Obama’s High Wire

By Matthew Weiner and Varun Soni

What does it mean for Barack Obama to be an interfaith president?

The religious historian Martin Marty described presidents as the priests of public religion, but every president navigates this high-wire act differently. They all have something to say about their faith and the role of faith in the public sphere, and their public religiosity reflects the spiritual mood of their times. Throughout presidential history, we see how the religious pulse of the nation influences the highest office as much as the holder of that office shapes the public’s perception of public religion.

George Washington argued that religion and morality were indispensable foundations for the success of a new nation. Thomas Jefferson emphatically declared the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, and Abraham Lincoln boldly asserted during the Civil War that both sides prayed to the same God. In more recent memory, the spirit of the times still shapes how presidents speak about faith. John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, felt compelled to declare that his faith would not influence social policy, while Jimmy Carter was the first to declare that he was born again and to mobilize an evangelical base. Since the religious right brought George W. Bush to power, the role of public religion is as unquestioned as it is hotly debated. In all these examples, presidents articulated a religious belief born from their personal Christian faiths, but acknowledging America’s public Protestantism.

Based on this presidential narrative, how will America’s current globalized religious diversity shape Obama’s public religiosity? How will Obama’s personal multifaith and multicultural experiences impact the national discourse around religion and the public sphere?

For all intents and purposes, Obama is a conventional liberal Christian when it comes to his theology. He is deeply inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., and Reinhold Niebuhr, who inform his sense of history and justice. While both of these theologian-activists worked with Jews, neither developed an extensive theology of pluralism. Furthermore, Obama has said that while he respects others’ faiths, Christianity is the only faith for him.

This is good news. The last thing we need is someone who claims to speak for all faiths. Instead, Obama is in a position to understand that while religions are different, their public interaction serves a moral, pragmatic purpose for our civil society and our democratic tradition. In this context, an interfaith stance is not primarily about theological dialogue or spiritual exploration, nor is it a religiously diverse but liberal coalition. Instead, it signifies a public religiosity that is inclusive, complex, interactive, and evolving.

From a legal perspective, a creative interfaith approach to First Amendment jurisprudence could have profound implications for religious pluralism, community empowerment, and public education. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the White House’s Faith-Based Initiative, a program most liberals and strict secularists oppose because it distributes federal funds to religious organizations and institutions. Under George W. Bush, the Faith-Based Initiative’s federal funding went almost entirely to Christian organizations, which arguably “endorsed” Christianity over other religions and was possibly a violation of the Establishment Clause. However, by federally funding different faith groups in addition to Christian ones, the state would not necessarily establish any one religion over another. Instead, it would recognize the diverse social service programs and citizenship-building opportunities that both majority and minority religious communities offer. If the Obama administration took a further step and encouraged faith groups to apply for joint funding, it would stimulate partnership across difference, reduce the fears of proselytizing by faith-based groups, and educate each group, and the nation, about the positive role faith can play in civic engagement.

To complement pragmatic changes, Obama also has symbolic opportunities for an interfaith approach to public religion. His inauguration was a good start, for even though it was steeped in Christian liturgy and shaped by Christian themes, it also embraced the plurality of faith traditions that create America’s religious landscape. From Obama’s choice of Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the inauguration invocation, to his inauguration declaration that the United States is a country that includes Muslims, Hindus, and atheists, to his interfaith prayer service at the National Cathedral, Obama’s inauguration was replete with powerful symbols and provocative images that are emblematic of the profound religious diversity of the United States.

Besides his response to the economic crises, Obama’s approach to Islam holds the most risk and the most opportunity. His circumstance in this case is unique—having lived in a Muslim nation, with a Muslim middle name, being perceived by many to be Muslim, following a president who was considered to be antagonistic to Muslims—and he has the extraordinary opportunity to reach out to the Muslim world in a way that no other American leader can. His interview on the Arab TV network Al Arabiya, where he offered himself as a bridge between the United States and the Muslim world, was a courageous first step. A continued high-profile interfaith approach to public religion, through the Faith-Based Initiative and symbolic civic events, would hold a powerful message for the world to see: American Muslims work and stand with other faiths; they possess, and defend, religious freedom; and they build our democracy.

Interfaith engagement could also provide Obama with a new strategy for the genuine bipartisanship and proactive engagement he values. While most interfaith forums speak about common ground, they tend to be politically and theologically liberal. Their examples show hand-holding among Jews, Hindus, and Muslims, but rarely include a Hasidic rabbi, Pentecostal Christian, and conservative imam (in part because they may not hold hands). Yet, for interfaith to move beyond a liberal partisan enterprise, and really encounter difference that remains different, it must take place across religious and political lines.

Just as Obama built an unprecedented grassroots movement of diverse political constituents and empowered the millennial generation during his presidential campaign, so, too, can he inspire a similar movement with community engagement across traditional religious divides. For Obama, an interfaith approach involves the galvanizing of resources at his disposal, in either direct pragmatic ways or ones more rhetorical and symbolic. Obama’s interfaith opportunity could ultimately challenge assumptions of polarized politics and the “culture wars”—not through arguing for moderation and compromise, but instead by finding frameworks that allow people to be different, to continue disagreements, and yet to point toward something greater than themselves.

Matthew Weiner, MTS ’00, is program director at the Interfaith Center of New York, and is writing a book about interfaith and civil society.

Varun Soni, MTS ’99, is dean of religious life at the University of Southern California.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.