Healthy Interaction About Obama

Hey folks,

Here is a comment left recently by my friend Josh Dove. Notice a couple things. First, it's very irenic (meaning it's designed to be a peaceful interaction, rather than inflammatory) even when disagreeing. Second, he considered all the information that was presented. And third, he has some very helpful points and arguments! I'll put my response at the end, but I wanted to highlight an example of good disagreement between Christians. The beautiful thing, as you'll note, is that disagreeing peacefully actually helps people find more common ground than you might expect!


This is an interesting post. I've thought about the post overnight before watching the YouTube video this morning and wanted to share a few thoughts/ask a few questions.

(A) The whole issue of how, exactly, Rev. Wright's comments should affect Sen. Obama's candidacy has not been thought about nearly enough. Here are a few clarifying thoughts:

1. I accept that Obama going to this church for 20 years does not, necessarily, mean that he holds all the same views as Rev. Wright. We all need to be intellectually honest about this.

2. But, these and other comments by Rev. Wright DO at least raise questions about Sen. Obama's core convictions. Because I don't believe Sen. Obama could have been ignorant of Wright's anti-American positions (and by his own admission he was at the church at least sometimes when controversial statements were made) I submit that Sen. Obama's attendance and support for the church poses the following dilemma. Either:

(a) Obama knew of the church's positions and is sympathetic enough with them to remain in the church, which I think questions his judgment, or

(b) Obama knew of the church's positions, and though he opposed them, said (apparently) nothing, kept giving money to the church, and decided to stay (perhaps for political reasons?). This questions his integrity.

The crux of this disjunction rests on Obama's assertions that racial healing/unity is his core concern. My observation is simply that you CANNOT have racial healing as a core value, in any intellectually honest way, and attend for 20 years a church that, to say the least, borders on racism (or, if you want to be even more precise, I might simply say stokes, rather than settles, racial tension).

Is that fair?

In sum, Rev. Wright has a constitutional right, as does Sen. Obama, to hold to whatever opinion he wants to. This is obvious. But I don't want a President who lends a sympathetic ear to an influential anti-American pastor. Obama may, or may not, sympathize with Wright's positions, but were I, or almost anyone that I know, subjected to such ideology from the pulpit, I would raise strong, public objections and/or I would leave. Obama seems to have done neither. For 20 years.

(B) The CHIEF tragedy of Rev. Wright is how he has made a mockery of the pulpit and the Gospel. Liberation theology is not Gospel theology.

(C) I did listen to Sen. Obama's speech in its entirety, and I thought it was terrible, not in the delivery but in the content. But, that is for another discussion. I merely mention this to evidence that I have taken into account Sen. Obama's response.

At any rate, you can only trust that I submit these comments in a spirit of cordial conversation, rather than that of debate. We should both harbor few expectations of changing the other's mind, but a little clarity and friendly exchange could prove quite interesting.

Best wishes,

Ok, this was a fantastic comment, but I do have some differences. Thankfully Josh has broken his questions down very clearly, so I'll just respond as they were written.

A) Josh suggests that a person cannot attend a church for 20 years while disagreeing with a large political/theological issue such as a severely negative view of America. The fact that he says he did means he is either sympathetic to the views or has a lack of integrity.

My disagreement here rests on two things. First, I believe Obama's membership at his church was partially pragmatic. Nearly his entire career, before an almost miracle run to the Senate and presidential candidacy, was devoted to one local area in downtown Chicago. Anyone who has tried to get something done politically in a largely African-American community knows that the church is the spiritual, cultural, and political center of African-American community life. I'm sure Obama was much more effective as a community organizer and state senator by being a member of that church than he would have at, say, a small church in the suburbs. And to put it frankly, it would have been very hard to find a church with a non-liberation theology perspective. But as Obama himself says, he was invited to church by others, and while there experienced his spiritual "conversion." Whatever you think of his theology, the fact is that it was a powerful experience for him, and that type of thing breeds a lot of loyalty. Combine that with the understanding of the church as "center of the community" (rather than ONLY "place of worship") and you have understandable ingredients for a local community organizer to stay at the same place and become deeply ingrained in that community.

Second, I DO believe you can be part of a church, for a specific reason (in Obama's case, community influence), and disagree with fairly major things. My last church was American Baptist. I disagreed on their egalitarianism, certain church practices, and a host of denominational problems. However, while I was in that city, my wife and I had a specific role and mission there. We had a flourishing ministry with college students, a Sunday School class I taught, friends we had accountability with, and a pastor and his wife who loved and mentored us. We became a close part of that wonderful little community, and we very likely would have stayed if God had not led us elsewhere. Does the fact that my church allowed women to preach disqualify me from being president of the CBMW someday?

B) Josh says the chief tragedy of Reverend Wright is his commitment to liberation theology, which is not gospel theology.

Josh is absolutely correct about this. Liberation theology, as far as I can tell, is a false gospel which I have never seen preach the true gospel correctly. It is wildly popular in poverty-stricken areas, including most inner cities (especially African American communities), the shantytowns and favelas of Latin America, and other places.

Keep in mind, though, that this is true of the Health and Prosperity Gospel as well, which is huge in a lot of white and Asian communities. The church must constantly be speaking to all of these groups, proclaiming the one true gospel of Jesus Christ.

And as a matter of politics, keep in mind that McCain is certainly no Christian!

C) I'll be interested to see which things Josh disliked about the Obama speech. As far as I could tell, it was well researched and quite honest. The vast majority of factual information he communicated was true as far as I know and have studied.

But, as Josh says, we'll have to discuss it together when we get the chance. I am also going to spend some time talking with an African-American friend of mine here at the seminary, so that he can give me some insights into some of the things Obama said, as well as how he views his role in a church that he has some large theological disagreements with, but is working to reform (that last bit should tip you off that his mission is very different from Obama's, so I don't mean to equate them. I just plan to get some good insight from him).

Anyways, I hope this and my original post on Obama have been helpful examples of how Christians can discuss contentious issues like politics, race, and abortion in a thoughtful and constructive way.

And yes, I'm planning on doing a post (as I said I would) when I get the time about how a Christian can vote for someone who supports abortion.

Till next time.


Alex Fear said...

Since I've already been part of earlier discussion on Obama, I thought I'd add to this one.

Regardless of what you think of Obama, check out the recent YouTube videos which are showing Rev Wrights Fox News Sound-Bites in in context as part of the sermon he is speaking:


And whilst you may be right about the 'liberation gospel' there is one huge difference between that and teaching such as the 'prosperity gospel'. The prosperity gospel is counter to the message of Jesus, it's evolved out of the Western Protestant 'work ethic' and made up largely of capitalist values rather than Christian ones.

In contrast the 'liberation gospel' is parallel to the message of Jesus. Whilst Jesus spoke mostly of the Kingdom of Heaven, helping the poor, standing up for the defenseless and challenging oppressors are all outworkings of a life of faith.

Yes liberation can go to the extreme and depart from the message, but whilst capitalism leaves a large majority in the dust, liberation tends to pick up those left in the dust and help them to their feet.

In short capitalism, the prosperity gospel is about what can I do for me (and my church)? How best can I serve my needs (then help others)?

liberation asks what can I do for those less fortunate than me or stuck in the same boat, regardless of my own reputation or welfare?

j. dove said...


You indeed have a thoughtful response. As you alluded in your post, we'll have to follow-up by conversing in person. I'll just offer a few quick comments and then I'd better get back to writing a book review:

1. I agree with your assessment as to the possible reasons Sen. Obama attended that church (mainly to be influential in that part of Chicago and because of his loyalty to the pastor/church flowing from his "spiritual conversion" (the quotes are because it's a quote, not to cast doubt on his experience).

2. But granting that, it may lessen the charge I have laid in my original post, but not excuse it. In other words, let me be more precise: it makes Sen. Obama seem VERY disingenuous.

Let me explain by using your very analogy. If your chief mission in life was to combat egalitarianism, it would not make sense for you to attend a church that made egalitarianism a prominent issue. Nor would it make sense for you to take as a mentor the person who was foremost in promoting it. Furthermore, there would seem to be some evidence of you trying to take corrective action. And your other purpose for going to the church would seemingly be known to others, as would your disagreement with this prominent element of the church's life.

Of course, as you noted, it's not out of the realm of possibility to attend a church that preaches things you disagree with. Even very prominent, serious, big issues. There may be other circumstances at play that justify it. I just haven't seen what those things are with Sen. Obama.

(And again, I haven't said I believe Sen. Obama agrees with all of Rev. Wright. I'll give you my overall assessment of him when we chat. It should be enough to help our reader(s) think more deeply about the issues at question to leave the post where it is.)

3. You are correct, obviously, about the prosperity gospel and about Sen. McCain's not being a Christian. This is a digression from the original post, but this very reason (the idea of the religious identity of political figures) is something that bothered me about the Huckabee candidacy, bothered me when James Dobson (whom I have huge respect for) noted Fred Thompson was not an evangelical, bothered me about criticizing Gov. Romney, etc, etc. I care about the VALUES of political candidates, not, specifically, their religion. (Without making a statement to the positive or negative regarding personal morality, I have in mind by the word values things that are more directly related to the public domain. And, it just so happens that one's religion plays a huge role in forming one's values, so the two domains overlap.)

Best wishes, and see you Sunday (Lord willing).

Your brother and friend,


Ben Bartlett said...


I think you and I will just have to disagree on this one. While there are some versions of the health and prosperity gospel and some versions of the liberation theology gospel that also teach the gospel correctly, I think they are few and far between. For the most part, as far as I have seen, churches that commit themselves to one of those two get the true gospel flat-out wrong.

Therefore, whether they have some moral similarities to the Scriptural worldview or not, they are equally false gospels in my mind.


Good points, as always. One question in my mind is this; did Obama spend those 20 years intending to be a national political leader?

Let's say I became a community organizer in downtown Louisville. I realize that I need to be part of a large African-American church, so I show up. While there, I have an amazing spiritual experience, and over the next 10 years or so grow very close with the community. AT NO POINT during this time do I realize I'll be running for President. Am I therefore disqualified?

I guess my general sense is that he joined the church for other reasons, and after a while a certain level of loyalty kicks in. Wouldn't it be a bit mercenary (or, more aptly, political) to keep moving away from communities you are close to for the sake of your career? Is moving or not moving truly the measure of your heart and mind?

I guess I just feel like we're asking him to be politically correct in the sense of abandoning the things that made him a strong community organizer and local politician for the sake of making us feel better about whether there may be some subtle agreement between him and his still-in-the-Jim-Crow-era former pastor.

Anyways, it'll be a fun discussion. Thanks as always for the helpful thoughts!

Samantha said...

Can it be possible that I agree with both Ben and Josh at the same time? I completely understand both perspectives, although I certainly cannot understand some of the choices Obama makes. I think it is extremely hard to judge his intentions. Some of the choices make me scared that he is an extreme radical, yet at the same time, I feel as though he has a genuine desire to bring hope and reform to the lesser community. My personal view is that I will not be able to weigh out all the pros and cons of his decisions but I do have a personal responsibility to understand what he stands for.

Ronald said...

I have attended quite a few churches (moved a lot as a kid; then joined the military). The one thing it has taught me is to pray before I read the Gospel--ask that I am prepared; ask to see what Christ wants me to see; and ask for help in applying it. I realize that I have biases (as does my pastor); but I don't want them around when I'm examining the treasure He has given me.