April 21, 2009
Recently President Obama made a series of important speeches in Western Europe and in Turkey. He said that “the United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam” and that “we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation.” He is right on both counts. These passages must be understood in the context of his sophisticated view of the role of religion and government.
This was demonstrated by his Inauguration and his frequent use of examples such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. There is a bipartisan American consensus on this issue.
President Obama is following the lead of President Bush in defending religious liberty for all Americans while using his Christian principles to govern. Understanding how he can do both is vital to helping the rest of the world imitate U.S. success in securing freedom of religion without forcing religious people to privatize their faith.
Both North Korea and Iran have recently been in the news as threats to American peace and prosperity. Neither nation has achieved the constitutional compromise necessary to make a society moral and free. North Korea forces a secularist ideology on everyone and suppresses religious conscience. Extremists in Iran create religious conformity that is too pervasive and allows for too little freedom of choice to minority religious groups. President Obama is trying to be part of a long tradition of American governmental leaders balancing between the two extremes and urging other nations to do the same.
Both Bush and Obama have recommended the Islamic people follow our example, especially in unsteady but functioning democracies like Turkey. Many in the Islamic world are doing so, but not the terrorists who follow leaders such Bin Laden.
The terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11 use Islamic language to mask fascist or socialist tendencies. They take God’s will into their own hands and their cruelty shows no true submission to the will of Allah. George W. Bush argued that this demonic religion is not the religion of the hundreds of millions of Islamic people worldwide. He frequently pointed out that thousands of American Muslims are loyal Americans. President Obama agrees and adds the credibility gained from his personal experience as a Christian who has lived in a majority Islamic nation to argue that Islam can follow a better path than that taken by extremists.
President Obama argued that the members of any religion, including Islam, could be good citizens of the United States. The Christian majority has designed a system in the United States where this is possible.
American is mostly Christian without being a Christian state.
Unlike Great Britain our nation is not identified with a monarch, but a set of principles. We swear an oath to a constitution and not a Queen. Historically the monarch is Britain just as the constitution is the United States. The Queen can be Christian, but a constitution cannot be a member of a religion anymore than it can join a political party.
President Obama could just as rightly have said that as Head of State he is not a Democrat or a Republican.
U.S. Christians are a good example for religious people around the world about how to act on one’s faith in public affairs. Christians like President Obama govern as Christians without forcing others to be Christians. We know a good bit about President Obama’s values, for good and bad, by knowing the form of Christianity he embraces.
This has always been true.
Abraham Lincoln used Evangelical votes and values to gain the Presidency. Christian ministers like the Reverend Martin Luther King used his Christian values and an appeal to those values in other Americans to advances civil rights.
It is natural religion should shape public life. President Obama’s conscience has been shaped by Christian ideas and his decision-making is shaped, in part, by these religious ideas. One of these ideas is freedom of conscience and limited powers for the government.
If President Obama acts consistently with his faith, he will respect others’ right to practice a different faith. The US constitution was designed from hard learned lessons by Christian civilization to allow for such liberty.
Christians remain a dominant presence in the United States. Recent polling this Easter claimed that 79% of Americans believe Jesus rose from the dead, but this Christian majority refrains from acting in a way to exclude the non-Christian minority as much as possible. We have created a governmental framework by our lives and blood that allows for maximum participation from diverse peoples that can accept the constitution.
As the majority, Christians have done most of the work of building the nation, but welcomed other participants. They have managed to celebrate their faith in the public square without forcing others to believe as they do. This is a great accomplishment that secularists in places like Albania and religious in places like Russia have yet to achieve.
President Obama’s own inauguration demonstrated this wonderful balance. He took the oath of office on a Christian Bible and the music of the event was soaked in Christian language. We have been and remain a Christian majority without refusing citizenship to the non-Christian minority. Though practiced imperfectly this tolerance has been a great historical achievement. Other groups, religious and otherwise, would be wise to learn this American Christian tolerance.
President Obama has a theology and philosophy, which is informing his morality, which impacts his politics. To the extent that I disagree with his theology, I will disagree with some of his decisions. A few seem positively immoral to many of us and we use constitutionally guaranteed means to protest and try to overturn them.
Despite these strong disagreements with some of the President’s positions, as the constitutional head of state he remains my President. By showing respect and opposition, I am true to my faith while remaining a patriot. Hopefully even this small example of loyal opposition will demonstrate how a nation can contain many different theologies and philosophies while still sharing common space amicably.
John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.