The Myth of the Fading Role of Faith in American Society

Michael Wear, who served as a faith leader in the White House, talks about the president's faith.

The press and the cameras had left the room, and the program was over, but the President of the United States had something else to say. So President Obama walked up to podium, expressed his thanks to those who attended and participated in the Easter prayer service that had just taken place.

Spending his morning in prayer and worship strengthened him, he said, and helped carry him not only through that day, but the rest of the year. As I sat in the East Room of The White House—the same room where Presidents typically hold press conferences with visiting heads of state—I could not help but think of what this event might mean for our culture, and for us as Christians.

Such a faith-filled scene in the White House is probably surprising to some—especially if you have heard the claims that religion is on the outs in America.

This was actually the President’s fourth Easter Prayer Breakfast, though I would not blame you if you had never heard of it before. The Easter Prayer Breakfast is a tradition the president started in 2010 to bring Christian leaders to the White House to celebrate and recognize their most important holiday. In prior administrations and the current, there had been events for people of other faiths—Passover Seders and Muslim Iftars—but the president, as a Christian, thought it was important to mark Easter. Although this was the first breakfast I attended as a guest, I helped to organize each of the previous three Easter events as a staffer in President Obama’s faith initiative during his first term.

The event was always moving to me. It was special to be in that place, and to see so many different leaders in the Church come together. This year, Natalie Grant—a Christian music artist and anti-human trafficking advocate—led the entire room in a rendition of “It Is Well With My Soul.” Other leaders read Scripture, and Bishop Vashti McKenzie delivered a stirring sermon that had even the more reserved leaders in the room nodding and saying, “Amen.”

Such a faith-filled scene in the White House is probably surprising to some—especially if you have heard the claims that religion is on the outs in America.

It is true that the religious and cultural landscape has shifted significantly over the last decade. The Rise of the Nones, the growing number of Americans who have no religious affiliation, has now been well-documented. Many young people view Christianity negatively, and many young Christians are hesitant to identify as such because of those views. Some leaders warn that Christianity is becoming marginalized in the United States, and that our right to have a public faith is diminishing. Indeed, there are data points that should cause us to think about the future of the Church in this country as we move deeper into this century.

Yet, it seems to me that the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast provides here a startling counterpoint. Each year for the last three, the leader of the free world has hosted a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the pinnacle of the Christian year, in the most powerful building in the world. This doesn’t seem to grab the attention of mainstream press outlets (perhaps it doesn’t provide enough conflict?), but I must admit I am always bewildered by the lack of attention the breakfast received from Christians—particularly those who repeatedly warned that liberals, Democrats and Barack Obama were “taking God out of America.”

But why are we not as loud about the good things as we are about the challenges?

There are certainly areas for debate on issues of faith and public life, such as the HHS contraception mandate and issues of human life and dignity. But why are we not as loud about the good things as we are about the challenges? If we’re going to sort out what the relationship between Church and state, or faith and country, we need to reject hyperbole and present a full picture of the landscape. It often seemed to me that many of the prominent recent controversies—from the silly (“taking God out of the Democratic Platform”) to the outright false ( “canceling the National Day of Prayer”)—were more about partisan politics, than living out genuine faith in the public square.

I, for one, am thankful to God that we live in a country where Easter can be celebrated with no fear and with no respect to position or status—from our own homes to the home of our president. And if we do find ourselves concerned with a culture that has grown in its antagonism toward religious belief, then we ought to make sure to lift up those moments and events that make much of Him.

What the Easter Prayer Breakfast suggests about the state of faith and public life in this country is consequential, but so is what it suggests about the president who hosts it, and our Christian obligation to him as our governing authority.

While we worry about a shrinking role for faith in public life, the president’s own faith has often been demeaned or marginalized. When I worked in the White House, it was often personally troubling to me to read news reports after the president talked about his faith. They would often note how “rare” it was for him to open up about it, disregarding the numerous occasions he has spoken about his faith. These reports would usually then turn to the political implications of the president’s words. Such slicing and dicing of a man’s Christian faith may be expected from secular news coverage, but too often it comes from Christians themselves. I wonder if we sometimes get drawn into thinking about the faith of public figures in a way that ignores their souls, viewing them as part of the institution they serve.

The Easter Prayer Breakfast is just one cultural moment that suggests Christianity can retain a robust space in the public square.

But we’d learn differently if we listened to them talk about their faith in their own words. The President opened the Easter Prayer Breakfast by reflecting on his visit to the Holy Land, saying:

And this year, I had—I think was particularly special for me because right before Easter I had a chance to feel that spirit during my trip to the Holy Land. And I think so many of you here know there are few experiences more powerful or more humbling than visiting that sacred earth.

It brings Scripture to life. It brings us closer to Christ. It reminds us that our Savior, who suffered and died was resurrected, both fully God and also a man; a human being who lived, and walked, and felt joy and sorrow just like us.

We can choose to be cynics. We can choose to question the president’s faith on Twitter, which as we’ve seen recently will definitely get you some retweets. It’s a lot easier to criticize and rebuke someone you don’t know personally than it is to pray for a friend.

This country is changing. Christian beliefs are no longer assumed in national debates and conversations. Our public square is growing more and more diverse. However, the Easter Prayer Breakfast is just one cultural moment that suggests Christianity can retain a robust space in the public square. How robust a space it is may be determined in part by how gracious we are to other Christians as they seek to grow in their faith, and follow Jesus in their lives—whether they are sitting next to you in Church, or across from you in the Oval Office.

Let’s not invest our energies into perpetuating the conflict-driven cynicism that is prevalent today. Rather, let’s come together as brothers and sisters in Christ to live out our shared commitment to grace and truth in our interactions with one another and in the public square.

19 Comments

Jeff Watkins

1

Jeff Watkins commented…

I'm so glad Christianity has finally become a faith of checks and balances. Not only does one have to come with grips with the fact that they are a sinner and in need of a redemptive savior. But to really be a Christian, you must also believe in the following and call anyone else who differs a non-Christian, pagan, heretic:

Pro Life (if you're pro-choice, you're gonna burn)
Anti Gay (God created Adam & Eve, not Adam & Steve)
Israel (really, anti-Israel means anti-God?)
The Christian view on the US Constitution (God only cares about the USA!)

I'm so glad that I don't make mistakes and don't continue to sin in anyway but if I do it's little things like cussing or having a being a glutton.

Timothy Wright

2

Timothy Wright commented…

Wow, The most important building in the world, so pleased to see a realistic view of politics. I would say the most valuable location for the Father in this world is their child filled with The Holy Spirit manifesting the Love of the Father to all regardless of their political view point.

Andrew Willis

2

Andrew Willis commented…

Obama, and really any president who subscribes to the Christian faith, is put into a position that I wouldn't want to be in myself.

On the one hand, you have the Constitution of our country which sets up a system of government and supports our civil rights. On the other hand, you have the Bible which gives us a list (or code of ethics) to live by.

Would you really like a President that helped pass bills and come up with solutions based on their personal whims? Is the office of the President the right place to exercise one's religious ideology?

I wouldn't, and I don't think so.

Leave that to the church; We can do so many things that a government can't. Jesus asks us to render unto Ceasar that which is Ceasar's, and to render unto God that which is God's.

Does God need to sit in the oval office to be powerful?

We know he doesn't...

I'm certain that Obama has a difficult time DAILY trying to "love his neighbor as he does himself" and give the public what they want, and then trying to uphold what he thinks is personally right.

I can vote for things any way I choose, because I am a free person. Obama has to deal with special interest groups, lobbyists, foreign interests, and all sorts of people that go along with the "political game" which make it hard to vote and veto in a simple and easy way.

As Christians, we are called simply to respect authority (Romans 13:1).
Let us pray for Obama, that he might find comfort and solace in his daily struggle to weave two parts of himself together.

We should seek to become better people and better Christians, understanding the word in it's completeness, instead of just in pieces. This way, we may disciple others into the truth and understanding that is Jesus Christ.

Only that can change the country. Don't imagine that a government or its leaders could ever do that for you.

Dani

9

Dani replied to Andrew Willis's comment

Very well said.

Kenneth

2

Kenneth replied to Dani's comment

Our LORD Yahshua has said those who inflict pain on others will have that pain visited on them in Eternity. When you see the Agony of Pain babies in the womb go through when they are aborted then you know what will happen to those who inflict it including Obama.

Jacob Hamm

5

Jacob Hamm commented…

I agree the the Easter breakfast is encouraging, but I don't really see it having a great impact on culture as a whole. Culture's view of Christianity and "Christians" as a whole seems to be at a low because of the actions of some these so called "christians" in the public sphere. I think most, if not all, christian political forces (like Dobson), have done far more damage for Christianity than they have done good. Their comments, actions, and opinions in "speaking for christianity" have left most culture thinking of all christians and a close minded, exclusionary hate group.

It's an easy argument to make with scripture that Obama is in office because God placed him there, and God is in control. It's also an easy argument to make that Christianity is a grass roots movement, has always functioned as a grass roots movement, and has nothing to do with top down legislation to influence our culture. We need to spend less time worrying about politicians and more time worrying about our next door neighbors, showing genuine faith to them and loving them and growing the faith one relationship at a time. While Jesus had thousands of followers at one time or another, he had relationships with 12 and very close relationships with 3. Those 12 men changed the world, and they didn't do so from a political office or public position.

The idea of America as a Christian Nation was never Biblical, and in my opinion it caused the Church to rest on its laurels because we were the "majority". While I appreciate Obama's effort to continue his faith by discussing these issues with other leaders, I don't look to the president or congress to grow Christianity. That's on me. That's on you. That's on each one of us.

Michael Wear

3

Michael Wear replied to Jacob Hamm's comment

I appreciate this comment, Jacob, and I agree with a great deal of it. Thank you for contributing to the conversation in such a constructive way.

Peter Schwich

1

Peter Schwich commented…

Thank you for sharing this article with us. I appreciate the president taking advantage of opportunities to witness to his faith even as he works to be a servant to all of those in our country, whether they share his faith commitments or not.

Reading these comments, I've been struck by how easy it is for us to conflate our own political commitments, which we form looking at the world through the lenses of God's story revealed in Scripture (at least that's what we aspire to do), with God's political commitments. We ought to be humble enough to realize that while things Jesus said and did give us an overarching kingdom ethic, these don't always map onto contemporary questions as neatly as we might hope. This is, of course, not to say that Scripture leaves us without any words of guidance on issues like abortion or poverty or environmental stewardship. But it's a pretty big leap to say "God supports cap-and-trade because of Genesis 1" or "There is absolutely never a time when abortion is the most humane of what are only tragic options because of Genesis 1-2." We obviously have a long history of disagreement among Christians in this country on a variety of issues. It doesn't get us very far to start judging the validity of other people's faith based on whether they agree with us or not. We're all guilty of doing this. Liberals simply can't imagine how a Christian could support a party that wants to cut investment in education and welfare support for the least among us while spending more on defense than the Pentagon even requests. Conservatives can't imagine how a Christian could vote for a candidate who thinks abortion should be safe and legal and available. Let's have those debates. But let's also realize that we don't have a monopoly on truth. Christians don't have a monopoly on truth. How much more should any one segment of Christians be humble, realizing that others may well see something in a way that is more consistent with what God desires?

God knows President Obama's heart. No doubt there are aspects of his heart that God delights in and others that God continues to work to heal. Critics on both the left and the right deride Obama for compromising (what we assume to be) his ideals for political reasons. I think his reply would be that he has chosen to serve through politics and sometimes that requires sacrificing your own priorities and commitments because we don't have a dictatorship. Go ahead and have frustrations and disappointments about the decisions and compromises he makes. We all do. But that doesn't mean we need to question his heart. His is broken just like the rest of ours. I am quite sure he is a kinder, more compassionate, more thoughtful and intelligent man than I am. I have no reason to believe that he is trying to follow God's plan for his life and to use his influence for kingdom purposes. I pray that he will have the ears to hear God's will, the wisdom to understand it, and the strength to follow it. May we all be so blessed.

Kaysi

8

Kaysi replied to Peter Schwich's comment

Wow Peter, that was incredibly well said! Thank you for sharing!

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