Note: Robert Weiner and Richard Mann wrote the epilogue for Bankole Thompson's just-released book, “Obama and Christian Loyalty,” a compendium of interviews and analysis by some of the country's religious leaders. Weiner later gave the keynote address November 12 at the National Conference on Faith and Governance at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit, on which the following is largely based.
First, opponents depicted President Barack Obama as an undercover Muslim sent to infiltrate the United States. Then, detractors tried to frame his church as a haven of radicalism. Even after his election, the criticism continued.
Opposition against President Obama picked up steam in 2010 during the debate over the health care bill, which passed despite insurance company resistance. For some reason, providing proper health care to those who can't afford it mobilized people who thought they were “Taxed Enough Already.” If you remove all the political chatter, the health care bill is about caring for the poor, and, really, all Americans. It protects anyone with a pre-existing condition. It allows children to stay on their parents' insurance until they are 26 years old. It gives coverage to 30 million low-income people who do not have it and are dying younger than rich people. And when we talk about the need for the health care bill, it is not just for the poor.
Health care costs have been the major reason for Americans declaring bankruptcy – over half of all bankruptcies – and for the mortgage debacle, including housing foreclosures. People who have saved for retirement or college for their kids have seen their savings wiped out and then some. That we have the “best health care in the world” is a myth. As the ONLY civilized society without a national health program, we are 43rd in infant mortality, 47th in life expectancy and spend twice as much as any other country. Who do we pay for this low service level? The unconscionably rich insurance companies.
In theory, anyone who claims to be guided by Christianity or any other religion should have a hard time opposing such a compassionate program as providing our basic right to decent health care.
While those on the religious right wear their faith as a badge, at the same time they also work to undermine programs such as health care, Social Security and Medicare. It is an attempt to undermine all New Deal programs by Franklin Roosevelt and undo the social progress for those less fortunate since that time. How did America become a nation where party trumps morality and, in fact, morality is defined by party? The abuse of religion by the right in this country is hypocrisy.
In August, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas jump-started his campaign with a prayer rally for 30,000 supporters at Houston's Reliant Stadium. During his speech, he said: “Father, our heart breaks for America. We see discord at home. We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government.” Then, when he called Social Security – which has ended poverty for 75 percent of seniors for 76 years – a Ponzi scheme, his campaign began to unravel before he gave a spacey presentation in New Hampshire and, in the last debate, couldn't remember three agencies he wanted to name.
Incidentally, during Perry's tenure as governor, the proportion of residents without health insurance in Texas rose to the highest in the nation; his state also has the lowest level of access to prenatal care. Yet, he has been a staunch opponent of the new health care bill and has repeatedly pledged to repeal the law on his first day of office if he gets the chance.
Perry may have exacerbated the very “discord” he was referring to. Working together for the good of the people does not create discord. Leaving the poor dangerously uninsured, starving, and with no funds for education creates discord and opposition. Bailing out the banks but not giving jobs or housing or health care resources to our citizens creates discord and opposition – and we're seeing opposition at last in the Occupy Wall Street movement across the country.
Having a prayer rally does not make you religious. Words at a prayer event may be guided by faith, but what happens outside the stadium walls is what counts.
Moreover, you do not have to flaunt your faith to be guided by religion. Newly released tapes by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis reveal that President John Kennedy prayed every night.
Another Republican candidate for president, Michele Bachmann, claims that her faith is the underpinning of everything she does. But she is selective. Bachmann has worked tirelessly as an abortion rights opponent and attempted to ban gay marriage, claiming religion justifies her positions. The connection is dubious at best. In addition, what religious principle justifies returning seniors to poverty by slicing Social Security and Medicare while opposing any revenue source to fix the programs – including refusing to end disproportionate tax breaks for the rich? What religious principle guided her in her repeated, proud declarations that she wants to repeal “Obamacare”?
Poverty is at its highest level in decades no matter which study or recent rewrite you use. One in six Americans, and one in four children, lives under the poverty line. The disparity between rich and poor has tripled in the last three decades – it's now the biggest disparity since 1915, the age of the robber barons – largely because of policies increasing tax breaks for the rich, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and thanks to enhancing the coffers of America's contractors for defense and our wars abroad. Fear of excessive defense funding to contractors is not a partisan issue. President Dwight Eisenhower warned of “the military-industrial complex.” But we have done nothing about it other than continue to allow it to grow.
Creating austerity to balance the budget has replaced jobs as America's priority. Yet the Bible – in the Old and New Testaments – emphasizes helping the poor and those less fortunate.
The presidential contenders want even more tax breaks for corporations and wealthy individuals – despite CBO's indication that jobs and tax breaks for middle- and lower-income people give America three times more benefit than tax breaks for the rich. During the debt ceiling crisis, Bachmann was one of the lead opponents to raising the ceiling, even though any reasonable person knew it had to be done. In the same breath, she says all her decisions are founded on the calling of faith.
Bachmann sent the president a letter complaining that he does not use the word “God” enough after he invoked the name four times during a speech in Indonesia.
Another controversial area for politicians who claim to be guided by religion is science. National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Dr. Francis Collins wrote a book on the importance of science-based decisions and how faith and religion intersect. There is no conflict, he wrote: science led to and nurtures his faith in God, and you can have both. In 2006, Collins wrote “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.” In an MSNBC interview on November 4, writer-philosopher Deepak Chopra said: “Science expands the possibilities of God … Science makes us more spiritual because the more you learn, the more there is that is unknown.”
The presidential candidates and the House and Senate need to understand: religion does not block acknowledging science, including global warming, evolution and the economic facts. Jobs and tax programs for middle- and lower-income people increase the nation's gross domestic product (GDP) – they help create jobs and consumer spending – while tax breaks for the rich, handed out in the hope that their tax savings will “trickle down” into the rest of the economy, hasn't worked since Herbert Hoover tried it.
The facts show that tax breaks for the rich deplete the economy – they drain our budget, contribute to the deficit and do not create jobs. Since the 1930s, we've had 5.5 percent GDP growth under Democratic presidents with jobs and people priorities. Under the other side's administrations, with tax breaks for the rich, we've had a 1.5 percent GDP growth. Those are the graphed and charted facts. God did not create man to be an ostrich with his head in the sand ignoring science and facts; God created a high-powered creature at the top of the intellectual pyramid. We are people, not ostriches. President Obama understands and uses these facts. His opponents fictionalize the facts and abuse religion as a reason for doing so.
In addition, national religious leaders have allowed themselves to be used by politicians to assuage their guilt for sins so they can look good. Trotting VIP preachers like Billy Graham, and, now, his son Franklin, over to the White House, as presidents have done regardless of party, or conducting a “prayer breakfast” does not make a national leader truly religious. After a president has done something bad, religious leaders must avoid being “used” as political vehicles. The images of their comings and goings to and from the White House at those times makes me feel hollow.
It is laughable, for example, that Herman Cain even tries to justify his recent statements given all that's coming out. But concerns about his prior conduct aside, how can he justify saying that government has no role in finding jobs or helping people, and that desperately poor people should go to churches – that's what he said* – to seek help.
How about Mitt Romney's statement, “Let Detroit go bankrupt,” referring to Detroit's auto industry? Later, on the housing crisis, he said, “Don't try to stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit rock bottom.” I don't care if he's Mormon or not, but is dismissing a whole city and blowing off thousands of workers' jobs religious? Is throwing people out of their homes religious? Can you be heartless and religious at the same time? I think not. And those weren't aberrant quotes – he repeated the same views in a recent debate in Detroit.
With that backdrop, no wonder President Obama says “America can't wait,” and, by executive order, increased mortgage payment opportunities, as well as student loans (given our fall from first in the world to twelfth for recent college completion). In light of Congress' inaction and its resultant 9 percent approval rating in the polls – an amazing historic low – it's no wonder Obama is trying to do the right thing by working around them.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a stalwart at the annual prayer breakfasts, has maintained that the Republicans' number-one goal is defeating Obama in 2012. So, their goal is not fixing the economy or creating jobs, it is simply to win a presidential election. Despite all the talk about religion and faith, the manifesto is winning an election. A moral purpose should drive elected leaders to seek office to represent the people, not just power for power's sake. If politics means anything, it's the power to do good for the most people possible.
On the other hand, the president has bent over backwards to work across the aisle. In the effort to be bipartisan, he has even done things that were unpopular among his base. He compromised on extending the Bush-era tax cuts in order to extend unemployment benefits and tuition tax credits. He seems agreeable on a variety of the proposed Republican deficit reduction plans in order to govern – as his press spokesman told me despite my criticisms of compromises. If anything, Obama's biggest fault has been his willingness to work with opponents who are acting in truly bad faith, people unwilling to do something positive for the country. They only want to defeat him and any programs he leads. Religion is not guiding them; it's greed for their campaign contributors' objectives in legislation, and greed for power just for power's sake.
In 2008, after ABC News released a story documenting controversial sermons by Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright, the future president spent four straight days crafting a speech known now as “A More Perfect Union.”
He said: “It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless or education to our children. But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And so many generations have come to realize over the course of the 221 years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.”
On that night, he summarized his faith and his political perspective. Human beings and societies are not perfect, but it is our obligation to strive for that ideal. It is not about winning political victories, creating division among people or how many times you say “God” in a speech. It is about doing what is right, or as President Obama said, “Being my brothers' and sisters' keeper, treating others as they would treat me.”
That is only one scriptural reference. There are directives to help the poor and needy everywhere in the Bible – in both the New and Old Testaments:
Deuteronomy 15:7. If there is a poor man among you, one of your brothers, in any of the towns of the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.
Proverbs 29:7. The righteous is concerned for the rights of the poor; the wicked does not understand such concern.
Mathew 5:42 Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.
and, perhaps the most direct message:
1 John 3:17-18 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
The United States does not need some so-called “religious” excuse for making the rich richer. Faith is the basis for improving the lives of the oppressed and the needy, the foundation for helping others.
President Obama said his Christian faith was a “sustaining force.” He said prayer was a source of strength and a reminder that God had a larger purpose for our lives. He said he strived to see God in others and his public service was “part of that effort to express my Christian faith.” He said God's grace had called on him to reflect and pray. He said the irony of faith is that it admits doubt, and that that doubt should humble and compel us to remain open and curious to debate. He said: “If there is one law that we can be most certain of, it is the law that binds people of all faiths and no faith together. It's no coincidence that it exists in Christianity and Judaism, in Islam and Hinduism, in Buddhism and humanism. It is, of course, the golden rule – the call to treat one another as we wish to be treated. The call to love. The call to serve. To do what we can to make a difference in the lives of those with whom we share the same brief moment on this Earth.”
False though it be, Barack Obama has been attacked by opponents who claim he is not a Christian. How is it religious – how is it Christian, or Jewish or Muslim, at least – to oppose health care, jobs bills, housing aid for the poor, Social Security for seniors, or to argue, “Let Detroit go bankrupt,” when compassion is the basis of all religions? How dare Obama's opponents attack him for loyalty to religion and Christianity when they vaunt their own, but act in contradiction to all its precepts. After all, “Let us not love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth.”
* “It is time to admit the mistakes, and get the federal government out of the way. This will allow states, cities, churches, charities and businesses to offer a helping hand instead of a handout where they live. People closest to the problems are the best ones to solve the problems effectively.” This was on Cain's campaign web site, but has been taken down.