(RNS) From the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage to the fear of Islam and the proposed religious testing of refugees, faith has exerted a mighty pull on politics this year.
Fervent presidential aspirants wield faith-rooted arguments running the gamut of policy proposals. But amid the prophets on every corner and op-ed page, President Obama continues to keep his personal faith relatively private.
On immigration, the president has met with evangelical leaders to position himself in unity with this strategic voting bloc, though he is not an evangelical himself. On climate change, he heralded the pope’s call to care for God’s creation, though he is not Catholic. On terrorism, he’s met with Muslim leaders to reject Islamophobia and extremism. But, contrary to the belief of some on the conservative fringe, the president is not Muslim.
The president professes a fairly conventional Protestant Christian faith and lives it out through his lifelong commitment to prophetic social action as a community organizer and elected official. In a 2008 campaign interview with megachurch pastor Rick Warren, he said he believes “that Jesus Christ died for my sins and that I am redeemed through him.” But for the president, that faith entails “a sense of obligation to embrace not just words, but through deeds, the expectations, I think, that God has for us. And that means thinking about the least of these.”
When the president does talk about faith, he lifts up the voices of faith leaders who agree with him on the issue at hand and makes references to religious or Christian values broadly. Take his recent remarks in Antalya, Turkey, after the Paris terrorist attacks: “We don’t feed that kind of notion that somehow Christians and Muslims are at war,” he told reporters. “In the same way that the Muslim community has an obligation not to in any way excuse anti-Western or anti-Christian sentiment, we have the same obligation as Christians.”
The closest he came to personal witness was in the eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney after the shooting in Charleston, S.C. Obama declared: “As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.” And to rousing applause, he said, “it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.” Even in a rare appearance in the pulpit, the president stuck to collective and overgeneralized statements.
Speaking in such broad terms about Christianity obscures the potential power of his personal witness. But he has reason to not make it personal.
The first reason concerns the cloud of suspicion hanging over the president’s faith since he was attacked both over his church pastor, Jeremiah Wright Jr., and his Muslim father during the 2008 election. This is a wound the president would rather not open, and that’s understandable.
GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee opined recently that the president "pretends to be" a Christian. And a September 2015 CNN poll found that 29 percent of Americans say they think the president is a Muslim, while only 39 percent correctly answered that he is a “Protestant or other Christian.”
The other reason concerns increasing secularization of the United States in general and the Democratic Party specifically. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds the U.S. population becoming less religious across several factors. While 77 percent of Americans still identify with a religious group, one Pew finding must have stuck out for Democratic leaders. For the first time, religious “nones” now make up the largest religious group of Democrats and Democratic-leaning adults.
The president’s reluctance to make policy claims from his personal faith makes sense given the attitudes of his party and the nation as a whole. But he does have a few recent examples to draw on if he were to shift course. Vice President Joe Biden made waves talking with his fellow Catholic Stephen Colbert about his faith and the death of his son. The two top Democratic hopefuls have waded into the fraught waters of faith and politics, with Bernie Sanders speaking at Liberty University and Hillary Clinton recently preaching at the Methodist church she attended during her husband’s administration.
Responding to a flurry of religious debates influencing politics might push him to engage his own personal faith in the public square more. He cited a spike in awareness and incidents about race as his reason for talking more openly about what it means to be black in America.
Speaking forcefully about his personal faith and progressive policy agenda would be a welcome, timely and authentic turn for Obama in his final year in office. It would also be a throwback to why he got into politics in the first place. During the 2008 Democratic primary, before the controversy with his pastor arose he described himself as a "devout Christian," telling a CNN forum at Messiah College that he started his community work by working with churches in the shadow of steel plants that had closed on the South Side of Chicago.
With no more elections to win, what remains for President Obama is to ask: What are our religious obligations given the countless issues facing us? Perhaps the president might answer some of those questions before he leaves office.
(Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons writes about faith and public policy. From 2011 to 2015, he worked at the National Immigration Forum mobilizing Christians to advocate for the value of immigrants and immigration to America. Follow him at @guthriegf)