President Barack Obama gave his personal testimony and issued an altar call to follow the Golden Rule in a clear, brief statement about faith in politics at Thursday morning’s National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.
Much of what Obama said, he has said before. He recalled his own family’s religious diversity, noting that his father was a Muslim, who became an atheist, his grandparents were non-practicing Methodists and Baptists, and his mother was a skeptic. He remembered his own conversion to Christianity as a young adult on the streets of Chicago.
Faith has always been a guiding force in our family’s life, said Obama at the beginning of his remarks about his own nuclear family.
It strikes me that this is one of the rare occasions that still brings much of the world together in a moment of peace and good will, said Obama, speaking after former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Far too often, we have seen faith wielded as a tool to divide us from one another, as an excuse for prejudice and intolerance, said the president. Wars have been waged. Innocents have been slaughtered. For centuries, entire religions have been persecuted, all in the name of perceived righteousness.
Acknowledging the diversity of faiths, he said, We read from different texts. We follow different edicts. We subscribe to different accounts of how we came to be here and where we are going next. And some subscribe to no faith at all.
Obama turned from doctrine to praxis: But no matter what we choose to believe, let’s remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate. There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being.
Whatever our differences there is one law that binds all great religions together, said Obama. Jesus told us to ˜love thy neighbor as thyself.’ The Torah commands, ˜that which is hateful to you do not do to your fellow.’ In Islam, there is a hadith that reads ˜none of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.’ The same is true for Buddhist and Hindus, for followers of Confucius and for humanists. It is, of course, the Golden Rule.
Obama interpreted the Golden Rule to mean that despite our differences in worship that human beings have a responsibility to seek the well-being of others.
Sometimes it asks us to reconcile with bitter enemies or resolve ancient hatreds. And that requires a living, breathing, active faith. It requires us not only to believe but to do, he said.
He asserted that the moral imperative of the Golden Rule applied to all people of faith and all citizens of the world.
Having struck what might be understood as the chord of civil religion, he displayed quickly and naturally a personal piety, which is not included in the White House manuscript.
Obama said almost prayerfully, perhaps we allow God’s grace to enter into that space that lies between us. Then he picked back up on his prepared statement to finish his thought: The old rifts will start to mend, new partnerships will begin to emerge.
Obama holds both a piety and a social gospel. Both were on display at the prayer breakfast.
Maybe one of his strongest strengths at this point in framing the rightful role of faith in politics is to remind the global public that the Abrahamic faith traditions share the common ground of love for neighbor.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent company, the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.