Wineskins Archive

January 21, 2014

Whither Obama’s America? (Jan – Feb 2009)

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by Perry C. Cotham
January – February, 2009

As heated debate raged over the American economic crisis and how to remedy it, the glow of a new president diminished somewhat, at least for a vocal minority. Any prediction about the direction the United States will take in the immediate future is suspect. While economic depression, recessions, and wars and rumors of war are certainly not new, the nation finds itself in a unique situation.

President Barack Obama’s Inauguration was like none previous—from the diverse hundreds of thousands who were drawn to Washington for the ceremony to the immense funding required to finance the event, the intense media coverage worldwide, and the giddiness and good will expressed by the most diverse group of Americans ever gathered in Washington. Even if the honeymoon with the 44th president is ending, the Inaugural event is fresh on our minds. How appropriate to ask about Obama’s America—what we have become as a nation—and what that transformation means for America.

Inaugural prayers seem typically like ceremonial tipping one’s hat to God, a ritual that most audience members sit through passively with eyes glancing at others while patiently and respectfully awaiting the utterance of “amen.” In this inaugural, the two prayers, an invocation and a benediction that bracketed the entire ceremony, elicited much more attention. Upon Rick Warren’s selection for the invocation, a group of liberals and gay rights activists spoke unequivocally against the popular preacher’s participation because of his opposition to legalized same-sex marriage. The benediction was led by Joseph Lowery, a United Methodist minister and long-time activist and unofficial dean in the civil rights movement.

The prayers reflected the background and mindset of both religious leaders. At this point, I gratefully acknowledge a seminal idea from Ken Locke, pastor of the downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville: the prayers illustrated both a great chasm that still plagues America as well point to a new direction for this nation based both on what these clerics said and did not say. And, of course, most importantly, we draw meaning and inspiration from the new president’s Inaugural address. What is the face of Obama’s new America?

This nation is not, of course, “Obama’s America!” Nor is it solely your America or my America. It is not the America of any one citizen, any one political party, any one interest group, or any one religion or church. The context of the entire Inauguration was irrepressible diversity, a nation of people who want their beliefs acknowledged in the most important ritual of American civil religion. And while Obama drew from a biblical allusion (“setting aside childish things”), for the first time in history a president reached out to secularists and called the U. S. “a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus—and nonbelievers.” This addition, though subtle, was historic.

Warren’s prayer quoted ancient Judaism’s most important shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is One” and called God “the compassionate and merciful one,” a phrase from Islamic piety. He invoked the name of Jesus as mediator of his prayer, though only in a personal way. Warren also underscored the long-held, white middle-class belief that in America anything is possible, but used the rise of “the son of an African immigrant …to the highest level of leadership” as primary evidence. Lowery’s prayer, delivered in the poetic, cadenced style of the African-American Christian preacher, forwarded a civil rights theme that began with a reference to oppression and quoted a verse from James Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Encouragingly, with major differences in life experiences, both religious leaders sought God’s guidance for our nation and God’s forgiveness for past sins.

What these religious leaders, as well as Obama himself, did NOT say also spoke volumes. Each conveyed a sense of humility about oneself and the nation he loved. There was no sense of American triumphalism or national arrogance about the past. No mention of Manifest Destiny in international affairs. No hint that America is the most righteous nation on earth and that a few other threatening nations are evil. No sense that God established a special covenant with America, that America was the special “light unto the nations” of the world, that America was basically good and has always done right by all its citizens, that God has blessed America more than any other nation in the world, that American might makes right, and that America’s enemies must be punished or at least live in fear of reprisal. Instead, there was a sense that we must learn from experiences of the past, and yet a belief that the American dream still exists.

In this “new America,” the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 44 percent of today’s young adults currently profess a different faith from the one in which they were raised. Christians might be most relevant in today’s America by raising new questions, questions for which answers are neither simple nor universally accepted. A few examples:

    • We sing and pray, “God bless America,” but what kind of America are we asking God to bless? Are God’s blessings the growth in GNP, consumption, employment, technology, and production, or, on the other hand, growth in relationship-building, conflict resolution, respect for others, commitment to the common good, ordinary decency, spiritual insight, and wisdom?


  • Do we truly believe that America is great, not when it boasts military superiority or offers threats to rogue leaders of other nations, but when its citizens acknowledge its mistakes, accepts all people as individuals, and seeks a servant role as a genuine path to greatness?



  • When we speak of religious diversity, we no longer speak simplistically of Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Pentecostals, and Baptists living in the same community, but rather of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians living and interacting together. What might we as Christians learn, not simply about others so different from ourselves, but from others?



  • While secular humanism has been around for centuries, interest in atheism seems rising. Can we listen to voices radically different from our own? Can we conduct civil dialogue with humanists, atheists, and other unbelievers for the purposes of mutual understanding and testing ideas in the public forum? Are people with doubts and tough questions welcome at our places of worship and study?



  • And who are my neighbors? Are undocumented workers and their families, typically referenced as “illegal immigrants,” our neighbors? Who are “the least of these” and how can we minister to them in Jesus’ name? Should we insist that they speak the English language (what language would Jesus speak?) and worship in the same way that we prefer worship? (And, incidentally, the fastest growing segment of U. S. population is the Latino community, with eight Latinos being born for every one that dies.)



  • What role do Christians accept in the larger international community? Do we lend our voices and purses not simply to foreign missions but also to the causes of international poverty, international health issues, and environmental decay?



  • What is the meaning of life in its deepest sense? For too long, many evangelicals have considered abortion the only “life” issue in culture and politics. Are not war, poverty, disease, health care, death penalty, human trafficking, nuclear weapons, and children’s health care worldwide also key life issues Christians should address? Would not a consistent ethic of life be holistic and broadly-based?



  • Since the Bible speaks so much about peace and our Savior, known as “Prince of Peace,” announced blessing upon peacemakers, can our Christian churches and academic institutions provide environments where peace is valued, studied, practiced, and advanced? Might the real authorities in international peace be not simply our political leaders and ambassadors, but our Christian professors and Christian scholars?


“Change” seemed a vague and over-worked word in the 2008 campaign. Yet, resist or embrace it, change is reality. Old lines are being blurred. Marriages and alliances of all kinds are more mixed. New technologies alter the way we work, communicate, and learn. May God give us strength and wisdom to renew our minds by his Spirit, confront our challenges courageously, and maintain our witness faithfully.New Wineskins

Perry CothamDr. Perry C. Cotham is an adjunct professor at Lipscomb University, Middle Tennessee State University, and Nashville State Community College in the fields of religion, history, and communication and the author of One World/Many Neighbors, ACU Press, 2008.

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