We all know about the audacity of hope now. It’s the title of Barack Obama’s book, and it summarizes his political outlook. But what’s most interesting to me is the easy way our president-elect links this concept to faith. “In the end,” he said in his convention acceptance speech, hope “is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead.”
Obama has openly made God a part of his world view, and that’s good news for the Democratic party. It’s also a reversal of course.
To get the full picture, take a look at Mike McCurry’s piece in the Daily Beast, “How My Party Found God.” It’s worth reading. McCurry served as President Clinton’s press secretary from 1994 to 1998. During that time, he reveals, “I would not have dreamed of sharing my beliefs on faith with my colleagues.”
McCurry believes–and I agree–that the Democratic party went through a “long dormancy” during which it became uncomfortable with expressions of faith and equally uncomfortable with religion itself. It wasn’t always so. I grew up in the 1960s and always felt that Democratic values were rooted in the peace and justice tradition of the great religions. If you’d asked someone in 1965 which party was closer to the teachings of religion, I bet Democrats would’ve won.
I’d even go a step further: when I was growing up, for many people, politics was something we approached with the zeal of faithful believers. We didn’t support desegregation, fighting poverty, or peace in Vietnam; we believed in them. When it came to politics, we had faith. The road from pew to politics was smooth.
But the last 30 years have weakened those links. As the religious right hammered away at wedge issues like abortion and gay rights, the left retreated, largely abandoning the language of faith.
But Obama’s expressions of faith during the campaign had a soothing effect. He represented his faith journey with the kind of authenticity that made believers comfortable and made non-believers comfortable too. Now it seems like faith can come back to Democratic politics–not as a way to mobilize angry voters but as a source of strength and imagination for driving an agenda.
What might such an agenda include? McCurry notes important commitments that Obama made during the election that will be important to people of faith–commitments like ending childhood hunger by 2015 and doubling funds for fighting poverty in the developing world. People of faith will hope that the new president places a priority on diplomatic efforts to work for peace after many years during which the country was focused on war.
With these initiatives, he has the chance to energize those people of faith who are focused on peace and justice rather than creed and morals. In the years ahead, those interested in displays of the Ten Commandments may be disappointed, but those interested in the prophetic call to serving the poor and forgotten could be energized.
How will we know whether Obama has really changed the political climate? One key indicator will be his success in linking people of faith to a megatheme of our times: tolerance. Tolerance voters are younger and helped elect Obama. They’re concerned about ending discrimination against gay and lesbian citizens and about ending age-old stereotypes about race, religion, and disability. And they’re turned off by politicians who use religion to incite division.
Is it possible that the new President can convince them that his faith is a source of strength in pursuit of a more tolerant future rather than an obstacle to it? And will he succeed in inspiring people of faith to see tolerance as a value to be embraced rather than vilified?
He’s already acknowledged that he’s going to try. “If we truly hope to speak to people where they’re at,” he said, “to communicate our hopes and values in a way that’s relevant to their own…then as progressives, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.”
To do so, he may want to invite Democrats to join the “armies of compassion” that President Bush championed. Supporting the goals of the White House Office of Faith Based initiatives is a good place to start. It also makes sense to work with organizations like the Center for Inter Faith Action on global poverty (CIFA) which mobilizes faith-based groups to fight suffering in Africa and beyond. In leading Democrats to welcome people of faith to the work of peace and justice, the new administration will show tolerance not as a value but as an operating principle.
Many note that the new President has an overwhelming agenda before him. Who could disagree? As he embarks on it with so much goodwill from the nation and the world, he will do well to keep the faith.