The Obama Watch

Christian America and the White House Easter

The president is not always a nonbeliever.

By 4.18.14

WhiteHouse.gov
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Liberal secular elites often gush over how religiously diverse America supposedly is. Gloomy conservatives often join this chorus, ceding America as post-Christian. But Pew Research’s new study shows that the United States, at 78 percent Christian, only ranks 68th out of 232 countries on religious diversity.

And that ranking would be much lower without the much celebrated religious “nones,” pegged by Pew at 16 percent. America’s second largest religious group is Judaism at under 2 percent. All non-Christian religion in America accounts for 5 percent.

Predominantly Muslim United Arab Emirates is more religiously diverse than the U.S., according to Pew, not to mention France, Britain, Russia, Japan, China, Australia and Israel, much less India.

So it’s unsurprising that President Obama, although not a regular churchgoer, delivered at the third annual White House Easter Prayer Breakfast Monday a fairly orthodox presentation of the Easter message of Jesus Christ dying on the cross for the world’s sins and rising from the dead:

So this Easter Week, of course we recognize that there’s a lot of pain and a lot of sin and a lot of tragedy in this world, but we’re also overwhelmed by the grace of an awesome God. We’re reminded how He loves us, so deeply, that He gave his only begotten Son so that we might live through Him. And in these Holy Days, we recall all that Jesus endured for us — the scorn of the crowds and the pain of the crucifixion, in our Christian religious tradition we celebrate the glory of the Resurrection — all so that we might be forgiven of our sins and granted everlasting life.

Obama easily could have nuanced his description of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection, making it more metaphorical, an allegory of survival against injustice, or an inspirational vignette that speaks to all faiths or no faiths. But his words were almost a sermon and don’t contradict the Nicene Creed.

As to what extent Obama, or anyone, truly believes the Easter story in its full sense, only the Lord knows the human heart. But a good politician doesn’t espouse a detailed theological assertion unless confident it resonates with the majority. As the late Richard Neuhaus would say, America remains “confusedly” Christian, if in ways that perplex and exasperate both secularists and the religiously devout.

Of course, the variant of Christianity espoused in many of the Administration’s themes and by its religious supporters is often less than orthodox in practice. At the White House Easter breakfast’s conclusion, Obama asked the Episcopal Church’s first openly homosexual bishop to say the closing prayer.

“POTUS ‘preaches’ at the Easter prayer breakfast,” later tweeted Bishop Gene Robinson. “Then, out of the blue, asks ME to close with prayer. OMG!”

OMG indeed. Liberal Episcopalianism is not currently a particularly robust form of Christianity. During Robinson’s nearly nine years as New Hampshire’s bishop his diocese lost nearly 18 percent of membership. That loss exceeded the national Episcopal Church loss of 14 percent during that time, as Robinson’s election was followed by schism and accelerated membership decline.

Robinson was by no means the only Episcopal social liberal at the White House prayer breakfast. There was the Rev. Harry Knox, formerly head of the main Episcopal LGBT caucus, now heading the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which touts unrestricted abortion on demand as a religious right. Knox serves on the President’s Council on Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships.

Also present at the prayer breakfast was Unitarian Universalist clergy and sexologist Debra Haffner, head of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing, whose “morality” includes sexual identity politics and abortion rights advocacy.

There was a wide assortment of other liberal religionists present. Rev. Al Sharpton was there. So too was the head of the chronically liberal and declining United Church of Christ. Activist Sister Simone Campbell of “Nuns on the Bus,” which lobbies for the Welfare State and Obamacare, was there. Former Evangelical leader Richard Cizik, who was forced out of National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) for backing same-sex unions, was there. Popular post-Evangelical liberal blogger Rachel Held Evans was there, possibly still upset over Evangelical relief group World Vision’s reaffirmation of traditional marriage,

Of course, not everyone at the White House Easter Breakfast was liberal. The heads of the NAE and World Evangelical Alliance were there, as was Washington’s Catholic archbishop and a Southern Baptist leader. But the audience, naturally, was weighted towards religionists supportive of the Administration, as would be expected under any administration.

The Religious Left enthusiasts at this year’s Easter breakfast don’t directly represent large constituencies within churches. But their causes echo and reinforce America’s cultural divisions. American Christianity was always theologically divided, of course. Now it’s morally divided as well on some very central issues.

At least everyone at the breakfast listened to the President’s fairly faithful rendition of the Easter story. With its promise of redemption and resurrection, there is always hope for restoration.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.