Obama’s Liberal Protestant Faith

nieburhApparently many on the religious right are upset, even offended by remarks made by President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast. I admit, I’m at a loss why.  Somehow his talk was taken as an attack on Christian faith even though Obama is a Christian, baptized, and spent two decades of his adult life as a member of the United Church of Christ. He stated things you could find in any mainline pulpit on any given Sunday morning. In that, Obama’s speech was an expression of a liberal Protestant faith.

Even though his talk was brief I’ll provide a structure of his talk. He starts by acknowledging how important faith can be, for himself, for others. He marvels at the depths and beauty and service you can find among the faithful. And he asks how can this be reconciled with how much violence and hatred is done in the name of religion. He gives examples from ISIS to Charlie Hebdo but he also mentions Christian attacks in the Central African Republic and the rise of antisemitism.

He wonders how we can reconcile the two pictures of religion and he ultimately states that when religion turns violent it is because is perverted and misused. He speculates that this begins by religious exclusivism, the belief that somehow our group has a corner on God, both the knowledge of and the favor of. Not only does this produce hatred of others but it also ignores our own faults. As a Christian he includes slavery and the crusades of examples of such faults.

That is the line that has made many on the religious right upset. Apparently a religion where forgiveness is a central category is one that does not need forgiveness itself? If so, than Obama’s point has been made. We have to overturn the central insights of our religious traditions if we seek to justify our history. Or perhaps many in the religious right would be content simply to deny history all together? Either way, for Obama,it is a “misuse” of our respective traditions to ignore the log in our own eye.

But I think the larger point Obama was making is what makes this an apt expression of a liberal Protestant faith. And that is the way he situates doubt and humility as the center piece of a worthy faith. When we are willing to see ourselves as limited, as finite, as human as anyone else who is struggling to make sense of our world, then we can have a more generous estimation of our neighbor. We all participate in the same world, the same unknowns, the same needs as humans. And our traditions can be gifts instead of weapons to be used against others on the same journey.

John Dewey writes “Whether or not we are, save in some metaphorical sense, all brothers, we are at least all in the same boat traversing the same turbulent ocean. The potential religious significance of this fact is infinite.” Obama proposes a recognition of our limits, humility in engaging life, each other, and our respective traditions. Erik Erikson of says this is relativism and this makes Obama not a Christian. Yes it is a form of relativism and it’s the basis of Obama’s Christian faith.

First, when we assert that there is a God, we are also asserting that we are not God. Otherwise monotheism doesn’t work. If we have a perfect history, perfect knowledge, perfect virtue we have no need of a God who saves, transforms, even relativizes our sense of things. To quote Reinhold Niebuhr

When the self mistakes its standards for God’s standards it is naturally inclined to attribute the essence of evil to non conformists. The character of moral pride is described in the words of St.Paul: “They have the zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For being ignorant of God’s righteousness and going about to establish their own righteousness they have not submitted themselves onto the righteousness of God.”

Moral pride is the pretension of finite man that his highly conditioned virtue is the final righteousness and that his relative moral standards are absolute. Moral pride thus makes virtue the very vehicle of sin, a fact which explains why the New Testament is so critical of the righteous in comparison with sinners.

The final proof that man no longer knows God is that he does not know his own sin. The sinner who justifies himself does not know God as judge and does not need God as Saviour. It involves us in the greater guilt. It is responsible for our most serious cruelties, injustices and defamations against our fellowman.


The church is a community of “saved” individuals, who know themselves to be “forgiven sinners” This ideal should make for humility; but the long history of religious self righteousness reveals that religious experience is more effective in inducing repentance for deviation from common standards than in inducing repentance for the hatred, bigotry, and prejudice involved in the common standards of race, nation, or church.

The adherent of religion must come to terms with the historic facts, that in all collective behavior religious piety is likely to sanctify historical and contingent viewpoints. Religious piety is more apt to be found claiming the divine for an ally of it’s own partial viewpoints. “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”

Rather than showing a humble awareness of the relative aspects of all historical loyalties or as bringing forth the fruits of repentance for shortcomings as judged by the transcendent God. Perhaps human self hood in it’s collective form constitutionally is unable to imagine any higher value than the common value of it’s devotion.

Hence, the redemptive value of dissident individuals, the prophet, the critic, even the rebel, in a free community.

“When we possess Christ, we possess truth. The President is a moral relativist. It was clear in his whole speech.” according to Erik Erikson. Presumably Reinhold Niebuhr would follow under his censure as well as his brother H. Richard who writes

“Whenever the revelation idea is used to justify the church’s claims to superior knowledge or some other excellence, revelation is identified with something with what the church can possess. Such a revelation must be..under human control of the Christian community-a book, a creed, or a set of doctrines. It cannot be revelation in act where by the church itself is convicted of its poverty, its sin and misery before God.”

You should be catching the idea of idolatry as a form of critique. It’s not a word Obama used but I believe as someone who has read a lot of Reinhold that it forms the basis of his thought. That is why he is not only a liberal but he is protestant. And in a way that is much more aware and connected to the tradition than many of his religious right critics, who appear to rely on a form of religious and American exceptionalism.

Obama closes his speech with a call for pluralism and the separation of church and state. Those used to be liberal protestant virtues that were recognizable in our society. But with the capture of protestantism by the right and the increasing secularity of the left, the very tradition which Obama is pulling from isn’t recognized by either side. As a liberal pastor, I feel obligated to recover this tradition because as Obama has shown in his presidency, it has important resources in relating to one another and our world.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma

24 replies »

  1. Thank you! This is a thoughtful and wise discussion of liberal faith, humility before the Divine, and the dangers of rigid, myopic, and self-righteous religion. Blessings, Terry L.

  2. I feel compelled to second Mr. Lewis’ comments. Thank you for taking the time to write this article. It is superb. I’m going to print it out with a bibliographic citation for rereading and future reference.

  3. Thank you for writing this article. It clearly explains, not only what the President said and believes but helps me articulate my own thoughts and beliefs.

  4. This article is a twisted piece of propaganda and the author is either ignorant or intentionally misleading (probably both). Honestly, this garbage does not know or understand history or religion. It’s a bit scary for me to see such stuff passed off as honest journalism.

    Countless apologies have been made for violence committed in the name of Jesus. Such apologies make sense as Jesus was the one who said “put down your sword” and “turn the other cheek”. Those who have committed violence in the name of Jesus deny him and live antithetically to him. Mohammad on the other hand killed many people with his own hands and wrote the Quran which repeatedly commands acts of violence against the innocent. Jihadists and terrorists have been fundamental to Islam since its beginning. They are not a departure from the religion they are fundamental to it.

    The author writes that Obama states that when religion turns violent it is because it is perverted and misused. This is an ignorant statement and is an attempt to change history and create a false narrative.

    Deal with reality, read the Quran, read history and then deal with reality rather than fabricate a narrative that suits your ideology.

    • I am insulted by the tone of your statement. In particular: “This is an ignorant statement and is an attempt to change history and create a false narrative.”

      Ultimately the facts of history demonstrate that millions have been killed in the name of a respective understanding of God. We as Christians need to come to grips with the teaching of Jesus Christ and the fact that the “Ten Commandments” says: “Thou shall not Kill.” No exceptions etc. etc.

      • It is ignorant because Islam commands violence. The Quran repeatedly commands violence against the innocent. To say that Islam becomes violent when it is perverted and misused is false and was either stated because of ignorance or out of a willful desire to mislead. People have committed atrocities in the name of Christianity and for that there is no excuse as Jesus was a man of peace and preached pacifism. The violence of Islam is not an aberration or perversion as violence is commanded by its prophet and it’s text.

        It’s a nice thought to try to make all religions equal but it is not reality. Such statements are made at best out of ignorance.

    • Mr. Smoak, why would you expect anyone to take anything you say seriously when you almost immediately resort to crude insults? You call the author “this garbage” in your second sentence. Unless you don’t know how to construct an English sentence (in which case you probably shouldn’t be flaunting your ignorance online), you used that term to refer to him, not to his words or the views contained in those words. No sensible person will consider the views of someone with so little mastery of his rhetoric.

      • The author is either ignorant or willfully misleading. Violence in the name of Islam is not a departure or religion gone awry, it is in fact merely following the direct imitation of its prophet and dorect obedience to its text. This the premise of the article is garbage. That is not meant to personally disparage the author. I am only stating the facts. Seeking the truth beyond ones own preconceived notions or wishful thinking is a rigorous task.

        • What I am suggesting, Mr. Smoak, is that you apply that same rigor to your own writing. Though you seem to be trying to walk it back now, you clearly used the insulting term “this garbage” to refer to the author, not to the author’s views: “Honestly, this garbage does not know or understand history or religion.” Unless a viewpoint or an essay can “know or understand,” you are not only criticizing the author (which is acceptable in a context of free exchange of ideas), but also insulting and demeaning him by calling him “garbage” (which is not acceptable and one of the lowest forms of verbal exchange). So, I repeat, if you wish to be taken seriously, you should probably apologize to Mr. Welch for calling him such a despicable name.

  5. Humility is at the essence of Christianity. Peter, the first pope trying to talk Jesus out of the way of the cross, and then denying Jesus three times. Jesus on the cross saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” This forgiveness including the disciples for fleeing. Jesus saying love the enemy.
    It;s goes against our instinct, and it offends us when we would prefer to be excluded from the way of the cross.

  6. Thanks for this fine piece of writing … you’ve nailed it well: there are several broad streams of faith running through this nation, and one of them is the Liberal Protestant Stream you have so aptly described. Other streams, too, some that are content to flow on their own meandering journey to the Sea; some, bitterly opposed to any other stream but themselves, flowing to their own private sea.

  7. Mr. Welch, an excellent piece of writing, and so refreshing to hear the Niebuhrs being quoted again. I’m afraid most seminarians and pastors these days are exposed only to mushy baby food in what they read, rather than cutting their teeth on such classic works of Liberal Protestantism. It would probably upset their delicate digestion. Thank you for portraying the intellectual/theological context within which the president made his remarks, as well as for speaking of for that context as still having an essential message for both Christians and the larger world.

    On a small side note, you might want to go back and edit your long Reinhold Niebuhr quote. You have used the contraction “it’s” three times in place of the possessive “its.” I have the curse of a proofreader’s eye, so I can’t help pointing these things out.

    Keep fighting the good fight. It can’t be any easier in Oklahoma than it is in Texas.

  8. The Christian Taliban apparently do not like it when their own history is held up as an example of what can happen when extremists are in charge. So they attempt to rewrite it, a la David Barton.

    It doesn’t fly. At least for those with working brains and the tendency to do their own research.

  9. Hi Dwight, I haven’t read your blog before, a friend linked it. I posted something similar about the crusades and haven’t gotten any pushback, glad to say. Obviously you reach folks who want to pick a fight, so thanks for being willing to be that voice.

  10. Violence that doesn’t fit with the doctrine of the faith can clearly be identified as being contrary and outside of that faith. The core teachings of Christianity stand in condemnation of those violent acts in the past and/or present perpetrated by Christians in the name of God. The problem with Islam is that the core teachings of the Koran, and what is heard in many mosques today, seem to encourage what we are witnessing in the world in thought, word and deed from a significant percentage Muslims – the belief in the brutal subjugation of others, death to the infidels, rape, torture, slavery, suicide, homicide and domination through whatever means necessary – all in the name of God. Salvation through shedding of others blood isn’t exactly the same as salvation through the blood shed for us by Jesus. The core teachings of Christianity make that crystal clear. Unfortunately, the core teachings of Islam make that same point.

  11. This churches Statement of Faith tells you all you need to know about this “pastor” and his church. From their website: “Faith is not about concrete answers, religious absolutes…” This church doesn’t believe Jesus, who said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by Me.” That’s about as concrete and absolute as it gets – spoken by the One they say they follow. Shameful.

  12. I appreciate the feedback. I could cherry pick passages from the Qur’an passages for peace and non violence. “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256a) Or I could cherry pick passages which counsel violence from the Qur’an as others have done. The same could be done in the Bible. But it is the choice of people to do so. And it is people to whom we must look to why some religions turn violent or not. Muslims in the US are more likely than Christians to reject violence. Not so in some places of the Middle East. This suggests to me that the politics, economics, and social context still matters. Thanks for those who appreciated the Niebuhr brothers. The quotes I had in my piece came from H Richard Niebuhr in his 1941 book on The Meaning of Revelation, John Dewey’s 1932 book A Common Faith and Reinhold Niebuhrs 1965 Man’s Nature and His Communities. And as for the last comment, yes the church I serve is non creedal, believing that if Christ is the power that makes for transformation and reconciliation then it requires a kind of openness to each other, to free thought and open discussion. And lastly to follow up on Obama’s talk I recommend a book by Charles Kimball who is the chair of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma; When Religion Becomes Evil.

    • Thank you for the suggested reading, and the clarity about the need for understanding of our own religious history and faults. If we can’t also seriously look at the disturbing trends in our own religions, (racism and LGBTQA for some, congregations demand creedal orthodoxy in others) because all churches have areas that can only improve with the introspection of its followers.

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