because he’s a Social Justice Christian; they misunderstand him because he’s a black Christian.
Or maybe, I think the logic holds (and applies equally to Wallis and Bass), they misunderstand him because he’s black.
Which, more so than any political point, may reveal out a more serious omission. To paraphrase Paul, we can’t all be a part of the Body of Christ and live like we have no use for the other.
This is how Scot McKnight pushes back on Blake’s article:
“I find it exasperating that once again the commentators and locators of Obama’s faith are lilly-white Americans: Jim Wallis and Diana Butler Bass. Both of whom, intelligent as they are, want to locate Obama’s faith in the social justice tradition….But there’s a major issue. White elites are the ones who articulated the Social Gospel, most famously Walter Rauschenbusch but not limited to him. That Social Gospel was fixed deeply in the psyche and ministries of much of the mainline denominations so much that one can say culture and church meshed to where difference is not always detectable. Mainline faith in the USA is the religion of the privileged. The Social Gospel is a kind of white social justice Christianity.
African American “social gospel” types are not simply the Social Gospel type. Why did we not have an interview with someone like Brian Blount, a clear, forceful African American liberation theologian? Or James Cone? It is my view that “Social Gospel” does not do justice to President Obama’s faith.
A theology done from the oppressed and for the oppressed is not the same as a theology done from the position of power and privilege. President Obama’s faith is an African American liberation kind of social gospel. There’s a difference and it is worth the nuance.
Here’s the link to the rest of Scot’s post.